An arts shack par excellence
This April saw the opening of a spectacular new centre for the arts in New York, going by the incongruous name The Shed. Located in the city’s new skyscraper district Hudson Yards, it aims to provide space for a broad spectrum of arts and to give emerging artists the opportunity to show their work in public. Our guest author devised the stage technology for Fischer Dachs Associates and describes the project with the challenge of taking every possible use – even the yet-to-be imagined – into consideration.
Hudson Yards is now home to New York’s newest centre for a wide range of arts, including the performing arts. The Shed is not only the name of the building but also the organization within it, which “commissions original works of art, across all disciplines, for all audiences” according to the centre’s website. Various institutions have taken premises in the building, which have different goals and methods of presenting, producing and commissioning new works. “We bring together established and emerging artists in fields ranging from hip hop to classical music, painting to digital media, theater to literature, and sculpture to dance. […] By minimizing social and economic barriers to entry, we’ll make a warm, welcoming space for innovation and unique artistic experiences. By offering access and insight into the creative process, we’ll forge deep bonds between our artists and our audiences. Driven by the belief that access to art is a right, and not a privilege, we’ll present engaging and exciting experiences for our community and our time” the website announces. (http://theshed.org/about)
The Shed has issued an “open call” to commission works by New York artists from all disciplines, who have not had previous support from a major cultural institution. Over 900 artists from all five boroughs submitted proposals. Panels made up of artists, art-workers and academics from many different backgrounds selected 52 artists and collectives to appear in the opening season. Each artist received material and personal support to be able to develop and show a programme for The Shed.
Hudson Yards, on the West Side of midtown Manhattan, is the largest private grounds for siting real estate in the United States. It is built on a platform spanning 30 railway tracks and utilizes the aerial right of use for mixed development, with commercial and residential properties. They are mostly in the luxury segment, with prices of up to 32 million dollars for a penthouse. The city of New York commissioned the project and considered proposals from various general contractors. From the start, the inclusion of a major cultural component was planned, and this became The Shed. It cost some 475 million euros to build, most of which was raised from donations. Former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg donated the largest sum of 75 million dollars and the building is named “The Bloomberg Building” after him.
The internationally renowned New York architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro was commissioned to be the chief architects for the design and planning, in cooperation with the Rockwell Group. The A’kustiks agency from South Norwalk was hired for the acoustics. Fischer Dachs Associates (FDA) is an experienced engineering consultancy which has been involved in all New York’s major projects of the last decades, from the Lincoln Center to the Park Avenue Armory, and now The Shed. We joined the project in 2011.
Together with the other participants, we needed to identify the goals of the project – who would be the users, what we hoped to be able to build, which kind of art the building would house and how the building would have to operate to accommodate the planned programme with its different audiences. The purpose of all this work was to make sure that all the parties involved understood the scope of the project and its budget. During the project, FDA was responsible for the stage technology installations, stage lighting, and the power and data infrastructure in the entire Bloomberg Building of The Shed, including the Griffin Theatre, the McCourt, the Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Skylights, the Lab and the Galleries. FDA was also involved in designing the foyer and theatre administration rooms.
The building covers an area of around 18,580 m². It possesses a striking and innovative structure, which can physically reconfigure to adjust to the artistic requirements. The largest and most important space is the McCourt. It is configured by extending the movable outer shell over the adjoining plaza, transforming it into an almost 1580m² hall with the requisite lighting, sound and temperature controls for large-format performances, installations and events. It offers seating for 1200 and standing room for over 2000 guests.
The Galleries on levels 2 and 4 with a total of 2320 m² extend without pillars and have museum-space quality. In addition, there is the Kenneth C. Griffin Theater on the sixth floor. This can accommodate 500 visitors and be subdivided into several small rooms. Right at the top are the Tisch Skylights and the Lab – unique spaces for events, rehearsals and artist projects. When its large shell is retracted and “popped” over the building, even the outdoor plaza can be used as a public space for various events.
In the early days of The Shed, FDA methodically worked through a series of test-fit studies to plan out how the building would be used for almost every possible type of presentation — everything from art exhibitions to avant-garde performance, from music to projections or mixed-media. In each study, we worked with production and fabrication companies to help budget both operational and capital costs associated with every event type. Before Alex Poots joined The Shed as Artistic Director and CEO, FDA worked with operational management and arts management consultants hired by The Shed to help envision the technical needs for all the theatrical aspirations of the project and to prepare briefs and budgets for the subsequent design phases.
When Alex Poots joined The Shed in 2014, FDA worked closely with him, Diller Scofidio+Renfro, the Rockwell Group, A'kustiks, and the rest of the design team to develop backstage layouts to satisfy the functional demands of the user groups. The multi-arts programming for this first season (and subsequent seasons) at The Shed will involve every space: the McCourt with its nesting "shell", the Griffin Theatre on floor 6, the Galleries on floors 2 and 4, The Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Skylights and Lab on floor 8, as well as the Rehearsal Space. The McCourt has fairly limitless seating configurations, and the deployable shell provides an additional level of flexibility.
