The Sperone Westwater Gallery makes its Bowery debut
Foster + Partners new Sperone Westwater Gallery on the Bowery opened last week to much fanfare. Like the little engine that could, this small gallery packs a wallop of design ideation into a modest 25ft x 100ft footprint. Located a stone's throw from SANAA's New Museum, the gallery holds its own with that building, echoing its spare expression and its desire for openness, yet does so with a dash of colour that draws attention to the building's big design move - a moving gallery room visible from the street, that is destined to be a crowd pleaser.
Facing the enormous challenge of how to get large works of art up to the galleries, which are located on the second to fifth floors of the eight-storey building, Foster came up with the idea to have the freight elevator serve also as exhibition space. It was, as Foster said, ‘a Eureka moment'. Visible from the street, the travelling gallery moves slowly up and down the building's façade and can be locked into place to extend the exhibition space. But the big surprise that the room has in store for visitors is revealed at entry, where one learns that the moving gallery room shares a footprint with the lobby. From inside the lobby, visitors are treated to a show when the overhead room takes off on its voyage leaving the lobby to quickly fill with natural light.
Witnessing this transformation is magical and impressive, but it leaves one to wonder whether Foster's shining moment was planned or the result of some quick thinking on his part to transform an unintended consequence of a design decision into the building's main event. As the moving gallery does not travel to the ground level, where it could function to move large works of art works from the street to the galleries, and instead relegates this function to a second, much smaller elevator, it raises the possibility that the room was intended to travel to the ground floor. It seems logical to be the case, as to accept the moving gallery room as designed, the client would have had to been on board with forgoing building approximately 1000 sq ft of permanent gallery space in lieu of this 240 sq ft marvel. Regardless, Foster has recast a freight elevator as high art and for a contemporary art gallery one could argue that there can be no better purpose served.
Beyond the building's lobby, is a series of exhibition spaces that vary in proportion and ambience. At street level there is a double height, 27ft exhibition space with a sky-lit gallery, a mezzanine floor, a sculpture terrace overlooking a park and private viewing galleries on the fourth and fifth floor. A setback at the sixth floor marks the location of the gallery's administrative offices.
In designing the Sperone Westwater Gallery Foster + Partners has risen to the challenge of designing a proper gallery space in less than ideal quarters. In its choice of materials, its detailing and its inventiveness, it has given this gallery a dynamic presence on the Bowery while positioning it as a serious player in the contemporary art world.