Rising at the edge of Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal — a rezoned superfund site with developers racing to build — the colossal industrial relic known locally as the Batcave has found its own Bruce Wayne.
Over the last decade, the press-shy philanthropist Joshua Rechnitz gave $180 million through his foundations to transform the 119-year-old red brick behemoth — the former Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company’s central power station and more recently home to squatters and underground raves — into a multidisciplinary hub of artistic production called Powerhouse Arts. Consider it his gift to Gotham.
On May 19, the nonprofit organization celebrates its grand opening, inviting a broad swath of the art world, city government and local residents to tour its state-of-the-art facilities designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron in partnership with PBDW Architects. Half of the 170,000 square feet is dedicated to fabrication shops for printmaking, ceramics, public art, metal and woodworking — available to artists and cultural institutions at below-market rates — with the rest of the space built out for administrative offices, events and community programs open intermittently to the public.
The conceptual artist Lorna Simpson, who’s collaborated with Powerhouse’s print shop, sees all kinds of opportunities for cross-pollination between media in the new building. “I really had ceramic envy walking through Powerhouse,” Simpson said, imagining that artists will have ideas that “can branch into something else that happens within the building because you can easily look at samples or have a conversation about technique.”
Powerhouse’s solo benefactor stepped away from the board last year after the building was completed (Rechnitz is currently working on an organic farm project upstate and not taking questions). Now the organization has moved into a new phase of independence. Whether it can keep its huge engine running through a hybrid of fees for services, venue rentals and new sources of philanthropy remains to be seen.
“The roof had caved in and this floor was actually a huge lake with trees growing up,” said Eric Shiner, Powerhouse’s president (and former director of the Andy Warhol museum in Pittsburgh), standing on the top floor of the original 1904 Turbine Hall during a walk-through in April with architects from Herzog & de Meuron. The cavernous hall, once housing giant turbine engines, had become a canvas for graffiti artists during its Batcave era in the early 2000s.
Rechnitz, an art collector, artist and avid cyclist who had pledged $40 million to build a velodrome in Brooklyn Bridge Park that never came to fruition, bought the Batcave in 2012 for $7 million from developers who had walked away from plans to develop condominiums on the polluted lot. The Gowanus Canal had been designated a Superfund site in 2010 by the Environmental Protection Agency and, in 2013, Rechnitz’s team began overseeing the development and remediation of the contaminated property — ultimately spending $16 million on environmental costs.
The philanthropist immediately formed the Powerhouse Environmental Arts Foundation (later renamed Powerhouse Arts), with the idea of creating artists’ studios. This shifted with an artists council that included Noel Anderson, Sara Greenberger Rafferty and Sreshta Rit Premnath advocating for “world-class fabrication facilities so that we can make our work right here in the epicenter of the art world,” Shiner recounted, which would “end up helping thousands of artists into the future.”
That model could also give a roof to fabricators getting priced out of their independent shops across the city, with many decamping for the Hudson Valley and farther afield. In 2015, the master printer Luther Davis was desperate to find a home for his huge presses and staff after being forced from his space on Atlantic Avenue.
“We were looking at terminals in the Red Hook warehouses that were just giant barns, with no bathrooms or running water,” said Davis, who works with 85 artists, including Glenn Ligon, Amy Sherald and Faith Ringgold, on 300 projects a year. Enter Powerhouse. “It really was a glorious gift,” Davis said. His shop operated as Powerhouse’s first satellite, in temporary space, as the building project developed.
By the time the architects visited, in 2015, the remediation was well underway and the vision for Powerhouse was clear. Climbing through the narrow corridors and staircases to arrive at what is now called the Grand Hall, “it was really dangerous,” said Ascan Mergenthaler, a senior partner at Herzog & de Meuron, “but you could feel the beauty and airiness of this space. We knew it was something we wanted to preserve.”
Today, the trusswork and new roof, the wraparound balcony and the huge arched windows are faithful to the original design, with the repaired and new metal painted an industrial primer red to give it a unified look. Ringing the walls is whatever graffiti survived the construction, cleaned up with a dry brush to remove any flaking paint.
“If you do these restoration projects too preciously, then it looks almost like a replica,” said Mergenthaler, who also oversaw Herzog & de Meuron’s restoration of the Park Avenue Armory. “That was always the challenge — to keep the roughness we encountered on the very first day. You feel the many years this building has been around, all those different layers, like a palimpsest.”
The Grand Hall is the largest of several spaces that can be rented to host art fairs, galas, fashion shows, concerts and panel discussions. For the opening, Powerhouse has commissioned a six-hour durational performance by Miles Greenberg, who is creating a neon-orange lagoon with rotating pedestals for performers, like avatars in a video game, who will choose foes and do battle in the lurid pool.
Starting May 24, an exhibition of final projects by MFA students from Brooklyn College will be on view in the lobby through June 21. The building will be open to the public as part of a community block party planned for Sept. 23.
The fabrication studios are housed throughout the six floors of the new addition, on the exact footprint of the former Boiler House, which was demolished midcentury after steam power became obsolete. James Seger, a partner at PBDW, said they decided to rebuild in the same spot and minimize the impact on decontaminated soils underneath the site, which had been capped over in the environmental remediation.
“We understood the less we had to dig, the better,” he said.
Safety infrastructure is visible throughout the light-flooded fabrication shops, with huge extraction arms dangling from the ceilings to vent dangerous particles. “This is really exciting for ceramists because there are plenty of studios in basements that don’t have good exhaust for the kilns,” said Biata Roytburd, who oversees Powerhouse’s ceramic fabrication program as well as the community ceramic studio open to experienced practitioners for $245 a month.
Roytburd recently collaborated with the painter Gina Beavers on her first ceramic edition, commissioned by Exhibition A. “I don’t have any serious experience in ceramics so I was pretty nervous about it,” said Beavers. She ended up hand-molding a prototype of her version of a vase — a giant set of lips with numerous little pinch pots attached — from which Roytburd’s staff made a mold and cast the edition, then talked through glazing options with the artist.
“It was a team of artists with all these incredible skill sets to guide me,” Beavers said.
Recent projects by the artists Mark Dion and Charles Gaines on Governors Island were produced with the help of Powerhouse’s public art fabrication and installation team.
The goal for the organization is to be fully self-sufficient in five years, with an annual operating budget projected between $12 and $16 million, Shiner said. This will entail renting the event spaces about 30 percent of the time. Shiner has just expanded the board by seven new members, including the artists Dread Scott and LaToya Ruby Frazier.
The architect Jacques Herzog described Powerhouse Arts as an island in a sea of new residential and commercial development around the quickly evolving Gowanus area.
“As fabrication shops disappear from the city,” he said, “this building will serve local artists and the community for generations.”