W hen Sotheby’s took over an old factory building on York Avenue in 1982 to replace its longtime New York home on Madison Avenue, no one expected the new quarters to offer anything more than large, inexpensive space. The goal was to save money and have ample room to store and sell art, period. Providing galleries wasn’t the point, and it would have felt discordant in the old industrial building, which had been built as a cigar factory in 1925 and later served as a warehouse for Kodak. Even when the building was significantly upgraded and expanded by architects Kohn Pedersen Fox in 1999, the areas added for display were flexible, characterless spaces. The exterior may have been sleekly reclad in glass, but within the building was a jumble of public and private layers with offices for Sotheby’s employees sandwiched between the public areas above and below.
In May, Sotheby’s will unveil a dramatic reimagining and expansion of its New York exhibition galleries. This time, Sotheby’s hired an internationally prominent architecture firm, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), and gave the partner in charge of OMA’s New York office, Shohei Shigematsu, a clear brief: re-organise all of the building’s functions, give it 90,000 sq ft of museum-quality gallery space (up from 67,000 sq ft), and make the entire building work for the digitally-based auction business of the 21st century. The aim was to redefine the clients’ experience as they move through the space, while making sense of a building that had undergone several renovations over the years. The idea was to replace the wide open floors with rooms designed to showcase art and to include some large, formal spaces that would normally function as major galleries, but could easily be used as salesrooms for larger auctions.
Shigematsu, who had previously designed the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec and is now at work on the New Museum in Lower Manhattan and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, realised that a big part of his challenge was to reconnect to the building’s original character while also making the interior more elegant, more coherent and more responsive to the needs of exhibiting art and objects than it had been before. The previous renovations had tried to obscure the building’s industrial origins, but today, in an age when old factory buildings all over the world have been converted into art museums, it no longer felt like something that needed to be covered up.
Indeed, Shigematsu saw it as an asset. “Dealing with the existing building, you start to appreciate its history,” he says. But how to make an industrial aesthetic work with the more refined environment Sotheby’s wanted? The answer, Shigematsu decided, was to put all of it together, juxtaposing some of the original industrial elements with elegantly crafted walnut portals to the gallery areas, for example. Several of the round concrete columns with splayed tops have been exposed and re-coated in new aggregate, with their tops set in softly curving roof coves. They become a sculptural centrepiece – refinement and roughness sit comfortably together.
But for this idea to work, the new system of organisation in the building had to make sense. Working with Karen Sutton and Allan Schwartzman at Sotheby’s, Shigematsu devised a suite of 40 separate gallery spaces that he refers to as “flexibility by diversity” – replacing the old system of plain, convertible spaces into a range of different kinds of permanent galleries, including a set of small rooms in a traditional enfilade; an octagonal room; some medium-sized rooms designed to show off one or two key paintings as focal points; two double-height galleries; and an L-shaped gallery.
“The sense of subtlety is lost in big spaces, and we are trying to get many kinds of intimate spaces to relate to all scales and kinds of art,” Shigematsu says, as he walks through the nearly complete fourth floor in mid-March. “We used to feel that the bigger and more flexible a space was, the better. Now, we know that isn’t so.”
Architecture, inevitably, is a matter of procession, of moving through space. Knowing that clear organisation was one thing that the Sotheby’s building had lacked, the architects tried hard to make the new layout coherent and intuitive. Now, all public spaces are located on the lower levels, with storage above and administrative and curatorial offices above that. A new lobby with digital displays will announce current exhibitions, with a clear vista past the escalators to the large ground-floor gallery. Upstairs, the fourth-floor galleries are set along a large axial corridor that serves as both an organising spine and as additional display space.
None of the new gallery spaces are dedicated to specific departments, and so while the walls will no longer shift, the use of each gallery will change depending upon each department’s needs. Contemporary art may regularly hold sway over the larger rooms and European paintings may most often be in the enfilade galleries, but Sutton and Schwartzman want to experiment as much as possible, and see the new building as a tool that offers possibilities they have only begun to explore. “We can do almost anything in all of these spaces – it will be exciting,” Sutton says.
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“Yes,” says Shigematsu. “Architecture is becoming the platform for Sotheby’s to think about what it will be.”
Paul Goldberger is an architecture critic and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. His new book, Ballpark: Baseball in the American City (Knopf), will be published in May.