Art

Can the Shed Save the Soul of Hudson Yards?

The stakes could not be higher for the critically panned, $20 billion development. Will culture sanctify this one percenter’s playground?

The Shed’s movable shell sits on six large bogie wheels; it was inspired by industrial crane technology (all photos by author)

It’s two days before the Shed’s grand opening on April 5 and plywood floorboards still carpet some areas of the $500 million complex. Electricians are scouring the building for defects, installing elevator buttons and tweaking escalators. The distant sound of buzzing and the thwacking of sledgehammers bores into the building’s two theaters, two galleries, and its skylit multipurpose room. There is a frantic pace to preparations, and I can’t tell if it’s because the organizers are excited for their grand opening or terrified by the impending backlash.

The stakes could not be higher for the Hudson Yards complex; the $20 billion development has been universally panned by architecture critics who characterize it as a one percenter’s playground of expensive baubles. Versailles has more humility than the Vessel (a $200 million wastebasket of shiny bronze designed by Thomas Heatherwick) and the Shops (a nearby luxury mall complex where cooks served caviar on oysters during its VIP-night opening). And after more than a decade of planning that began as a failed attempt by the Bloomberg administration to lure the Olympics, the Shed will officially open to visitors on Friday.

But consensus is already clear that Hudson Yards is a bust, even for the curious tourists who have come to gawk at Manhattan’s latest foible. “This could have been built anywhere,” said one disappointed woman aloud as she entered the shopping mall. She’s not wrong; it already has been. The retail cluster mimics many high-end malls in cities such as Dubai and Shanghai during the construction boom of the mid-2000s. And with more than $6 billion in tax breaks and assistance from the government — double what Amazon would have received for its proposed Queens headquarters — exactly who these structures were built for is unclear.

Which is why the Shed’s opening has been so hotly anticipated. People want to know: Can the new arts complex save the soul of Hudson Yards?

McCourt Hall (still under construction) can seat approximately 1,250 and accommodate 2,000 standing visitors; adjoining gallery spaces can expand the audience to 3,000

The answer is a thumping no. The cultural keystone of the Far West Side development is a haughty hybrid-performance venue in a city already overflowing with them at places like the Whitney Museum of American Art, the New Museum, Performance Space New York, the Museum of Modern Art, and MoMA PS1. (And that’s not even to mention the multidisciplinary Ronald O. Perelman Center for the Performing Arts that’s slated to open near the World Trade Center in 2021.)

As critic Claire Bishop recently wrote for Artforum, the Shed’s benefactors have poured “a fraction of their profits into a cultural project that enhances their social status.” Indeed, the new arts palace will more likely perpetuate the hypocrisies of urban planning that have buoyed wealthy real estate developers in New York for years.

But listen to the Shed’s leadership and you’ll hear an entirely different story. During Wednesday’s press preview, artistic director Alex Poots described his 200,000-square-foot behemoth as “a place for invention, for curiosity, for risk-taking.” He claimed his complex would create “parity among art forms” by going “beyond binaries, of art and the sacred, East and West, public and private, man and woman.”

However, architects from Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Rockwell Group have designed the Shed with a view toward the past. According to Liz Diller, the firm’s main inspiration was Cedric Price’s Fun Palace, a building designed in the mid-1960s but never built. Created as a multidisciplinary venue, the Fun Palace was an ambitiously flexible structure that could house everything from an inflatable conference hall to a moving catwalk, sewage purification, and ventilation tracks. The Fun Palace was more than spectacle; it had an important social agenda. Conceived with the theater director Joan Littlewood, it was intended to be a “university in the streets” where working-class East Londoners could engage with new technology in a fusion of entertainment and education.

But there’s no parallel found in the Shed’s design. A performance venue should be warm and inviting, but this building’s interiors are cold and charmless with a modernist aesthetic that badly synthesizes the austere confines of MoMA with the oversized grandeur of the Whitney. Speaking inside the McCourt — a cavernous 17,000-square-foot hall covered by a retractable Teflon roof that critics have compared to bubblewrap, a quilted blanket, and a textured condom — Diller expressed her desire for the Shed to become “an anti-institutional institution that will respond to future needs.” Her philosophy? “All muscle, no fat.”

That maxim is painfully applied to every inch of the complex’s creative spaces, of which there are surprisingly few. The Shed is a lifeless, neoliberal trophy that emphasizes an artist’s product over process. There’s an apparent lack of concern about how the venue’s architecture might effect the art viewing. The column-free galleries are industrial and white; the single theater is boring and black; and the minuscule dance floor is set within a multipurpose skylit room tailor-made for galas and parties.

Performers warm up their vocal chords as they prepare to sing amid wallpaper works by Gerhard Richter

Architectural mistakes are a reflection of the Shed’s hamstrung inaugural programming, which trades the experience of art for the spectacle of superstar-driven events. Gerhard Richter has made cheap Rorschach wallpaper and a couple decent tapestries to complement a choral piece by composer Steve Reich whose sonorous heights are sucked dry by the poor acoustics of the vacuous gallery space during the press preview. (Trisha Donnelly will showcase a new project in another gallery, but this was not available during the press preview.) Prompted by curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen will direct a five-night concert series devoted to the history of African-American music in McCourt Hall. Two floors above, the inestimable poet Anne Carson will deliver a new play with music written for the preternatural talents of Ben Wishaw and Renée Fleming.

It’s an impressive roster of well-known artists, but the Shed’s opening program says little about its dedication to the local arts community. Tamara McCaw, the complex’s chief civic program officer, however, spoke at length during the preview about how the organization intends to partner with its neighbors and low-income residents throughout the city. Additionally, the institution will offer reduced-price tickets for every show and has partnered with groups like Flex NYC to bring arts education to children in underserved communities and public schools. Early-career artists will also be involved in McQueen’s concert project

Detail view of Gerhard Richter’s wallpaper
A scene from director Chen Shi-Zheng’s Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise, which will premiere at the Shed

Obrist, who is also the Shed’s senior program advisor, has emphasized the organization’s devotion to early-career artists, saying that he “felt very strongly that there should be an enabling of beginnings.” Open Call was subsequently created to incorporate emerging artists into the Shed’s program until at least 2021. The 52 selected artists also received between $7,000 and $15,000 each for commissions.

During the press preview, Poots discussed his intention to “redistribute the privilege” of Hudson Yards into the underserved communities of New York City. But like most top-down structures, the Shed invests in its own enrichment. The $500 million project does not signal equanimity or democratic prowess in a city crippled by rising income inequality any more than the Vessel represents human ingenuity or good taste. Rather, the Shed is an attempt to artwash the gaudy and guilty privilege on display at Hudson Yards; it is a hologram of progress powered by empty rhetoric and duplicitous dollars.

The Vessel seen looming in the foreground of the Shed and it’s attached luxury skyscraper
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