In an empty bank lobby about a block north of the New York Stock Exchange, a team of architecture students has built a versatile performance venue for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC), a nonprofit arts organization that, among other things, runs an artist-in-residency program in vacant commercial spaces south of Canal Street. Inside the lobby, expandable units—including a reception area, bar, and media center—roll out from a perforated-aluminum docking wall, and a canopy of snaking conduits delivers power and light overhead.
The project, “Interchange: Nassau,” was completed by the Design Workshop, a unique urban design-build program at Parsons The New School for Design. “One has to confront all kinds of regulatory issues when building in New York City,” says Peter Wheelwright, chair of the Department of Architecture, Interior Design, and Lighting. Just as in previous years, those real-life considerations—city codes, zoning, and other restrictions—delivered some tough lessons in 2005.
The students were originally given a site on Governors Island, off the southern tip of Manhattan, where they had planned to renovate and expand an existing garage complex. But red tape related to the island’s transfer from federal to local ownership stalled their plans and sent them scrambling back to their drafting tables. “We were about to submit our drawings to the Department of Buildings and the Landmarks Preservation Commissions for permits when we got word that we were going to have to switch sites,” architecture graduate student Karla Uyehara says.
But the students persevered, developing a second design on the fly and building a dynamic space that is now hosting everything from dance performances and poetry readings to art exhibitions. The flexible mobile units can be used to customize the room and fold flat when not in use: a reception desk has shelves for programs and literature; a bar unpacks to create countertops; a media unit holds projectors, an LCD screen, and a DJ station; and a storage system for folding chairs includes a flip-down conference table. “We saw this as a way they could reconfigure the space for different events,” says John Mealy, also a graduate student in architecture. The conduit canopy integrates electrical outlets throughout so the units can plug in just about anywhere, and custom lighting schemes are nearly limitless.
“We’re arts nomads, and the students have given elegance and practicality to our constant wandering through downtown,” LMCC president Tom Healy says. “Not only can the system be configured endlessly in one space for different uses, we can also pack it up and take it somewhere else, which we’ll inevitably need to do when a paying tenant comes along.”