On the evening of the Shed’s launch party, a chill wind barreled down West 30th Street from the Hudson River, and a flock of plastic bags dive-bombed the invitees. I thought I could hear the ghost of Joan Littlewood cackling at nature’s assault on the VIPs. This opening was, in an exquisitely ironic sense, the realization of her proletarian dream.
In 1961, Littlewood, a combative and twinkly-eyed British theater director who called herself a “Cockney bastard” (but didn’t speak like one), decided that working-class people were entitled to a theater of their own—not the kind of with a proscenium arch and red velvet curtains, but a less formal, more anarchic kind of institution. She teamed up with the architect Cedric Price to design Fun Palace, a great Erector Set contraption made of trusses, catwalks, screens, ramps, and stairs intended for a grungy riverbank site in East London. There, children and adults, performers and audience members, posh and working classes could clamber over the apparatus and make art—or watch it being made—on the fly. Spaces for singing, dancing, tinkering, and drinking, could all be shuffled or combined. “Try starting a riot or beginning a painting—or just lie back and stare at the sky,” the proposal exhorted. He and Littlewood envisioned “a large shipyard in which enclosures such as theatres, cinemas, restaurants, workshops, rally areas, can be assembled, moved, re-arranged and scrapped continuously.”
Fun Palace ran headlong into un-fun planning officials in the London borough of Newham, who nixed the construction permit. (The Aquatics Centre that Zaha Hadid designed for the 2012 Olympics now occupies the intended site.) But six decades later, that seed has borne a kind of mutant fruit in the Shed. Instead of a scaffolding that could be quickly bolted together and taken apart on a polluted industrial site, the architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, along with Rockwell Group, designed a half-billion-dollar arts center in a hyper-fancy real estate development. In place of street theater and boozy singalongs, the Shed’s artistic director, Alex Poots, has ordered up new works from certified masters like Steve Reich and Björk. And yet the DNA of Price’s design has resurfaced in a structure that aspires to a state of constant temporariness. In a city of specialized buildings, each doing its narrow job of making, moving, or storing money, the Shed is open-ended and hopeful. It’s an arts center with no collection, no resident company or genre focus, no acknowledged division between high and pop, not even a natural audience. The machinery is built, more or less; its mission keeps evolving. That’s indeterminacy worth rooting for.
The most visible moving part is the puffy shell, a very Price-ian truss that rolls out along tracks to enclose a big patch of public plaza, and stows away when it’s not needed. Beneath that carapace, softened by inflatable bubbles of ETFE plastic, is a static glass box that contains a whole catalog of gizmos. A glass wall folds away, turning an upstairs gallery into a balcony for the big show. A pair of small theaters can fuse into one. Flexible lighting grids, automated blackout shades, seating and stages that can be broken down and reconfigured overnight, temporary walls that can turn a warren of intimate drawing galleries into a vast sculpture hall—each nifty feature challenges artists to use space in ways they’d never considered.
I wish the building had opened with some of the joyous pandemonium that Littlewood and Price envisioned, instead of a chocolate-box selection of respectable shows. In one second-floor galleries, lined with wall hangings by Gerhard Richter, singers who mingled in the crowd quietly began to sing a 90-second snippet by Arvo Pärt, then repeated it again and again. When they were done, the audience filed into another gallery where an ensemble performed a new work by Steve Reich that accompanied a mesmerizing Richter film. Abstracted lobsters, vines, mandalas, amoeboid shapes, and other kinds of complicated symmetry beguiled the eye while Reich’s sonic patterns enveloped the ear. The production values were slick, the air climate-controlled, but other than we could have been milling around a Soho loft, circa 1971.
Two days later, on the official opening night, Jon Batiste, dressed in World War I army fatigues, led an expeditionary force of his own—the Howard University Showtime Marching Band, Brooklyn United drumline, and the 369th Experience ensemble—through the audience and onto the stage, blaring the century-year-old jazz of W.C. Handy. You couldn’t have asked for a more festive moment: brassy, joyous, and full of righteous memories. But as the evening wore on, it devolved into a tribute concert, with young performers delivering reverent covers of songs by Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Sarah Vaughan, and Whitney Houston, and a dozen other classics.
