It’s no secret that New York’s soaring rents haven’t boded well for the creative class that gives this city its cachet, leaving many artists and fabricators struggling to find affordable studios and production spaces. Powerhouse Arts, a creative hub that opened in Brooklyn this spring, is working to fill that gap. Standing among a sea of parking lots and low-lying warehouses, the monochromatic monolith is a welcome rebuff to gentrification — not to mention a shining example of industrial re-use.

An aerial view of Powerhouse Arts Brooklyn, showing a terracotta-coloured industrial building within the context of Brooklyn, with the Manhattan skyline in the background.

Powerhouse Arts repurposes a former Brooklyn energy plant.

The 15,794-square-metre fabrication centre repurposes a power station that, up until the 1950s, was used by the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company. The derelict energy plant then became a home base for squatters, a canvas for graffiti artists and a venue for underground ravers. By the time philanthropist Joshua Rechnitz purchased it back in 2012 with the ambition of launching a non-profit arts incubator, the property was known as the “Batcave.”

A person works a kiln in a ceramics studio within Powerhouse Arts Brooklyn, in front of three large arched windows.

The membership-based centre offers artists access to wood and metal shops, as well as print, ceramics and textile studios.

Calling on Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron seemed like a no-brainer, given its deft adaptation of another power station into London’s Tate Modern art gallery. A whopping US$180 million later, Powerhouse Arts (completed by Herzog & de Meuron in partnership with PBDW Architects) proves to be just as impressive in its transformation. State-of-the-art workshops — planned in close consultation with local craftspeople — now cater to different media like printmaking and woodworking. In each one, the membership based centre employs skilled fabricators ready to assist in the development of new work. Rentable event spaces and areas dedicated to education round out the massive edifice. 

An exterior view of Powerhouse Arts Brooklyn, showing the terracotta-coloured exterior and the large industrial ductwork.

The project combines a six-storey reinforced concrete addition (built on the footprint of the former energy plant’s demolished boiler house) with the original masonry Turbine Hall built in 1904.

“Our design integrates new functions within one structure while enhancing and maintaining the cultural resonance of the place,” explains Philip Schmerbeck, Herzog & de Meuron associate and U.S. studio director. To bolster the turbine hall massing and replace the former boiler house (which was torn down years ago), Schmerbeck and his team introduced a new concrete superstructure. Coating its facade in red oxide and stone aggregate ensures that this fresh construction maintains the colour of the weathered-brick exterior it replaces. Exposed interior and exterior ducting further accentuates the building’s industrial identity.

A massive open event space within Powerhouse Arts Brooklyn featuring prominent cross-bracing painted terracotta red.

A 2,090-square-metre Grand Hall is one of three event spaces available for private rental to help finance operations.

The facility’s site was another key consideration. The rapidly evolving post-industrial Gowanus Canal, a low-lying dock-delineated waterway, is still mired by pollution. The new building takes advantage of the original 1.8-metre-thick con- crete mat slab foundation to enact an environmental “capping” strategy, mitigating the contaminated and remediated ground below. A new sheet-pile seawall contiguous with the adjacent properties and a stepped concrete retaining wall (part of a larger landscape design by Ken Smith Workshop) safeguard against potential storm surges from the nearby harbour.

“We also respected the large open space of an outdoor forecourt abutting the canal,” Schmerbeck adds. “This generous area was originally arranged as a staging ground for receiving coal that fuels the steam necessary to power the turbines. It’s now a key component of the project — operating as an outdoor work yard, but also as a venue for public events.”

People working inside one of the art studios, with their work lit by the large arched windows.

The centre also employs skilled fabricators to assist members with their projects.

The interventions made inside reflect a similar spirit of flexibility. The workshops that require more scale and the ability to move large items in and out have been programmed on lower levels, where existing and infilled mezzanines create an elaborate spatial matrix. Meanwhile, the ceramic studio was placed on the top floor to ensure that heat flowing through the kiln flues had a shorter path to the rooftop.

The lobby of Powerhouse Arts Brooklyn featuring original graffiti preserved on the brick walls.

Pre-reno graffiti by artist Ellery Neon holds court in the lobby.

Throughout the renovation, graffiti walls and certain original structural elements were maintained to demarcate different stages of the building’s evolution. In the city, art often turns up in unexpected places. Once a gallery of spray-painted canvases, Powerhouse Arts now seems poised to become a vital resource for New York’s ever-perseverant creative scene.  

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