Concrete Ambition

The board-formed concrete facade is muted and restrained.
Jason Schmidt

On a nondescript block in far west Chelsea, Selldorf Architects has quietly completed one of the best buildings in New York since the beginning of the Great Recession. The result of a two decade-long collaborative relationship between principal Annabelle Selldorf and art dealer David Zwirner, the new gallery building is utterly of its time yet manages to feel as if it has always been there. “When David called me and said we have a site and we’re going to do a building, I gasped,” Selldorf told AN. “It was an opportunity to extend a 20-year dialog.”

Selldorf and Zwirner have worked together continuously on various gallery projects and routinely visit museums and galleries around the world, so they quickly understood the kind of space they wanted to create. “The spatial diagram emerged rather quickly,” she said. “Everything else came together in layers.”

Sawtooth skylights bring indirect natural light into the massive ground floor galleries.
Jason Schmidt

From there she established a subtle processional sequence with a small entry area buffering the galleries from the street. The massive 65 by 68 main gallery, which is currently divided into two spaces, is visible beyond, but not the full extent of its scale or light conditions. Sawtooth skylights illuminate the nearly 19-foot-high museum-quality galleries from above. Selldorf said she and Zwirner did look at the top floor studio spaces at the Cooper Union Foundation Building, which feature similar skylights (other portions of the building will be covered by accessible Piet Oudolf–designed roof landscapes).

Selldorf calls the cantilevered staircase “an intense architectural moment.”
Jason Schmidt

To the right of the entry area, Selldorf’s most seductive design move beckons: a cantilevered concrete stair that zigzags up five stories of board-poured concrete. While visually alluring, the placement of the staircase off to the side of the space subtly signals that more private spaces are located above, including additional galleries for smaller works on the second floor, and private offices and a generous employee kitchen with a large Jacobsen table for communal dining. An elegant blackened steel railing and ultrathin staircase profile provide a graphic counterpoint to the tactility of the concrete. Peering over the railing and looking up or down offers a dramatic view composed of natural light, taught geometry, and rich materiality. “It’s an intense architectural moment that doesn’t interfere with anything else,” said Selldorf.

The inspiration for the board-formed concrete came from La Tourette and well as Louis Kahn. “How can you not look at Kahn when you think of concrete?” said Selldorf. The six-inch pine board forms were built with the consultation of concrete expert Reginald Hough and were used both for the staircase as well as the entire 20th Street facade. Teak trimmed windows and loading dock doors accentuate the wood grain–textured concrete, adding complexity to the quiet but luxuriously detailed facade. Conventional cast-in-place concrete was used elsewhere in the building. “When David said we should do a board-form concrete building, I told him that that was an expensive and risky idea,” said Selldorf. “I believe luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” Good planning, skilled oversight, and excellent craftsmanship resulted in a building for which New Yorkers are already grateful.

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