When designing a new performing arts center, we constantly adjust our expectations about the technology that will come to inhabit the spaces that we shape. The reality of the acceleration of theatre technology systems development and automation means that whatever we see today will be superseded by something new in a matter of years — or even months. We often joke that the future arrives in a truck, but the reality is that day-one performance equipment is quickly replaced by new gear. The common denominator between all these things is the need to support them (and store them) within the infrastructure of The Shed. So, how do we anticipate the future? The Shed and its spaces must be able to accept, integrate, and incorporate new technologies when they become available. In order to achieve this, the infrastructural framework of The Shed is designed in such a way as to support technology that has yet to be even imagined. This means that the structural, electrical, and mechanical systems of The Shed are all designed for equipment that will one day be big, hot, heavy, and data- and power-hungry.
One of our first studies was to determine how to increase the capacity of the Griffin Theatre to 500 seats and how to provide a 1,200-seat layout for the McCourt that included “skybox” seating risers at the east end of Gallery 2 merged with a seating rake in the McCourt. Over the course of the next year, FDA developed many permutations of demountable and telescopic seating that could be deployed extremely quickly and stored onsite and offsite for almost any format and audience seating configuration.
We also worked very closely with Shed staff to develop a repertory plot of overhead rigging in the McCourt, consisting of rectangular and linear elements of trusses that could be arranged consistently across the venue between events, minimizing the need to redeploy the 80 chain motors and chain motor stands on the stagehouse grid overhead.
The nesting shell itself weighs over 8,000,000 lbs (3,628,739 kg) and moves on a gantry-crane system of double-wheel track on six 6-foot-diameter bogie wheels with a rack-and-pinion drive that is powered by just six 15HP motors (essentially the same power as a Toyota Prius). The shell can be deployed or stored in five minutes over 115 feet. The theatrical deck is 120 feet above the floor, and the theatrical lighting and rigging systems are fully integrated into The Shed — the equipment moves with the shell itself for use in every conceivable configuration of The McCourt.
The rigging systems for the building were also designed with enormous flexibility in mind, but with an eye towards minimizing operational costs. In the Griffin Theatre, we designed one of the largest pipe grids in the world, over 11,000 sf. with strong points. We proposed to the architects and owner that we design the space to be able to subdivide the floor via deployable double sound-rated partition walls that can reconfigure the larger room into two 5,000 sf spaces with a sound- isolated back-of-house corridor between them.
In the McCourt Theatre, the FDA-designed overhead rigging consists of 80 2-ton chain motors and chain motor stands distributed as needed on the 15,000 sf stagehouse grid across the entire ceiling of the room. The chain motors are controlled by a TAIT Navigator control system that has control plug-in points at the grid and at the deck. Additional motorized rigging includes three high speed grid trap hoists located at strategic positions overhead. A large inventory of portable combo power and data reels are distributed across the grid to provide 120/208V three phase power and DMX anywhere the suspended trusses are located.
An extendable building
One of our more innovative contributions to The Shed was the design of the flexible, portable, telescopic seating riser system that can traverse throughout the building. Holding up to 500 seats, the risers are divisible into eight rolling sections that can be deployed in many different configurations and can be transported to all levels of the building via the freight elevator. Built in Belgium by Jezet Seating, the risers were delivered in early January and were set up for the first production in the Griffin Theatre in an endstage configuration, with several additional floor seating rows of ganged, portable audience chairs provided by Wenger Corporation in matching fabric and wood finishes.
Flexible rigging systems and flies
During the development of the seating riser system, FDA worked to define the seating and sightline criteria with the Owner and Architects so that the risers would be able to provide the greatest degree of flexibility. From the beginning, the program included the requirement to accommodate dance, so we knew that sightlines had to be set to the floor of the theatre where the audience could see dancers’ feet. This sets a relative steep rake to the seating compared to seating that might be only designed for orchestral events where your view to a seated musician is a higher target.
The seating is designed to be able to store in a very limited space in the adjacent residential tower, squeezing each of the folded sections through a small hallway with only a 6’ wide by 10’-6” tall opening. While the top floor level of the lower risers had to be approximately 9’ tall to fit into storage with the folded seat on the top row, we needed to be able to deploy the risers with a higher capacity than this lower system would accommodate.
Mobile seating platforms
One of the other significant constraints for the risers was the maximum height the system could be in its deployed position, which related to the height of the “smoke layer” defined by the emergency ventilation systems. No occupied seat could be higher than 12’ in the room to keep the tallest average head-height below 18’. To take advantage of this additional three feet of riser height (and associated potential capacity), we developed an upper layer of telescopic risers that sit on truss frames laid on the floor behind the lower section of telescopic risers. These risers are lifted via forklift onto the truss frames and allows the capacity to reach 500 seats in an endstage configuration. The upper risers can also be deployed independently anywhere in the building.
Looking into the future
FDA also worked with Diller Scofidio+Renfro and the Rockwell Group to design a unique portable wheelchair lift that is situated at the rear of the upper risers, accommodating multiple wheelchairs at the top of the seating system along with the wheelchair locations at the floor level. This provides for the ADA-mandated vertical distribution of wheelchair locations across the seating.
One of the most exciting elements of The Shed is the commitment to emerging artists; the addition of the Tisch Lab to the program of the building allows for artistic development and experimentation. FDA designed this space to be incredibly easy and accessible to artists with limited resources to take advantage of rigging and lighting systems that would normally be outside their reach.
The emphasis on commissioning all new works in the other venues of the Bloomberg Building is an ambitious directive from Alex Poots that allows for enormous opportunities to develop new art and performance together under one roof. There is clearly a focus on bringing artists to The Shed who may challenge audience expectations, but also delight patrons with experiences that they would not be able to participate in at other more traditional venues.