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10.28.2010
Crit> Sperone Westwater Gallery
Thomas de Monchaux takes a ride in Norman Foster's new Bowery museum, and finds it a movable feast for the senses
The new gallery, seen with red elevator room in mid-rise, takes its place alongside SANAA's New Museum on the fast-transforming Bowery.
Nigel Young/Foster+Partners

Any veteran of a certain kind of gallery opening knows the real show is in the elevator: crowded connoisseurs, mutually observant in their haute-bohemian finest, bringing the polish and shimmer of the night via the beat-up old freight elevator of any given former factory, to the pleasant prospect of wine and each other’s continued company. Plus some art. Norman Foster’s recent design for the Sperone Westwater gallery, freshly relocated to the Bowery a block up from SANAA’s celebrated New Museum, knows this. The treat of this smallish building is the biggish elevator, somewhat ambitiously labeled the “moving gallery,” which occupies the shaft of space right behind the translucent glass facade. The ascent and descent of its red undercarriage, poised on chromium hydraulics and, at 12 feet by 20 feet, extending almost to the narrow site’s full 25-foot width, amusingly changes the proportions of the entry lobby below, theoretically extending the potential for spatial effect and curatorial juxtaposition in the galleries above.

Except it doesn’t, really. The impact of the elevator’s watchful operator, along with the sporadic frequency of its open-door pauses at any particular gallery, tend to mute the sense of visual continuity presumably intended by the similar white-box finishes within both gallery and elevator. The fact that the elevator doesn’t descend to the ground floor, and instead must be reached by an effortful switchback navigation back (to fire stairs or another smaller elevator) and forth (across the piano nobile above), likewise dulls that perennial Manhattan dream of delirious mechanized ascent from sidewalk to skyline. (The inaugural installation by artist Guillermo Kuitca, of wall-hung mattresses painted with maps, recalls the padded-room effect of a quilt-lined freight elevator without quite transcending it.) At Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Boston Institute for Contemporary Art, or Renzo Piano’s Los Angeles County Museum of Art, similarly vast elevators do more.


The elevator, shown with its inaugural installation by Guillermo Kuitca of wall-hung mattresses painted with maps.

Everything else, as with almost all of Foster’s remarkable global output of airports, skyscrapers, museums, and other modern monuments, is pretty much perfect. The cladding of the elevator shaft, visible from the lobby, is a unitized panel system of dove-gray steel that would make Louis Kahn weep with joy. Clever skylights and careful sightlines to glass doors at the building’s rear borrow sky from an adjacent park, drawing daylight deep into the interior and recalling similar ingenious sectional effects in the cast-iron factories and warehouses of New York’s nearby Soho neighborhood (where, if memory serves, art was also once displayed). The gallery spaces, while never quite letting you forget the cramped dimensions of the 25-foot-by-100-foot lot, are usefully varied in proportion, with walls from 13 feet to 27 feet in height. They feature a moderately swoopy atrium-and-mezzanine arrangement, with a glass balustrade that reflects further daylight deep into the interior and lightens the hearts of those who like their modernism a little shiny. Above the galleries, office space is efficiently stacked and set back up to the building’s eight-story height, along with a deftly dense arrangement of the required secondary elevator, dual fire stairs, and mechanical systems.

The superfine tolerances and alignments of reveals, expansion gaps, and the usual ephemera of detectors and switches should serve to chastise those who, for whatever reason, have come to believe that in New York the age of such miracles has passed. Every appearance of the typical Foster detail of electric sockets mounted flush to drywall, obviating the usual rectangular surround, is a miniscule masterpiece.


The project reflects Foster's use of technical mastery in service of spaces that lift our spirits.

Yet one missed opportunity of the building is suggested where those tolerances don’t quite line up, at the edges of the brushed-steel doors of the gallery/elevator. Here, the hopeful observer can catch slivers of daylight, transmitted through the glazed facade across the irregular gap between door and floor. Barring the appearance of some as-yet-unfathomed system of glassy shaft doors, it’s lamentable that the intriguing potential for further and varied day-lighting effects, as the moving gallery aligns with and departs each floor, appears to remain unrealized—suggesting both the pleasures and the perils, as in much of Foster’s masterfully controlled work, of leaving nothing to chance.

Meticulously detailed galleries demonstrate the architect's obsession with superfine tolerances and alignments.

Apart from Midtown’s zippy Hearst Tower (compromised somewhat by its stubby height and borrowed base), and any echo of a brilliantly acute proposal for Ground Zero (still the readers’ choice of The New York Post!), the greatest city in the world remains lamentably unadorned by the work of the planet’s greatest large-scale architecture firm. Foster + Partners’ long-planned renovations of the New York Public Library and Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall may someday alleviate our provincial vernacular of wan historicist pastiche and trivially grandiose formalism. Foster’s output consistently demonstrates that there need be no compromise between systems of technical optimization and spaces of ardent proportion, light, and detail that reward our intelligence and lift our spirits. New York needs this combination of mechanical candor and moving rooms. But perhaps, next time, not in quite so literal a combination.

Thomas De Monchaux