The facade of The Drawing Center is much like the old. The real changes are inside. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Drawing Center reopens today in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood and the $10 million renovation not only provides 50% more exhibition space (4,300 sq ft) but a clean seemingly ego-less space that refracts slivers of natural ambient light into galleries and offers an ideal frame with which to look at drawing of all kinds.

A view of the steel railing of the stairs and the reclaimed wood floors by the lobby. (click to enlarge)

Founded in 1977, the Drawing Center has long been an important voice in the city’s art scene by offering a high-quality venue for a type of work often relegated to second fiddle status in other exhibitions and in other spaces.

Architect Claire Weisz, founder and principal of the New York architecture firm WXY Architecture + Urban Design, explained to Hyperallergic that they had an environmentally conscious sensibility when approaching the renovation of the historic cast-iron building. “Our approach is a minimal use of materials without being minimalist,” Weisz said. “We like a rich sense of the space and material but we don’t want to use more than you have to use, because that seems like a bit of a waste.”

The architectural renovation subtly expanded the space by a few feet here and there by using what Weisz called “found space,” referring to the gains they made by lowering the floors in the basement or removing excess wall coverings or columns. On the lower floor the irregularly shaped piers of the building are exposed and the ceiling beams are original and reused. There is a sense of the history of the space being revealed by the renovation process, and visitors familiar with the old Drawing Center with certainly remember the fluted Corinthian columns and large storefront windows that retain a sense of continuity with the space’s history.

But the true hidden delight is the subtle natural light that offers an ambient touch to the galleries. “Doing a daylight gallery for drawings, which is a medium that can be very vulnerably, is a real challenge, so this is a technical tour de force,” she said.

The main gallery

The natural light enters the spaces through long slivers at the edges of the galleries, which Weisz says are illuminated through light bounced from a glass panel that allows the sunlight in without endangering anything on exhibit. The natural light mingles with the non-UV-emitting LED lighting in the galleries, and together they give the space a beautiful glow.

Natural light makes its indirect way into the back gallery from a curved corner above. (click to enlarge)

The museum plans feels effortlessly arranged and timeless, even if the surfaces and materials are very contemporary, like the steel plate railing of the lobby-area stairs or the lobby floor composed of reclaimed material.

“We felt there was room here to use the sequence of spaces and the material choices to make it very much museum-like in the Drawing Center sense,” Weisz said. “If anything, it had a lot to do with having an architectural vocabulary be seen as complementary to any kind of art work. We actually shied away from having something that felt novel. We shied away from novelty and tried to evoke a sense of place.”

The real challenge, Weisz explained, was the lower level and “creating safe conditions for the art.” With Hurricane Sandy on the mind of all New Yorkers, I asked the architect if the museum was designed to withstand future calamities.

“We reevaluated all the building systems. It’s true we have mechanical spaces in the basement but everything is water proof and damp proofed, and all of the roof drainage is pulled into one area and pulled into the drains,” she said. She added that Wooster Street is reasonably low but it was thankfully dry during the recent storm.

The back gallery

The back and lower galleries are small clean spaces that are dominated by a single large column. The renovation reinforced the primary columns and removed a number of secondary columns so that all that’s pretty much left are the masonry piers and the supportive walls. The upper drawing room can even be divided into two galleries, giving the space more flexibility.

The lower gallery is dominated by a reinforced central column and a wooden staircase.

“It’s the goal of sustainability to reuse what you have and this project gets the Drawing Center beyond where it was but it does reuse what was before,” she said.

The Drawing Center is located at 35 Wooster Street (Soho, Manhattan) and will be hosting its Grand Reopening Reception tonight, Wednesday, November 7, at 6-9pm.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.