It's nestled by Hudson Yards, a shiny and pricey new smart neighborhood on Manhattan's once-blighted West Side, and this giant lurching structure is supposed to be malleable to any size or setup that a potential show might demand, whether it's Kendrick Lamar or New York Fashion Week. Next to four adjacent levels of gallery, theater and incubator space for artists is an extendable, puffy shell controlled by a crane-like system that drags six-foot wheels over steel rails. Push it out and you might have a heated concert hall; retract it fully and there's an outdoor plaza.
"It's anything that we could think of that anybody might want a building to be," said Elizabeth Diller, founding partner at Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the much-lauded lead architects that worked on The Shed in collaboration with Rockwell Group. "I think of it as all muscle, no fat... there's nothing extraneous about it."
The convertible system draws from the world of industrial machinery and shipping yards, which is where most moving architecture of this size exists. Kinetic elements have been applied to experimental buildings, sometimes responding to daylight or floating with rising tides. Modular interiors, meanwhile, have been used to save space in shoebox apartments.
Yet a moving cultural institution of this scale is likely the first of its kind, according to Dan Howarth, former US editor of architecture and design magazine Dezeen. "It's so low tech that it is high tech," he said. The Shed was explicitly inspired by Cedric Price's Fun Palace, an unrealized design from 1960s London, which was also an influence on Paris' Centre Pompidou. But, said Howarth, "no one's ever used that idea and turned it into a proper building."
The result has been called "gadget architecture." "a Toyota Prius engine moving a behemoth as finely-tuned as a Formula One car" and "an enormous tectonic foreskin," depending who you read.
The sliding shell is a novel trick, an architectural flex in more ways than one. But you don't need kinetic construction to host different types of art. Venues like the Tate Modern in London, a former power plant on the riverside, perform similar functions in cavernous surroundings, even if they're not as space-efficient or purpose-built for the arts.
Design, architecture and technology are not just functional, they shout a message. The Shed's arresting design is really an industrial-sized allegory for what it thinks the cultural temple of the future should be: infinitely flexible.
A key conflict when you're designing a building that's supposed to be on the bleeding edge of technological sophistication and artistic evolution is that it might take 11 years to make. How do you future-proof 200,000 square feet of steel, glass and concrete? The answer, according to Diller, was to create a permanently responsive building -- an "architecture of infrastructure."
"This idea really stems from those very original questions of what does flexibility mean and what are artists going to be doing in the next decade or two?" she said. "And the only reasonable answer was that nobody knew... you're building for an unknowable future."
Yet Diller says she did not want to merely create a vacuous shell to be filled later.
"Flexibility, most of the time, means generic: an open footprint, a big factory space, a big loft. And right from the beginning, I wanted to really challenge that by making an architecture that was highly specific, that was articulate, that was of its time, and that was something for artists to react to," she said. "It was the notion of flexibility with character."
"Flexibility, most of the time, means generic ... I wanted to really challenge that."
This is in some ways an ethos of architecture as technology -- a "product" or a "platform." It's a physical, presumably permanent manifestation of a culture of constant iteration.
Like technology, cultural institutions are in profound flux. Spectators don't just sit in proscenium-style theaters, they wander and "immerse" in interactive art forms that don't fit neatly into visual, audio or performance. The hierarchies between "high art" of the old masters and "popular entertainment" of a multicultural internet generation are dissolving. And the diversity of audiences who can potentially access the works of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) simply through their smartphones is unprecedented. Museums -- classically mere vehicles of acquisition, preservation and display -- are in the throes of rethinking their fundamental purpose in a digital age.
Any new institution has an opportunity to bake a new way of thinking about arts and technology into their organization from the start.
"They can't pretend that the old means and methods that you would apply when opening a museum in the 1900s or the 1800s make sense when you're opening a destination cultural institution now," said Keir Winesmith, the former director of digital experience at SFMOMA and a consultant to cultural institutions on technology. "In my opinion, those organizations have the most to offer if they take [technology] seriously but also, in a funny way, have the most to lose. They can appear and disappear -- they don't have the cultural relevance of 100 years."
While The Shed doesn't have a century of brand recognition, it has about half a billion other chips stacked in its favor.
The organization has raised and spent money heavily. It's pulled in $529 million to date, with Michael Bloomberg donating $75 million on top of the $75 million in city money he provided when he was mayor. The Shed expects to spend about $50 million in its first year, according to the New York Times.
Alex Poots, The Shed's top-rated artistic director and CEO, made just over $870,000 in 2017, according to the latest public tax returns filed by the nonprofit, in a town where compensation for heads of major arts centers can safely clear $1 million per year. (A spokesperson from The Shed declined to share Poots' current salary.) Yet his appointment was a coup for drawing star talent -- everyone from Björk to composer Arvo Pärt -- for the opening season.
"We have people who are sympathetic to technology on the board ... this is a major part of how The Shed's going to succeed."
The Shed also has the tech knowhow. Daniel L. Doctoroff, the CEO of Alphabet's smart city moonshot Sidewalk Labs, who has also been deputy mayor of New York and CEO of Bloomberg, is The Shed's chairman of the board. "These notions of connectivity, the notion of this place being a platform for the creation and enjoyment of art is a very different thing [from other arts institutions], and I think everyone would sing from that same hymnal," he told Engadget.
Ezra Wiesner, The Shed's chief technology officer, said: "We have people who are sympathetic to technology on the board, and understand that this is a major part of how The Shed's going to succeed, whereas in other legacy institutions you're making arguments about catching up all the time."
An arts center today could be many things. A rarefied pedestal that bestows legitimacy on whichever artists the public should supposedly be paying attention to. A secular sanctuary for introversion and inspiration. A quasi-educational facility that interprets culture, telling us what it means and why it matters. A real-life community spot -- or "third place" -- in a mediated world, smashing people from varied economic and cultural backgrounds into each other in an environment where they're open to new experiences.
At worst, it could be none of them: an elitist tourist magnet or a storehouse for works that are perceived as inaccessible, irrelevant or just dull.
At a moment when only 16 percent of the US population claims to have visited a cultural organization in the last two years, The Shed could be unburdened by the inertia of legacy prestige but in the same big leagues when it comes to financial and staffing firepower.
It is, in sum, an opportunity to articulate what the 21st-century cultural institution can be, at a time when its entire premise is up for grabs. If ever a building for the arts had the potential to be better -- more inclusive, more tech-forward, more plain interesting -- it's here. What could that even look like?
Video: How The Shed was made