Making the most out of limited resources is always a challenge – and one which Norman Foster relished in conceiving the new Sperone Westwater Gallery
The new Sperone Westwater Gallery is not just a space that contains art, it is in itself a piece of urban artwork. This concept is evidenced in the narrow, eight-storey block – with a footprint of just 25-by- 100ft – designed by Lord Norman Foster in New York’s Bowery district.
Compared with Foster’s other well-known projects, such as London’s Wembley Stadium, Terminal 3 of Beijing’s Capital International Airport, and the West Kowloon Cultural District conceptual plan, the new building makes the most of its small space with a pioneering approach to vertical movement within a gallery setting. ‘It’s not about the size. It really is about the challenges,’ the 75-year-old architect said in a recent interview with New York-based broadcast journalist Charlie Rose.
‘First of all, the Bowery is an extraordinary area which is in transition. The way in which new things are coming in, is uplifting and, at the same time, if you live there, I suspect a degree disturbing. But that is the essence of New York. It’s the drama, the energy, the change, the dynamic.’
Clad in black corrugated metal with a translucent glass façade, the tiny site needed to house huge pieces of contemporary art. A freight elevator was a critical element to transport the artworks; as a second elevator for passengers would consume too much space in this compact environment, Foster thus envisioned the goods lift doubling as a mini gallery. ‘It’s not a big elevator, but actually a moving gallery outfitted with everything – fire suppression, climate control and lighting. And it be omes a dynamic of the façade, ‘ t h e architect explains.
Connecting the upper four exhibition floors and allowing visitors to move gradually between levels, the 12x20ft ‘moving gallery’ takes the form of a red box and generates a brand new art-viewing experience.
As a prominent feature along the Bowery, the red elevator is clearly visible from the street, with its gentle up-and-down pace contrasting with the fast-moving traffic. ‘The concept for Sperone Westwater represents both a response to the Bowery’s dynamic urban character and a desire to rethink the way in which we engage with art in the setting of a gallery,’ says Foster.
Upon entering the lobby, visitors become aware that the red ‘ceiling’ above their heads is moving, and that they are literally standing beneath the bottom of an elevator. Exhibition spaces can be extended by parking the moving room on any floor as required, with an additional staircase to provide alternative access.
In addition to the red box, an array of exhibition spaces vary in proportion and ambience, including a double-height, 27ft-high space at street level, with a sky-lit gallery, a mezzanine floor, a sculpture terrace overlooking a park, and private viewing galleries on the fourth and fifth floors. A setback on the sixth floor marks the location of the gallery’s administrative offices. Works of art are stored in the basement, while a library is located at the top of the building.
The milled glass façade that houses the moving room acts as a buffer zone, to protect the building from extreme temperatures and acoustically insulate the gallery spaces to achieve a tranquil atmosphere for art appreciation. ‘The moving gallery animates the exterior of the building and creates a bold vertical element within.
Like a kinetic addition to the street, it is a lively symbol of the area’s reinvention and a daring response to the Sperone Westwater’s major programme. I hope that artists will be inspired by the gallery’s new spatial and structural possibilities,’ Foster concludes.