The opening round of shows isn’t enough to gauge the success of a new institution—or let’s hope not, anyway. A backward-looking concert series (Soundtrack of America), a trio of octogenarian celebrities (Reich Richter Pärt), an art show (by Trisha Donnelly), and a chamber theater piece (Norma Jeane Baker of Troy)—all could easily have been scattered around other venues, from BAM to the Armory, to Columbia’s Wallach Gallery, without a glitch. What will make the Shed matter is not its degree of success at nabbing a bigger share of philanthropic dollars or public attention but whether it incubates something new. Without that, the institution may turn out to be the whitest of elephants—cumbersome, unnecessary, and damaging. I saw the leaders of other performing arts institutions roaming the premises, looking wide-eyed and anxious. They proclaimed the Shed so different from other venues that it could only add to the city’s cultural richness. I hope their diplomatic statements prove more accurate than their fears.
For the Shed to live up to its ambitions, it will have to act as a form of resistance to the marbled world of Hudson Yards. It does spring from a long countercultural legacy. In the ’60s, the radical architectural collective Archigram blew up Price’s kit of moving parts into the concept of a Plug-in City, in which apartment-sized prefabricated modules could clip into multistory skeletons the way RAM chips slot into motherboards, and be swapped out at will. (Archigram also developed the Walking City, an urban-scale forerunner of the armored walkers from Star Wars.) Another group, Action Space, translated the cheap and flexible entertainment center into a playground made of inflatable components called Bubble City, an idea that has lately come back into fashion, this time as Bubbletecture. More recently, Littlewood’s apostles recognized that any large structure with a roof—or, in a pinch, without—could be commandeered as a people’s cultural center. In 2014, they launched Fun Palaces, an annual DIY festival that takes place in hundreds of malls, pools, and public spaces all over the UK.
The idea of a building that could be dismantled, rearranged, and reassembled has not generally fared well in the world of building codes and construction trades. The Fire Department does not take kindly to the idea that a staircase that’s there today may vanish by tomorrow. The arts, too, have rigidities of their own. Impresarios may not care to pin down a work with a label like “theater,” but the stagehands’ union wants to know whether a show falls under its jurisdiction. And so architects have invoked the Fun Palace aesthetic but compromised on the dream of infinite flexibility. In the 1970s, Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers shocked Paris with the Centre Pompidou, a gadget with its brightly colored innards showing and escalators in clear tubes slicing diagonally across the façade. More recently, the Spanish architect Enric Ruiz-Geli designed the Media-ICT Building, an office building in Barcelona, as a bridge-like weave of beams and struts, scantily clad in triangular bubbles of ETFE.
The Shed tries to reconcile all these contrary forces—flexibility and permanence, radicalism and practicality, openness and cost—and you can feel the architects’ struggle to get the balance right. The entrance is at street level, under the High Line, rather than on the tower-ringed court. Its aesthetic is ostentatiously un-precious, or tries to be: those concrete floors, plain white walls, metal-grille ceiling, and prominent bones are the international symbol for Creative Types at Work!, used in countless art galleries, farm-to-table restaurants, and finance gurus’ lofts. This is using old familiar tools to unfamiliar ends.
Institutions usually approach architects with problems, the more detailed the better: requests for more space, better lighting, bigger elevators, smoother coat-checking. Buildings provide solutions. The Shed, on the other hand, asks questions. Can experienced artists dream up new genres now that they have the technical means? Will audiences for different art forms mix and meld? Can a high-tech building incubate the next generation of creators in a city where affordable workspace is even harder to come by than rent-controlled apartment? Can a fledgling institution raise enough money from the rich to fund its egalitarian dreams? The Shed’s architects have followed Price’s lead and tried to design a building that allows for anything and dictates nothing, which is a good strategy for the long term. Trusting the imagination of artists is always a solid bet.
*A version of this article appears in the April 15, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!