Some of the businesses around East Williamsburg between Grand and Maujer streets are visible – such as large self-storage warehouses, meatpacking warehouses, building supply stores, and tire and ditch repair shops. cars. Others, the recording studios and rehearsal rooms for strippers and pole dancers, are a little less visible. And most discreet of all is the slow colonization of these grimy but spacious industrial buildings by artists in search of (more) cheap studios.
The game is offered by a few cool cafes, a nifty dive bar, and the occasional warehouse gallery but, for now, some kind of balance exists between culture and industry, the pre-gentrification buzz that gives artists the impression that they are in the real city rather than a sham and in which the zoning still supports the filthy workshops and barnyard functions that the city must keep within its boundaries in order to keep functioning.
Lover, a new arts foundation and gallery space, threads a crisp, clean stitch through this grimy fabric, elegantly circumventing the process of urban change with a language of industrial material treated with a finesse that both allows it to sit comfortably and shine softly. It’s kind of a clean cultural cut through the neighborhood right now encompassing a block and a half (with a road running through it).
Lover is funded by art collector Lonti Ebers (who is married to Bruce Flatt, managing director of Brookfield Asset Management). Ebers told me that she was trying “to create a cultural community, for practitioners of the art – and to do so in a more welcoming and open way.”
Architect Florian Idenburg of SO-IL has used the material language of place to enclose a series of galleries, workshops, common spaces and courtyards that echo the porosity and complexity of these urban blocks and the wealth of content and use they hide. From the slender steel bars of a door to the tough corrugated concrete to the almost textile surface of end bricks woven into a wall, the exterior is enigmatic enough to catch your eye yet rugged enough to fit in. A peek through the bars reveals a tantalizing world of bespoke bricks and highly finished concrete, a gourmet take on the local vernacular.
Entering, however, feels like stepping into a world apart. Leafy courtyards framed in pale gray concrete and creamy bricks, sidewalk cafes, sculpture gardens, and the art visible through slabs of glass give the impression of a chichi gallery in São Paulo or Mexico City. There is none of the faux-industrial heaviness or self-aware minimalism that form the poles of the art space, but rather a more refined world of compression and release, from blue skies descended to the heart of deep blocks and framed with delicately worked bricks. (so exquisitely done that it seems fair to give credit to the masonry sub-contractor, Vertical Spaces, which clearly worked intimately with the architects).
Rather than starting over, the architects used and adapted the space found, although it is difficult to say which elements are new and which have been retained. The large central gallery (a converted industrial space) is perfectly lit by the minimal slit of a clerestory window; another gallery space is lit by six scoops cut into the ceiling. Although the gallery spaces are fairly conventional white cubes lined with drywall, there is enough articulation between them (in the changing materials), above them (in their natural light patterns), and in the subtly changing patterns and finishes underfoot to set them apart and give a sense of change and movement, unlike most commercial galleries.
There’s also space for artists’ studios upstairs (they receive studios and a stipend to live in the city) and a friendly common room for meals and meetings. A cafe was already teeming with locals and a bookstore loaded with fashionable leaflets was about to open when I visited.
It is therefore a complex based on the needs of the artists – those who work and exhibit here and the local cultural community who have few places to congregate. Art is edgy; Ebers and director Ruth Estévez give space to marginalized voices from the United States and far beyond, exhibiting less accessible works and giving artists space to experiment. A gallery is dedicated to performance and video (“always the poor relation,” says Ebers). Accessible and free, Lover (its name derives from Ebers’ mother’s maiden name) manages to do what many public institutions fail to do: create a sheltered yet open embrace of complex art exploring difficult questions that feel accessible, not too sacred or too precious or at all commercial.
There are a few minor missteps: the architects’ apparent homage to Lina Bo Bardi in the amoeboid window cutouts in the concrete is literal, to begin with. There is perhaps something a little too precious in its palette of creamy cardboard, between the pop dynamism that makes this district so alive, the garish signs, the supergraphics, the banana yellow of the self-storage boxes and the color splash paint shops. Is it patronizing to adopt the rugged materials of the industrial city and polish them until they become almost too beautiful?
But if that’s the harshest criticism, Lover is doing something right. Which is good because it has acquired other sites nearby and, like a friendly bacterium, will soon colonize the interior of other plots. The trick will be to continue to create a space of this quality without crowding out the nature of this raw remnant of a piece of real and functional urbanity.
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