Laura Feinstein is a freelance writer and editor who covers the intersection of art, technology, and global culture. Past bylines include The Guardian, T/The New York Times, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, Salon, GOOD, Paper Magazine, and VICE where she was formerly the Editor In Chief of The Creators Project.
If The Shed remains committed to its lofty goals, Hudson Yards may soon provide real accessibility and a sorely needed sense of inclusion.
It’s the first warm Saturday of spring, and hundreds of tourists are navigating the busy wooden walkway of The High Line from Gansevoort Street to 34th along the tracks of the former New York Central Railroad line where grass and purple snow buds are blooming. The final endpoint for this mass of iced coffee and smartphone-wielding bodies is a glimpse of the glittering towers of Hudson Yards, Manhattan’s newest neighborhood.
Just steps away from the shiny new condos, stores, offices, and an already loathed public art piece, work is wrapping up on one of the most ambitious cultural institutions to emerge since the Lincoln Center. Officially launching on April 5th, The Shed is a multipurpose event space with an egalitarian mission designed by Liz Diller (of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, co-designer of The High Line) and David Rockwell (Rockwell Group). It will showcase an eclectic roster of multi-hyphenate artists, musicians, and creatives, with programming ranging from opera and classical music to dance and visual art—all of which will be set in a futuristic and collaborative atmosphere.
The Shed’s launch calendar, ambitious even by New York standards, will be curated by Alex Poots, the founding director of England’s Manchester International Festival, and has almost 20 commissions already planned for its first year. The space will open with a series of concerts by filmmaker Steve McQueen (in collaboration with chief music advisor Quincy Jones and performed by a selection of emerging artists) called “Soundtrack of America,” a blueprint for the history of African American music. Other spring highlights include a performance of Björk’s “Cornucopia,” the Icelandic superstar’s first theater/concert hybrid, directed by *Lucrecia Martel; “Dragon Spring Phoenix Rise,” a space-age kung fu musical by Chen Shi-Zheng; and “Norma Jeane Baker of Troy,” an experimental piece by poet and essayist Anne Carson staged in The Shed's 500-seat theater and performed by actor Ben Whishaw and soprano Renée Fleming. One of the most highly anticipated events will feature Boots Riley (writer and director of “Sorry To Bother You”) discussing art and civil disobedience in conjunction with The Shed’s DIS OBEY program for high school students, part of a broader initiative to bring accessible arts education to the city’s public schools and community centers.
At its core, The Shed’s mission is to nurture and shelter New York’s creative community. “Open Call,” its large scale commissioning program that has underwritten new work from 52 New York City-based emerging artists, culled from over 900 applications across all five boroughs, provides both financial and career resources. Admission prices vary, but 10 percent of tickets for all events will be available to low-income families at just $10 a pop. Maze, a theater production highlighting grassroots street dance, now taught in several area public schools as part of The Shed’s FlexNYC outreach program, will be performed by affiliated students and teachers. (FlexNYC, a project launched in 2016 pairing professionally-trained dancers with NYC students, will now have a practice space in The Shed’s rehearsal studios.)
The Shed is, in many ways, subversive: what if all New Yorkers could access top cultural programming, regardless of income? And what if all genres could mix seamlessly? “Usually, the space you're moving into has been there for decades or even centuries. Here, there is the idea of a new neighborhood, built in the air, above the train and railway tracks, from nowhere,” Poots told CityLab. “The Shed is, literally, a workhorse—a place where any work can be imagined, invented without confinements.”
Funded through grants from the city and private philanthropic gifts, including a $75 million donation from former mayor Michael Bloomberg, development efforts have been led by Daniel L. Doctoroff, Mayor Bloomberg’s former deputy mayor for economic development, and The Shed’s current Chairman of the Board of Directors. Significant additional support has come from local community leaders, thinkers, and entrepreneurs, including Diane Von Furstenberg, whose flagship store sits near the entrance to the High Line. “On some level, she was the godmother of this idea, even before we completed the rezoning of the High Line,” Doctoroff says. He adds that Von Furstenberg, now a board member, was one of the first to see the need to revitalize this former industrial stretch, ultimately hoping to bring the area’s growing fashion community into the mix. (It’s rumored The Shed may someday house an iteration of New York Fashion Week.)
“We kind of stepped off a cliff and proposed a multi-use, multi-genre space that wasn't devoted either to visual or performing arts, but could embrace that whole spectrum and anything we couldn't forecast in the future,” says Diller about the project’s initial conception. The space’s exoskeleton is made of steel and a translucent “pillow” of a lightweight Teflon-based polymer called ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE). The structure is placed on tracks, with a rack-and-pinion function propelling the shell forward and back on four single-axle and two double-axle bogie wheels, able to double the footprint of the base building in roughly five minutes. The shell also enables the venue to transform from an outdoor plaza into a large-scale performance space, The McCourt, a 17,000-square-foot climate-controlled theater for immersive performances and installations that fits 1,250 (2,700 standing). Due to the unique properties of the space’s insulated glass, the semi-opaque ETFE allows light to permeate and can withstand hurricane-force winds. Almost 70 feet in length at points, The Shed’s ETFE panels are some of the most substantial ever produced.
Reminiscent of Reykjavik’s Harpa Concert Hall, The Shed emerges from the nearby Hudson river as a translucent palace. Home to a theater, two spacious galleries, rehearsal space, and a creative lab, The Shed is surprisingly compact and efficient, providing multiple levels for the visual and performing arts and limitless possibilities for indoor and outdoor performances. “When the shell of The Shed is nested, it provides an open-air space that can be used for outdoor events," says Diller, adding, "when the larger space doesn't need to be activated, it doesn't need to be heated or cooled, making it quite sustainable.”
The pair mentions that a key inspiration for the project was the structural design of Cedric Price's Fun Palace, an unrealized 1960s multi-use “laboratory of fun” and the later inspiration for Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s Centre Pompidou in Paris. “We wanted to provide a space that would protect creative people in the future. To have it be as flexible as possible, both of us were looking at the potential of this building, where people can do experimental work. The Shed will allow that kind of layered programming to exist in the building at one time,” says Diller. “That's quite unique.”
When finished, The Shed’s Bloomberg Building will be an innovative 200,000-square-foot structure, with an eight-level base containing two large open-floor plan galleries totaling 25,000 square feet of museum-quality design. The 500-seat theater can be subdivided into more secluded areas while, on the top floor, the Tisch Skylights will be available for events and rehearsals while on the same level, the Tisch Lab will be used for artist development. The final phase of The Shed’s development will include the installation of Lawrence Weiner’s site-specific work “IN FRONT OF ITSELF” in The Shed’s open plaza.
Fitting neatly in Hudson Yard’s growing arts district, which now includes Snarkitecture's Snark Park and an ongoing rotation of shows held in the Hudson Yards art spaces by artists like Rachel Feinstein, The Shed will certainly be in good company. If this monumental project remains committed to its initial, lofty goals, the “Forbidden City” of Hudson Yards may soon provide real accessibility and a sorely needed sense of inclusion for all New Yorkers.
Update: A previous version of this story credited John Tiffany as the director of Björk’s “Cornucopia” as announced in original press materials. It is now being directed by Lucrecia Martel instead.