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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Stage under construction.“One of the great things about Columbia’s undergraduate architecture program is that you’re getting kids that approach architecture in this very liberal-arts way,” says Zuspan, who also teaches at Columbia part-time. “You watch these students bring what they’re learning in other classes into their studies. So you’ll have someone taking political philosophy and then translating those ideas into the form of a building.”

Though they both attended Columbia College, Zuspan and Lee didn’t meet until their first year of graduate school. During their final semester at GSAPP, they worked on a project for architecture professor Hani Rashid reimagining the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan as a museum of cinema special effects; both Lee and Trevino would go on to work for Rashid’s architecture firm, Asymptote, after graduation.

In 2007, after spearheading several international projects with Asymptote and leading the design of the Alessi flagship store in SoHo, Lee was ready to go out on her own. She convinced Zuspan, who was working as a designer at Diller Scofidio + Renfro and as an adjunct professor at Columbia and Barnard’s undergraduate architecture program, to cofound a studio with her and Alexander Pincus ’05GSAPP. Pincus left shortly thereafter to establish his own studio. Trevino, who graduated from GSAPP two years after Zuspan and Lee and who had worked with Lee at Asymptote, joined Bureau V in 2011.

Though all three principals were educated at Columbia, Lee was also conscious of their differences. Trevino had worked as a consultant for an urban-planning agency in her native Mexico and independently designed buildings there and in Asia. “We’re culturally very different,” Lee says, “which is occasionally a source of friction but also really enriching for our studio.”

Rendering of the finished stage. / Courtesy of Bureau V

Initially, the firm had to think creatively to find projects. “When you’re starting out, it’s tricky,” Zuspan says. “Our first projects were definitely self-initiated, not commissions. In the beginning you have to build a portfolio with these smaller ideas.” The architects collaborated with American fashion designer Mary Ping to make a pop-up installation for her conceptual label Slow and Steady Wins the Race. They also worked with musicians Arto Lindsay and Micah Gaugh on performance pieces.

Still, they wanted to land something bigger. In 2008, they were introduced to former tax attorney and current composer and classical-organ enthusiast Kevin Dolan, who wanted to create a venue that would protect some of the creative spirit of Williamsburg from the ravenous realities of real-estate interests. With Zuspan’s musical background and the studio’s commitment to the neighborhood, it seemed like the perfect fit. Before space was even secured, they began drawing up plans.

“We had a three-dimensional model of the place, not knowing where it would go. My partner and I were walking around the neighborhood looking for properties,” Zuspan says. “At the time, I lived on North 8th [two streets away], so I immediately saw the sign for this space when it went up.”

Dolan acquired the space for $2.3 million in 2009. By the time the building conversion is complete, it will have cost a total of sixteen million dollars. Dolan put up eight million dollars for the space, and the rest has been raised by investors and donations, including $105,165 from a Kickstarter campaign. 

Building anything in Williamsburg in 2015 necessarily raises questions about who is being pushed out to make way for this new construction — questions to which Bureau V and the nonprofit are sensitive. Part of the reason they chose to preserve National Sawdust’s historic brick shell — which was costlier than razing it and building from scratch — was in reaction to the soaring new condo buildings everywhere. “There’s a little bit of defiant preservation happening there,” Zuspan says. “I do think there’s a positive aspect to maintaining something old in this neighborhood,”

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