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‘Bureau V's National Sawdust has been born of a love of music, musicians and musical integrity’

National Sawdust Bureau V03

AR Culture 2015 Commended: Ambitious in every sense, National Sawdust’s desire for impact results in a new typology that feels urgent in an increasingly top-heavy New York

AR Culture 2015 Commended

A Saturday night at National Sawdust, a new contemporary music venue in Williamsburg, New York, opened with silence. The occasion was the fourth and final performance by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) with French conductor Pascal Gallois, in homage to minimalist composer Pierre Boulez.

Gallois stood with arms raised, holding his orchestra – a pianist, guitarist, harpist, bassoonist and vocalist, among others – in a state of suspension. The audience, three deep and only a few feet away, shifted on black institutional- style chairs while others craned forward over a wraparound mezzanine balcony, peering into the starkly lit volume below. 

Already, the room was wrapped with noise: three walls and the roof bore glowing white panels spliced with black striations, an absurd roadmap of rectilinear fissures revealing a traditional black-box theatre beneath the white cube. Each recessed channel functioned as an electric artery, inset with switches, power boards and exposed strip lights. Panel surfaces, highly decorative yet highly engineered, mimicked the jumble of cables and music stands on the graphically patterned floor. At the first note some of the audience closed their eyes.

National Sawdust Bureau V01

National Sawdust Bureau V01

Source: Maria Spann

National Sawdust arose from the non-profit Original Music Workshop, founded in 2008 by Kevin Dolan, a former tax attorney, amateur organist and Williamsburg transplant. Dolan imagined a holistic space where musicians could not only perform, but also write, practise, record, edit and even broadcast. He wanted something smaller and more experimental but also acoustically comparable to BAM or Lincoln Center; he also wanted the venue to support a line-up that would attract a wider audience than some of New York’s existing independent venues. The only stipulation was that no compromises be made on sound; the rest was more or less left up to the lead architects, Bureau V – a Brooklyn-based architecture studio, known primarily for installation-based work, led by Peter Zuspan, Stella Lee and Laura Trevino – and an acoustic engineering team helmed by Raj Patel of Arup. All parties were intimately involved in the project from the outset.

‘I literally got on my bike and was biking around Williamsburg,’ says Zuspan, who also became one of 24 curators of the artist-led venue. ‘My partner, Stella, was living in Berlin and on Google Maps “walking” down the street, looking for facades larger than 50 feet and cold-calling people.  I was living two blocks away so when a sign popped up on this building we immediately called and, luckily, got it.’

National Sawdust Bureau site plan

National Sawdust Bureau site plan

Location plan

‘[Dolan] didn’t start off with a programme, and he didn’t start off with a budget,’ says Patel. ‘He started with an aspiration for what he wanted us to do, and challenged us to make something that was different, new, unique – that hadn’t been tried before as a means to satisfy that vision.’

As well as the central performance venue, which doubles as a rehearsal room, the 13,000 sq ft structure, which cost around $16 million, contains production and recording spaces, a lobby bar and, by March 2016, will include a bi-level restaurant. The so-called ‘jewelbox’ was largely inspired by the 18th-century European chamber music room, traditionally situated at the centre of a grand home, accessed via a procession of smaller rooms and antechambers, and intended for informal recitals. Music was composed in, and for, the room itself, with musicians and audience brought into domestic proximity – an unusual feedback loop of live-ness whereby all aspects of musical production and performance were brought into simultaneity. 

National Sawdust aims to emulate this lack of division  both spatially and programmatically, collapsing creation, performance and reception into a shared  interstice. But what is this  middle ground? Does it truly accommodate production and performance, musician and audience? Beyond the undifferentiated space of the stage, people are often directed to cross at points of entry (there are currently only two street-facing doors, side by side) and points of transition (the mezzanine is serviced by a single public stairwell). Condensing the theatregoer’s rituals of passage – entry, convocation, circulation – could facilitate encounter and spontaneity, but the physical constriction and subsequent abruptness of these moments leaves one looking for gentler landings. The structure’s entryway, a trapezoidal black-walled passage, triangulates street, stage and bar, offering a place to gather but stopping short of intuitive places to  stand.  The emphasis on surface (glossy, tile) and form (sculptural, protruding) means this space of sociality feels closer to an afterthought, the incidental inverse of imposing poché. 

