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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“We’re bringing an amenity to the neighborhood,” he adds, “and that could allow property values to go up a little more. But part of our model, too, is to create audiences and then channel all those ticket and liquor sales into supporting young artists. We’re trying to make a new space smartly, and do it with some degree of awareness. And to have it be something that people don’t want to tear down immediately.”

“We're trying to make a new space smartly, and do it with some degree of awareness.”

The creative director of National Sawdust is Paola Prestini, a noted multimedia artist and composer, who has put the weight of her classical connections behind the project. National Sawdust will host three concerts in the New York Philharmonic’s contemporary Contact! series, and is working with Carnegie Hall to host some of their young-artist initiatives. Its advisory board includes such musical heavyweights as Suzanne Vega ’81BC, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson ’69BC, ’72SOA, and Nico Muhly ’03CC.

Certainly, National Sawdust will be able to draw some of its audience from those who might regularly visit the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Lincoln Center. But the space’s lineup is more eclectic than that of either of those two arts staples. The list of program curators announced for the space include soul singer Martha Redbone, steel-pan composer Andy Akiho, puppeteer-musician team Julian Crouch and Saskia Lane, and electronic composer R. Luke DuBois ’97CC, ’03GSAS. There will also be twelve artists-in-residence and four composers-in-residence that will cycle in on an annual or biannual basis.

National Sawdust building, summer 2015. / Courtesy of Bureau V

Though the space has yet to open, the nonprofit has already staged several successful shows there, at different stages of the building’s evolution. In September 2012, National Sawdust hosted a concert called “Skyful,” which ended with butterfly-shaped kites drifting up through the then-roofless building; New York magazine critic Justin Davidson ’90GSAS, ’94SOA included it on his list of top ten classical concerts of the year.

Watch video of “Skyful” concert at National Sawdust.

While public excitement for National Sawdust’s opening builds, Bureau V has been working on several smaller projects that also exceed the traditional bounds of their discipline. The team collaborated with outside designers on the execution of certain details of the interior of National Sawdust, like a marble-and-neon chandelier that will hang in the entrance. In 2013, they also designed a capsule menswear collection. And they recently submitted plans to a design contest sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art for converting two concrete artillery shelters in Fort Tilden, Queens, into a contemporary-art museum.

“We’re trying to get our hands dirty doing a lot of things,” Zuspan says. “The historic model of the architect was a polymath ... If you look at the writings of the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius and other classical sources, architecture is the mother of the arts. You have to dabble in all these different fields in order to know what’s going on.”

After the completion of National Sawdust, Bureau V has plans to start on a furniture collection. It will also begin work on the residential building next to National Sawdust that Dolan owns. In future, there is talk of designing a single-family home, or maybe an opera set. But for now, the team is preparing for National Sawdust’s October opening. “It’s pretty much a dream project,” Zuspan says. “We feel so lucky to have been able to be a part of it. We’re excited to see how people use the space in ways we haven’t even imagined.”


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