On the far west side of New York City, there’s a new institution designed to accommodate the unknown future of art. But instead of pretending to predict the future, this museum is flexible enough to become anything that any future artist might want, with open galleries, a 500-seat theater, a creative lab, a flexible events space, and most importantly, a colossal moving roof that enables the building to take over the adjoining courtyard, transforming into 17,000 square feet of temperature-regulated space that can host pop concerts, large-scale performances, and giant installations.
This is the Shed, the one public, independent entity in the shiny new billionaires’ neighborhood of Hudson Yards. Located right next door to the now infamous and nearly universally despised honeycomb-shaped staircase called Vessel, the Shed provides a direct contrast: While the Vessel has no clear purpose, the Shed’s ambition is to be an utterly inclusive artistic hub for the city’s emerging artists, providing a space to collaborate no matter what artistic discipline.
“We can’t imagine what artists are going to be doing in 10 years or 30 years,” says Liz Diller, the head architect on the project and partner at Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the firm behind the High Line and MoMA’s renovation. “So how do you design a building for that? The only response was a building that’s actually infrastructure.”
Every element of the Shed’s architecture was designed to provide the necessary infrastructure to showcase any kind of art, be it traditional paintings and performances or more avant-garde installations and collaborations that are too big to fit within the walls of a conventional gallery. “It was devised as a kind of Swiss Army knife for artists who can use the whole building as a tool,” Diller says. “It’s so flexible that you can even expand the footprint.”
When envisioning the Shed’s moving roof with collaborating architect David Rockwell, Diller drew inspiration from industrial buildings as well as the work of architect Cedric Price, who envisioned wild conceptual buildings in the 1960s like the Fun Palace, a shapeshifting building that transformed based on the way that people interacted with it. It is from Price that Diller took the idea of “architecture as infrastructure,” which also inspired the architects Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano to design the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1977. Diller hasn’t put all of the building’s scaffolding on its facade like Rogers and Piano did, but the Shed is similarly hyper-utilitarian, with a focus on adaptability.
But to Diller, adaptable didn’t have to mean neutral. And the $400 million Shed is far from it: The movable shell is unlike any other building in the world. But walking through the McCourt (named for Frank McCourt, Jr, a businessman who donated $45 million to the Shed), as the space beneath the shell when it’s extended is called, it’s easy to see the system’s industrial roots in factories that having moving structural segments. Everything is exposed in a way that feels less artful and more like a straightforward necessity.
For the Shed’s opening performance tonight, the first of the five-night concert series Soundtrack of America, which is directed by Steve McQueen and celebrates African-American music, the McCourt is filled with plywood terraces to create seating, along with many rows of seats on the plaza itself. A large stage sits toward the end of the hall, with dozens of lights descending from the shell’s rafters. The inside betrays little evidence of the exterior’s latticed, bubble-like appearance; instead, 14 hundred-foot black-out shades, custom made by traditional sailmakers, block out most of the light from the afternoon, and serve primarily to dampen up to 108 decibels of sound, enabling the Shed to have a full-on concert inside without disturbing the neighbors.
It feels almost half-finished, but it’s clear that was Diller’s intention–the Shed will never really be finished because the building will be in constant flux, shifting and adapting for each new season of commissioned, original artistic work.
A building like a Swiss watch
The building’s roof sits atop six, six-foot-tall wheels that move along industrial train tracks, all in service to the goal of giving artists different scales of spaces in which to play. According to Scott Lomax, senior principal at the engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti, one of the biggest challenges with the project was that the mechanical system that would move the building had much smaller tolerances than the building itself, meaning that the engineers and contractors had to be much more precise in their measurements than with a typical building.
“We’re talking about doing a building and coming down to the tolerance of a Swiss watch…[requiring] us to be more exact and less forgiving,” says Lomax, who previously worked on the controversial downtown transit hub and shopping mall the Oculus for the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.
He and his team worked with the architects, the steel fabricators–who usually do large-scale industrial work for projects like the Panama Canal–and the construction team to make tiny adjustments over time so that the building would sit evenly on the six large bogie wheels, each of which carries more than one million pounds of weight. The system was designed to be as simple as possible: To move the shell, the engineers created a mechanism similar to what’s used in gantry cranes or funicular cable cars.
“You have to overcome the initial friction and then it doesn’t require as much to make it move,” Lomax says. Moving the shell along the 273-foot-long tracks at a speed of about quarter mile per hour takes about five minutes–and uses 180 horsepower, or as Lomax says, about the strength of two Tesla engines. It likely won’t be moved more than a few times a year, when the Shed debuts a new round of programming. Visitors won’t see the mechanical system at all; it’s located on top of the building instead of clogging up space on the ground. “On the plaza we only have wheels and trails,” Lomax says. “It’s like a big shopping trolley moving back and forth.”
But despite all this weight, the shell looks light and inflatable, due to the pillow-like extrusions that fill in the spaces between the latticed steel beams. These pillows are made of a very thin Teflon-based material called ETFE, which has the thermal qualities of insulated glass. The pillows remain constantly inflated with low-pressure air, which gives them the strength to withstand the strong winds that flow past the Shed due to its location near the Hudson River. ETFE has previously been used in the Beijing Olympics’s Water Cube and for a soccer stadium in Munich designed by Herzog and De Meuron.
The blessings of a 30th Street address
While the building’s primary goal is to serve the artists whose work will be shown there, a close second is to serve the city itself. Originally, the Shed’s extending roof was supposed to face into the plaza around which Hudson Yards is built. But after the developers decided to put the Vessel in that space instead, Diller and her team changed the orientation of the Shed so that the High Line runs along its length. Now, the building sits on the edge of the neighborhood rather than in the middle of it, which Diller is pleased with.
“It’s not meant to be the cultural institution of Hudson Yards. It is just a cultural institution of New York that happens to have had the opportunity to come into existence because of Hudson Yards,” she says. “And that’s why we savor our 30th Street address.”
Since the neighborhood’s opening in March 2019, Hudson Yards has been criticized for its exclusive air and has even been compared to Dubai, with its bland and sanitized high rises and mall-oriented aesthetic. Critics have posed the Shed as a kind of savior for Hudson Yards–a space that’s purposefully inclusive, with education and outreach at its core, devoted to providing support for underrepresented artists.
Personally, the Shed is one of the only pieces of Hudson Yards that would convince me to visit voluntarily. When you’re inside, surrounded by cutting-edge art or attending a brand-new performance work, it’ll be easy to forget the luxury mall next door and the eyesore that is the Vessel–though unfortunately you can see the giant shawarma from the upper floors. But from that high up, you can also look out to the Hudson River and see the older, neatly aligned train tracks that emerge from below the new neighborhood–a reflection of the history undergirding the development which only the Shed’s architects chose to acknowledge.
“The Shed is making a statement,” Diller says. “Nobody’s going to tell us what to put on the stage. In a way it feels like a refuge to be in there. It feels very, very different from Hudson Yards.”