Powerhouse Arts in Brooklyn, New York
On the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, New York, the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Power Station was decommissioned in the 1970s, leaving half the original structure to stand derelict for years. Photos courtesy © Albert Vecerka/ESTO

This 120 Year Old Brooklyn Building is now a Powerhouse for the Arts

Herzog & de Meuron and PBDW have transformed the 1904 Central Power Station of Brooklyn into a nonprofit arts fabrication facility.

The Central Power Station of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company has sat watching over the Gowanus neighborhood since 1904. In the 1970s it was used for incinerating cardboard, and it fueled Brooklyn’s subways with mountains of coal until the 1950s, before its abandonment and subsequent occupation by a number of artist-squatters in the early 2000s. Now the building has returned in an excellent new incarnation as the nonprofit Powerhouse Arts fabrication facility, which has sought to retain traces of the prior eras (sans burning cardboard).

Philanthropist Josh Rechnitz purchased the building in 2012 and fully funded a lengthy restoration, which involved years of environmental mitigation. In 2016, Basel, Switzerland–based Herzog & de Meuron was selected to redesign the facility, with PBDW Architects serving as executive architect and preservation specialist. Power plant conversions are old hat to the Swiss firm, as its Tate Modern is likely the best-known project of that type on earth, but this was an exceptionally rare contemporary conversion of an industrial facility into a building where semi-industrial tasks are still going on.

Herzog & de Meuron and PBDW have recently transformed the power station into a 170,000-square-foot nonprofit manufacturing facility and a vibrant space for artists and fabricators to come together.

Powerhouse is “an art-making factory”

It is a 170,000-square-foot facility, about 72,000 of which is the renovated former Turbine Hall and the remainder of which is an addition; both are rapidly filling with a variety of fabrication spaces for everything from woodworking to jewelry, along with several large multipurpose event spaces.

Its raison d’être is the steady dwindling of studio spaces in the city and in its immediate surroundings. The recent denser residential evolution of Gowanus, quipped Philip Schmerbeck, associate and studio director at Herzog & de Meuron, “doesn’t include one-story art fabrication.”

Powerhouse Arts consulted artists in determining just what to offer, to remedy shortcomings. Glass foundries are in relatively ample supply, so they skipped those. Ceramics, printmaking, and metalworking spaces have already opened, with jewelry, woodworking, and textile studios to come.

More from Metropolis

The Powerhouse is, in the words of its president Eric Shiner, “an art-making factory” but one that has paid far more attention to comfort, light, and safety than most leftover garrets in which artists find themselves. An industrial hygienist guided their design in creating, as Shiner explains, “one of the safest environments in the world for artists to work in; artists are usually working in death traps.”

On the east side, an opening in the masonry envelope acts as the main entrance for the public. As visitors step inside, they are struck by the contrast between historical details such as concrete vaults, brick chases, and glazed tilework, alongside residual graffiti from years of abandonment.

These concerns dictated much of how the firm plotted out the building programmatically. Since wood and metal particulates can explode when mixed, their extraction systems had to be separated. Ceramic firing produces all sorts of exhaust, so this had to be located on the top floor so kilns can be exhausted to the roof above. Metalworking and public art departments, likely to produce the largest works, were located on the ground floor, where 20-foottall ceilings could easily accommodate large-scale construction.

While the building’s boiler house was demolished in the 1930s, the Turbine Hall remained, yielding an empty Romanesque shell for the building that bore little relation to its interior. Schmerbeck says, “It was like putting on a suit for their neighbors.”

Herzog & de Meuron filled out this suit, inserting floors to match the existing steel mezzanine levels of the Turbine Hall.

The upper level of the Turbine Hall showcases refurbished steel trusses and provides a versatile space for exhibitions and events. Adjacent to this, the double-height volume in the Boiler House acts as the intersection between public and workshop functions, offering additional room for exhibitions, events, staging, and assembly.

The Boiler House was rebuilt— roughly—on its original footprint

Cinder-block partitions are inserted to provide a non-structural, flexible delineations between workshops. Schmerbeck likens it to a ship in a bottle. The firm was keen to keep anything it could: 90 percent of the original bricks are still there, as are original trusses in the grand double-height space topping the Turbine Hall. Almost all the existing interior graffiti was kept; one former resident was even invited back for a new commission. Cavities in concrete have been filled in with gold paint in one location, and other minor adornments have been added since, which Powerhouse Arts is happy to see.

The Boiler House was rebuilt— roughly—on its original footprint, for the very sound reason, Schmerbeck explains, that the original foundation slab was still down there. On a site next to the ongoing Superfund mitigation of the preposterously polluted Gowanus Canal, not to mention beneath the water table, “the cost to put a new foundation in would have been astronomical.” This slab proved invaluable as a base, capped with thick layers of concrete to wall off buried toxins. The new Boiler House was built of concrete—stained with red oxide to accord with the Turbine Hall—and fits in seamlessly with the historic structure.

The building contains workshop space for fabrication in wood, metal, ceramics, textiles, and print. The project showcases a unique vertical arrangement for its fabrication shops. The ground floor houses the metal and wood workshops, benefiting from spaciousness and easy access to loading areas. On the top floors, the print, textile, and ceramics disciplines find their place, thanks to their strict exhaust requirements. Photo courtesy Nicholas Calcott.

The Powerhouse Arts has a Turbine Hall for all types of events

The building features easy off-street access for trucking, a rarity in New York, and this parking space will be used for other functions. Its canal frontage will eventually be accessible as a “waterfront esplanade” and a former turning basin that will be restored, providing water frontage on two sides.

While the facility aims to carefully sequester the emissions of its various creatives, the organization is keen for them to mix otherwise. Shiner explains: “Our aim is to blow these barriers out between different types of artists. We‘re very excited about when ceramic artists start talking to textile artists. What can happen then?” The Turbine Hall has seen a variety of events from galas to fashion shows and will host an assortment of art fairs. The facility will also feature regular exhibits in a variety of spaces.

There are no plans to ship art out by barges—yet—but in an age when nearly every industrial reuse turns a building that used to make something into one that does not, Powerhouse Arts is a modern-day manufacturing revival.

Prioritizing industrial hygiene, the building exhausts a significant amount of air to prevent manufacturing contaminants from affecting the interior environment. The workshops share a vertical service wall, accommodating circulation elements, restrooms, and plumbing. Photo courtesy Nicholas Calcott.

Would you like to comment on this article? Send your thoughts to: [email protected]