The Transformers

When three architects decided to convert a Brooklyn warehouse into a state-of-the-art performance space, their plans didn't stop with the blueprints.

by Margaret Eby Published Fall 2015
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Architects Stella Lee ’00CC, ’05GSAPP, Laura Trevino ’07GSAPP, and Peter Zuspan ’01CC, ’05GSAPP at National Sawdust. / Photographs by Winnie AuIf you ever walked past the artisinal groceries and flashy new high-rises on Wythe Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, you might not have noticed the National Sawdust building. Except for a growing graffiti mural and some sleek, rectangular windows sliced into the side, it doesn’t look like much. But inside the weathered, century-old brick exterior, where workers once produced kiln-dried hickory sawdust for smoking meats, lies a jewel of a space, the soon-to-open home of a nonprofit concert hall with a mission: to create a haven for promising musicians and composers in a neighborhood where space for artists is increasingly out of reach.

“We want it to be an oasis,” explains architect Peter Zuspan ’01CC, ’05GSAPP. Zuspan, along with Stella Lee ’00CC, ’05GSAPP and Laura Trevino ’07GSAPP, runs the Williamsburg-based architecture studio Bureau V, which has been working for the past seven years to design and construct National Sawdust. “We want it to be a place where something serious could happen, where really new music is heard for the first time. But we’re also hoping that the hundred-year-old building with [graffiti] tags all over it will undo a little of the formality of that.”

Studies for the stage.For Bureau V, the project is about far more than just blueprints and building specs — it’s the first embodiment of the young firm’s holistic philosophy, a way out of what Zuspan calls “the world of myopic architecture.” Zuspan, Lee, and Trevino are not only designing the space and overseeing its construction: they also signed the documents establishing the nonprofit and sit on its board. They’ve even had a hand in the programming — helping to host concerts while the building is still under construction.

“We’ve gotten way more involved than architects normally would,” Zuspan says. 

“The nonprofit and the building grew together,” agrees Trevino. “It’s unconventional in many ways, but being so involved in the development of the organization also changed the idea of how the space would work.”

Zuspan, who acts as Bureau V’s spokesman, moved to the neighborhood roughly a decade ago, when brick warehouses were the norm, rather than the glass behemoths that are now popping up on every corner. He has the lean, limber build and blue-steel gaze of a fashion model (he and his Bureau V partners were once in a Cole Haan ad). A bold, hexagonal tattoo (a rendering of the universe by utopian architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux) is visible through the buzzed hair on the back of his head.

Walking through the building five months before the hall’s planned opening, Zuspan points out some of the unusual design features — for example, the metal beams that crisscross the stage, creating a dazzling web of shadow and light. These make it hard to notice that the thirteen-thousand-square-foot venue is actually just one big room, modeled after an eighteenth-century chamber-music hall. “There’s no fly space, there are no wings, there’s no backstage, there are no trap-doors,” Zuspan explains.

This simplicity is what makes it so special. It’s a Swiss Army knife of a music venue, a space that can be used by musicians in many ways, from recording to performance to practice to experimentation. Working with a team of acoustic consultants from the engineering firm Arup, whose list of projects includes the Sydney Opera House and the Beijing National Stadium, Bureau V calibrated the room so that it can host a seventy-piece orchestra or an intimate duet. The brick walls are lined with panels made of perforated metal and fabric, which conceal AV equipment, an installation that is, in Zuspan’s words, “visually opaque but acoustically transparent.”

In order to minimize structure-borne noise, a necessity for making professional recordings, the team built the floor of the venue out of concrete blocks on springs, which absorb the building’s vibrations. There’s also an additional recording studio and a full-scale kitchen — allowing the venue to cater full dinners — and a two-story restaurant.

Aside from making the space more versatile, Zuspan hopes that the design will also improve the audience’s experience of the music. The chamber hall can accommodate up to 170 seated guests or 350 standing ones, and no one is ever more than seven or eight rows away from the performers. “Since this is just a room rather than a proscenium or a stage, there’s not that distance between you and the audience,” Zuspan says. “Breaking down that fourth wall and forging a connection between the performer and the audience is also one of the goals.”

Zuspan has been thinking about these issues for years: as both an undergraduate and graduate student, he studied music as well as architecture. His senior undergraduate thesis was on the work of Iannis Xenakis, an architect-engineer who was also a composer.

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