National Sawdust Bureau V02

National Sawdust Bureau V02

Source: Maria Spann

Other moves based on choreographies of expansion and contraction feel like similarly missed opportunities: the entryway’s vertical reveal, hinted at from the street through an elongated window, promises a Libeskind-like crescendo, but the eye is ultimately met with two glary downlights recessed in black soundproofing fabric, scalloping the walls. Much more effective is the confluence of light levels and material finishes to foreshadow and ‘reveal’ the bright performance space from the darkened lobby, a neat reversal  of the light modulation that accompanies a traditional theatre entry sequence. 

The large rectilinear portal between theatre and lobby opens vertically, garage door-style, playfully referencing the raising of the proverbial curtain. This shift in dimensionality – from flat, planar surface to volumetric threshold – creates drama that is also integral to the architecture. The complex tectonics of the stage, which has 12 individually operable inset pieces, could have worked similarly, rupturing the floor to draw out depth and density from the stage space – but while the structural intention was to accommodate the eclectic programme, the mechanics may read as vaudevillian in such a small footprint, adding to the visual clamour.  

National Sawdust Bureau V ground plan

National Sawdust Bureau V ground plan

Ground floor plan - click to expand

‘Visually, I thought it was very interesting, very strong, and very opinionated,’ says Laura Kirar, a designer and audience member at the Boulez performance. ‘Maybe that’s what you notice at first, and then maybe you forget about it. I’m anxious to see another performance there, to see if the visual aspect really affects my impression of the music I’m hearing. Now I’ve seen one performance there, I have to say the architecture was a big part of my experience.’

Another audience member, Katherine Michaelsen, a Professor of Art History and Chair of the Art Market graduate programme at Fashion Institute of Technology, had a different reading: ‘Quite frankly, it’s not that weird. It’s very striking. To my taste, it’s a little over the top in terms of contrast. I would have toned it down a little bit. But it’s definitely an experience.’

All of which begs the question: how do you create a hermetic space that is charged but not restrictive or overwhelming? How do you design ‘casual’ without dissolving the pleasures of ritual? The problem seems to be one of scale: true to the city’s density and shrunken square footage, the first floor of National Sawdust doesn’t give much room for encounter that is fluid or unforced. The restaurant, under construction, sandwiched between the venue and the facade, not only suggests logic to the geometry of the lobby but is likely to release any pressure from the bottleneck. Another street-facing door will draw patrons off North 6th Street, generating both revenue for the programme and an increased porosity in the space, bringing the energy of the city into contact with the energy of the event.

National Sawdust Bureau V07

National Sawdust Bureau V07

Although so much goes on across National Sawdust’s various surfaces, the structure’s animating forces are often buried or hidden. Seated in the darkened mezzanine, surrounded by closed stairwell doors, you intuit – correctly – the network of corridors leading to the recording rooms, broom closets, the restaurant’s kitchen, the proximate yet inaccessible spaces of utility that envelop the central volume. Even the walls are not just walls; they’re casings, thick with levers, curtains and pulleys that manually tune the entire room. 

This sense of density adds to the feeling of bodily constraint that begins in the entryway, extends through the lobby into the visually chaotic performance area, reaching the narrow, somewhat rudimentary space of the balcony. Your inclination is to burrow, to tunnel, to penetrate the cave and discover its extents.However, only one group of users gain this access: musicians. 

