Rising on the edge of Brooklyn gowanus canal — a rezoned superfund site with developers competing to build — the colossal industrial relic known locally as the batcave has found its own Bruce Wayne.
For the past decade, the press-shy philanthropist Joshua Rechnitz donated $180 million through its foundations to transform the 119-year-old red brick giant, the former Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company Power Station and, more recently, home to squatters and underground raves, in a multidisciplinary center of artistic production called powerful arts. Consider it her gift to Gotham.
On May 19, the nonprofit celebrates its grand opening and invites a broad swath of the art world, city government, and local residents to tour its state-of-the-art facility designed by the award-winning architecture firm. Pritzker Prize. Herzog & de Meuron in alliance with PBDW Architects. Half of the 170,000 square feet is dedicated to printmaking, ceramics, public art, metalworking, and woodworking workshops, available to artists and cultural institutions at below-market prices, and the remainder of the space is built for administrative offices, events, and community. programs are open intermittently to the public.
the concept artist lorna simpson, who has collaborated with Powerhouse’s printing press, sees all sorts of opportunities for cross-media cross-pollination in the new building. “I really got ceramic envy walking through the Powerhouse,” Simpson said, imagining that the artists will have ideas that “can branch out into something else that happens inside the building because you can easily look at samples or chat about the technique.”
Powerhouse’s sole benefactor walked away from the board last year after the building was completed (Rechnitz is currently working on an organic farm project upstate and won’t take questions). Now the organization has entered a new phase of independence. Whether he can keep his massive engine running through a hybrid of fees for services, venue rentals and new sources of philanthropy remains to be seen.
“The roof had collapsed and this floor was actually a big lake with trees growing on it,” he said. eric shine, president of Powerhouse (and former director of the Andy Warhol museum in Pittsburgh), standing on the top floor of the original 1904 Turbine Hall during an April tour with Herzog & de Meuron architects. The cavernous room, which once housed giant turbine engines, had become a canvas for graffiti artists during its Batcave era in the early 2000s.
Rechnitz, an art collector, artist, and avid cyclist who had pledged $40 million to build a velodrome in Brooklyn Bridge Park that never came to fruition, bought the Batcave in 2012 for $7 million from developers who had walked away from plans to develop condominiums on the contaminated lot. He Gowanus Canal had been designated a Superfund site in 2010 by the Environmental Protection Agency, and in 2013, Rechnitz’s team began overseeing development and remediation of the contaminated property, ultimately spending $16 million in environmental costs.
The philanthropist immediately formed the Powerhouse Environmental Arts Foundation (later renamed Powerhouse Arts), with the idea of creating artist studios. This changed with an artists council that included noel anderson, Sara Greenberger-Rafferty and Shreshta Rit Premnath advocating for “world-class manufacturing facilities so we can do our work right here in the epicenter of the art world,” Shiner recounted, which “would end up helping thousands of artists in the future.”
That model could also provide a roof for manufacturers who have prices out of their independent stores across the city, with many moving to the Hudson Valley and beyond. In 2015, the master printer luther davis he was desperate to find a home for his massive press and staff after being ousted from his space on Atlantic Avenue.
“We were looking at terminals in Red Hook warehouses that were just giant barns, with no toilets or running water,” said Davis, who works with 85 artists, including Glenn Ligon, Amy Sherald and Faith Ringgold, on 300 projects a year. Enter Powerhouse. “It really was a glorious gift,” Davis said. Her store functioned as the first Powerhouse satellite, in a temporary space, as the construction project unfolded.
When the architects visited, in 2015, the remediation was underway and Powerhouse’s vision was clear. Walking up the narrow corridors and stairs to get to what is now called the Great Hall, “it was really dangerous,” said Ascan Mergenthaler, senior partner at Herzog & de Meuron, “but you could feel the beauty and lightness of this space. We knew it was something we wanted to preserve.”
Today, the new framing and roof, wraparound balcony, and massive arched windows are true to the original design, with the new and repaired metal painted an industrial red primer for a unified look. The ring of the walls is any graffiti that survived construction, cleaned with a dry brush to remove peeling paint.
“If you do these restoration projects too precisely, it looks almost like a replica,” said Mergenthaler, who also oversaw Herzog & de Meuron restoration of the Park Avenue Armory. “That was always the challenge: to maintain the roughness that we found on the first day. You feel how many years this building has been around, all those different layers, like a palimpsest.”
The Grand Hall is the largest of several spaces that can be rented to host art fairs, galas, fashion shows, concerts, and panel discussions. For the opening, Powerhouse has commissioned a six-hour performance by miles greenbergwhich is creating a neon orange lagoon with rotating pedestals for the performers, like avatars in a video game, who will choose enemies and fight in the spooky pool.
Beginning May 24, an exhibit of Brooklyn College MFA student final projects will be on view in the lobby through June 21. The building will be open to the public as part of a community party planned for September 23.
The manufacturing studios are located on all six floors of the new addition, on the exact site of the old Boiler House, which was demolished mid-century after steam power became obsolete. James Seger, a partner at PBDW, said they decided to rebuild on site and minimize the impact on remediated soils below the site, which had been covered in environmental remediation.
“We understood that the less we had to dig, the better,” he said.
The security infrastructure is visible throughout the light-flooded fabrication shops, with huge extraction arms hanging from the ceilings to vent dangerous particles. “This is really exciting for potters because there are a lot of basement studios that don’t have a good exhaust for the kilns,” he said. Poor Roytburd, who oversees Powerhouse’s pottery-making program, as well as the community pottery studio open to experienced practitioners for $245 a month.
Roytburd recently collaborated with the painter gina beavers in its first ceramic edition, commissioned by Exposure A. “I don’t have any serious ceramics experience, so I was pretty nervous about it,” Beavers said. He ended up hand-casting a prototype of his version of a vase, a giant set of lips with numerous small pots attached, from which the Roytburd staff made a mold and cast the edition, then discussed glazing options with the artist. .
“It was a team of artists with all these amazing skill sets to guide me,” Beavers said.
Recent artist projects mark dion and Charles Gaines on Governors Island were produced with the help of Powerhouse’s public art fabrication and installation team.
The organization’s goal is to be fully self-sufficient in five years, with a projected annual operating budget of between $12 million and $16 million, Shiner said. This will involve renting out the event spaces around 30 percent of the time. Shiner just expanded the board with seven new members, including artists. scott dread and LaToya Ruby Frazier.
Architect Jacques Herzog described Powerhouse Arts as an island in a sea of new residential and commercial developments around the rapidly evolving Gowanus area.
“As manufacturing shops disappear from the city,” he said, “this building will serve local artists and the community for generations.”