Powerhouse Arts

Location: New York, NY

Architects: Herzog & de Meuron

Lighting Design: Tillotson Design Associates


Photos: Iwan Baan

Powerhouse Arts is housed in the “Batcave,” or Brooklyn Rapid Transit Power Station, a large 1904 industrial building located on a former superfund site along the Gowanus Canal. Decommissioned in the 1950s, the building was abandoned by the 1970s. By the end of the century, the Turbine Building had become a home to squatters, graffiti artists and underground raves, the tall, rounded arches of its Romanesque façade deprived of glass and ironwork, and marked with polychromatic tags, wear and weathering.

In 2016, Herzog & de Meuron were commissioned to transform the derelict building into an arts fabrication complex. The architects chose to stabilize the Turbine Building, including the layers of graffiti that added texture and color to its interior. Consisting of 170,000 square feet of workshop space, the program of Powerhouse Arts includes space for fabrication in wood, metal, ceramics, textile and print, as well as spaces for performance and events.

The conversion of a purpose-built structure, like the Turbine Building, into a habitable space poses unique challenges. Dimensionally and proportionally, there is a certain gigantism to the space, which needed to be brought within a more human scale. In addition to scale, other characteristics are out of sync with human needs, like limited (or no) accommodations for environmental conditioning, illumination or other occupancy-related infrastructure. Combined with the derelict state of the building, both presented challenges and opportunities to the rehabilitation of the site.

Grand Hall
Photo: Iwan Baan

The Turbine Hall itself was divided into two floors and topped with a double-height Grand Hall, a 22,517 square-foot, column-free space capable of hosting up to 1,200 people. It accommodates a variety of programs, from concerts and theatrical performances to photo shoots and fashion shows. Over 30’ above the floor, a series of trusses supports an industrial roof and clerestory, and houses robust air handling, electrical and lighting services.

Using a minimalist approach that celebrates both the industrial and cultural heritage of the original building, Herzog and de Meuron leave electrical and mechanical services exposed. The result is what can only be described as a virtuosic display of detailing by means of which services commonly concealed are celebrated. Litelab was brought in to help with the lighting and electrical detailing of this space, and provided a BusRun solution unique to the demands of the existing building.

One of the primary design goals was to have the lighting infrastructure run perpendicular to the ceiling trusses and be supported from them with limited or no intermediate support. Spacing between trusses varies, but was approximately 18’ on center. To bridge this distance, Litelab provided a free-span BusRun solution with a 6” cross-sectional height.

Grand Hall
Photo: Iwan Baan

The tall cross-section provides a wiring chamber capable of managing the complex zoning of the runs without having multiple drops along the length of the Bus. We also created a simple wiring system, to facilitate zoning through the BusRun, limiting installation time and cost, and allowing the Electrical contractor to feed from one end, and simply plug-and-play along the length of the system, with runs approximately 154’ long, and containing up to four zones each.

Details of BusRun Solution
Details of BusRun Solution

The result is an elegantly detailed lighting and power solution that helps emphasize the long axis of the space by removing visual interruptions that would break up the aesthetic continuity of the runs. It is also a functional solution, capable of supporting the complex programs of the Grand Hall, from film shoots to screenings, benefit galas to art fairs and pop-ups. The pattern language of alternating aimable object fixtures and linear LEDs also helps create a rhythmic cadence, guiding the eye along the length of the hall.

While the BusRun solution is an exercise in concealment and restraint, the custom pendant luminaires that Litelab designed for the lobby consciously reference the building’s industrial past in a manner designed to capture attention. Using a minimalist conic geometry, the 18” diameter luminaires include a ring of ten type A lamps to invoke an early 20th century sensibility. Grouped in a public space adjacent to the reception desk, the luminaires invite visitors to pause in their ascent to the production, educational or Grand Hall spaces above, or to sit at one of the nearby tables.

Photo: Iwan Baan

Each space had incredibly different design criteria, with equally variant aesthetic intensions. While the language of the lobby is constrained, the decorative pendant fixtures add a subtle point of visual interest. Conversely, the language of the Grand Hall is a celebration of industrial capabilities, from the exposed trusses to the ductwork and ultimately, the BusRun and luminaires. It is a poetics of functionalism, of programmability – a celebration of structure and infrastructure as form and pattern.

Pendant Detail

This type of industrial reference is apt for a building ultimately dedicated to cultural production (if not manufacturing). At each phase of its existence, the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Power Station, the Batcave, Powerhouse Arts has impacted the social, economic and cultural fabric of its context. This is no less true today, as the building anchors local economic development. Ironically, the birth of Powerhouse Arts will probably represent the end of the kind of street-based art practices that defined the Batcave; the graffiti murals covering the interior spaces of the Powerhouse, now, more a museum of a style of art no longer practiced on the site, a trace inscribed on an echo of the past.