National Sawdust Bureau sections

National Sawdust Bureau sections

Sections - click to expand

National Sawdust is a house for musicians. The programme’s holistic potential, the loop of production-performance-reception, is only made fully available to them. With this in mind, certain design decisions reveal their rationale: the custom chairs by Bureau V make the most sense as utilitarian props in a rehearsal space; limited public passage ensures the acoustic sanctity of the entire building. The main performance space is not only disconnected programmatically but also structurally from everything else: giant chassis springs, visible only from within the emergency exit stairwells, separate and suspend the room like a jack-in-the-box, mitigating the disruptive rumblings of the L train below.

National Sawdust sits at the corner of North 6th Street and Wythe Avenue, effectively Williamsburg’s bedrock since its rezoning as a primarily residential neighbourhood in 2005. The building’s facade – a red brick shell, with bricked-up windows and large factory vents – belongs to the area’s previous iteration as an industrial outpost, that recent yet near-invisible past before the rash of luxury condos, start-ups and yoga moms made it difficult to discuss the neighbourhood without air quotes. Even the L train – from Chelsea and the East Village – has become a symbol of the metastasising of gentrified Manhattan across the East River.

With no overt signage, the exterior is non-declarative save for three slices of glazing and a large mural in a style inviting the term ‘street art’. Williamsburg has long since painted over its history, but the partial resurfacing of the facade feels too much like an appeal to the packaged aesthetic of the neighbourhood, flattening the existing language into a palatable urban product. This all adds to the unshakeable feeling of retro; one can’t help but read the references to ‘contemporary’ from some imaginary point in the future, where an interminably expanding Williamsburg has begun to eat itself.

‘National Sawdust’s agenda is not to critique; in fact, its position is fascinatingly fluid’

But National Sawdust’s agenda is not to critique; in fact, its position is fascinatingly fluid. If its aesthetic suggests an unquestioning relationship to context, this is because it relies on Williamsburg’s continued advancement for its survival. Dolan’s funding model is predicated on the ascendant cost of the area’s real estate. After an initial $8 million outlay, he leveraged the likely increase in the property value as a way to mitigate the perceived risk of investing in a new non-profit. He offered potential funders ownership interest in the building. These ‘philanthropic investors’ would then donate rent-free use of the space and, after a certain time, the non-profit can either buy the investors out or wait for them to donate their share.

‘One of two things can happen,’ Dolan says. ‘We’ll get a non-profit, rent-free use for five years and hopefully it will be an enormous success … If it fails, guess what: [investors] now have an ownership interest in a valuable piece of real estate. And if it succeeds, we have what we call “philanthropic investors”, because what we hope is that people, over time, would be able to donate at least a significant portion of their interest in the building or continue to allow it to be used rent-free.’ 

National Sawdust Bureau V06

National Sawdust Bureau V06

Source: Maria Spann

At the same time, National Sawdust’s funding model means its moneyed patrons and leisure-class neighbours – especially those who will frequent the restaurant – are directly financing alternative culture, usually low  on the list of priorities for commercial backers and developers in the area. As well as ensuring the venue’s day-to-day survival, the non-profit’s income will subsidise rehearsal space  and support an experimental programme for a diverse audience in a district increasingly defined by the generic. National Sawdust at once epitomises American-style private investment and capitalistic models of ownership, and a Robin Hood-style redistribution of funds.

In every sense, National Sawdust is ambitious. Its desire for impact and distinctiveness, which reads as overpowering in the interior, has resulted in a new typology that feels urgent in an increasingly top-heavy New York. The venue not only attempts to address a gap in the landscape of the city’s performance venues, it also has the acoustic integrity, facilities and funding to foreground music and musicians. The ambition that threatens to smother National Sawdust is also the very quality that animates  it as it earnestly recasts the possibilities for a New York performance space. The place is loud, but it is also live, with all the apprehension, uncertainty and promise that live-ness brings. 

National Sawdust

Architect: Bureau V

Structural engineer: RSE Associates Inc

Acoustics, audiovisual, theatre, lighting and fire engineer: Arup New York

Photographs: Maria Spann

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