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Under Construction: A Creatively Contrarian Addition

To adapt to a rapidly changing context, Andrew Berman updates a New York art space’s historic building, originally renovated by Maya Lin.

By William Hanley
February 26, 2014
Image © Andrew Berman Architect
A rendering of Andrew Berman's addition to and renovation of SculptureCenter's building, a 1908 former trolley repair shop in New York City.

To get to SculptureCenter—the tiny but influential contemporary art institution in New York City—when it first moved to Long Island City, Queens, you used to turn down a narrow, mildly forbidding dead-end street in a low-rise industrial neighborhood. Alongside beat-up brick facades, plywood barriers, and chain link fences, a shimmering metal gate designed by Maya Lin marked the entrance to the galleries, housed in a former trolley repair shop with a distinctively soaring ceiling. Lin’s renovation of the 1908 building, with its careful insertions of light-catching aluminum and polycarbonate, appeared almost ephemeral and surprisingly delicate in comparison to the heavy structure and its rough, workaday block.

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But that was 2002. A little more than a decade later, SculptureCenter stands in a remarkably different context. The neighborhood has sprouted dozens of glassy, high-rise apartment towers built by developers capitalizing on Long Island City’s proximity to Manhattan and views of its skyline. Brick industrial buildings have ceded ground en masse to towering walls of metal and glass. Amid all of that sparkling glazing, Lin’s gate lost some of its distinctiveness.

SculptureCenter has also changed considerably. Under the direction of Mary Ceruti, the 70-plus-year-old institution has streamlined its program to focus on temporary exhibitions of contemporary art, and the modest kunsthalle has become an disproportionately large force in New York’s art world. The organization is now in the middle of a second renovation. For this phase, it took advantage of New York’s Design and Construction Excellence program, through which the city paid the architect's fees, and hired Andrew Berman to design an update for the facility. The $4.5 million project—with $2.5 million contributed by the municipality—is slated for completion in the fall.

Where Lin’s insertions met the heavy brick building with a surprising lightness, Berman’s update responds to the street’s newfound glossiness by anchoring SculptureCenter in the neighborhood’s industrial past. The renovation replaces Lin’s gate with Corten panels that the design shows bringing even more heft to the former repair shop’s street-facing profile. “Corten has a robustness and a very nice relationship with the brick and steel of the building as well as the neighborhood’s history of making,” says Berman. Behind the panels, the scheme breaks up a large courtyard with a 2,000-square-foot, single-story addition that will contain a lobby and reception area, as well as exhibition spaces, a bookstore, restrooms, an elevator, and a skylit stair leading to a basement level. “It’s an introductory space,” he says. “It’s where you wait for your date or just orient yourself before you enter the main galleries.”

The addition moves the reception and orientation functions out of the primary gallery, further dramatizing the entrance into the massive space, which regularly plays host to large-scale installations. Berman’s plan keeps a lofted mezzanine level used as an administrative office from Lin’s renovation inside the vast open area, but it replaces a stair leading to a set of below-grade galleries.

The basement—an industrial catacomb lined with ancient electrical equipment—is one of the city’s most unique, if slightly creepy, exhibition spaces. Berman’s design aims to preserve its singularity while creating a clear line of circulation between it and the galleries upstairs. Replacing one stair and adding a second as well as an elevator will make the entire museum ADA compliant. “The basement will retain the funkiness that everyone loves about it,” says Ceruti. “But it will have a very different feel in terms of how it connects to the top floor.” The renovation also adds a new air circulation system to the subterranean space.

The project broke ground just over six months ago, but in that time a new glass tower has already topped out next door, raising to match a slightly older, nearly identical structure that stands on the other side of the SculptureCenter. Another, remarkably similar neighbor is also going up across the street. When SculptureCenter’s renovation is complete, the low-rise trolley factory and its Corten-clad addition could read as a vestige of a lost era and as a slightly contrarian answer to the surrounding glass boxes.

“The building speaks to a time when people made things for purpose and longevity, and I wanted our work to be in synch with that—not the more showy architecture that the apartments have,” says Berman. Ceruti adds: “The developers are mystified by us.”

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