The windows are huge, the kind every New Yorker dreams about, and light streams into the sleek, somewhat futuristic-looking space. There are textured surfaces, glass walls, girders and ducts. A kitchen. Quiet nooks. Walls pivot and slide, turning classrooms into galleries. Equipment retracts out of view, and furniture can be reconfigured with a flip.
Flexibility defines the new home of MA Curatorial Practice. Chair Steven Henry Madoff entrusted internationally renowned architect Charles Renfro of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, in association with Leong Leong, headed by Dominic Leong and Chris Leong, to transform the raw 10th floor space at 132 West 21st Street into a multi-purpose facility for the new department. SVA Close Up spoke with Renfro and Chris Leong about creating an environment where curation isn’t just a study, but an immersive experience.
What were your respective roles in the project?
Charles Renfro: We co-designed it, and the Leongs executed the drawings and oversaw the day-to-day construction.
Chris Leong: It was a close collaboration. We concepted with Charles through every phase.
You’ve designed dozens of exhibitions, galleries and art facilities. What was your mandate here?
CR: Steven wanted a space that would support the act of curation. What that means is that any and every part of the space could be co-opted by students and visiting curators to try things out. It’s a test facility.
CL: The other part of the mandate was thinking about this space as a hub that connects with the art world in New York City and on a global scale. It’s a very active space, with people flowing through it and interacting all the time—a place for gathering, having drinks, curation, research. It’s a very complex academic program.
What unique considerations went into planning this space?
CR: We wanted to keep the space a little bit rough and raw so that experimental work could feel experimental. There are exposed pipes, ducts, rough infrastructural finishes, but there are also pristine white walls that occupy the basic industrial space. It’s kind of a “high-low space.”
CL: We had a lot of discussions about what the nature of a curatorial space should be. Steven uses the metaphor of “trade school” for his program. The students are going to learn not just theory and art criticism but also the actual practice of hanging and interfacing with different surfaces. They’ll work with different finishes—plywood, oriented strand board, various textures—that all play into the flexibility of the space.
Much of your work is meant for use by the general public. Was it a challenge to design for artists?
CR: This is more than a space for artists; it’s a space for pedagogy, for teaching and learning. The challenge of this project was in the number of permutations it required. The MA Curatorial Practice program is very ambitious. Flexibility was built into the design. It can be assembled into separate parts or combined as one large space. Along with galleries and offices and resource areas, the space needs to accommodate 200 people for events and seminars. Dining and lounge areas were also crucial. Steven emphasized the idea of socialization. He wants to have weekly dinners with all of the students and visiting artists. Some of the most interesting discoveries and discussions happen around the dinner table.
Visit the new space at 132 West 21st Street, 10th floor, for “Knowing Space,” presented by MA Curatorial Practice. On view November 1 through November 25.
Images: Top two photos by Matthias Kessler; bottom two photos by Marko Kovacevik.