A 21m-high chunk of salt

Made of concrete, the Spring Street Salt Shed (above) is nearing completion.
Made of concrete, the Spring Street Salt Shed (above) is nearing completion. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Upcoming building in Manhattan resembles what it is meant to store

NEW YORK • Imagine a coarse chunk of grey salt 21m high.

The US$20-million (S$28.5-million) Spring Street Salt Shed, nearing completion on the Manhattan waterfront, has drawn curious stares from passers-by. Folded, creased, dimpled and chamfered, its windowless, enigmatic facade is like a monumental work of origami.

But once you know what it is - a concrete shed where 5,000 tonnes of de-icing salt for the roads of lower Manhattan will be stored this winter - you will have a hard time getting the image of a giant salt grain out of your mind.

"In some ways, it's the simplest building I've ever designed and, in some ways, it's the most complicated," said Mr Richard Dattner, 78, who founded Dattner Architects 51 years ago. Among his firm's latest projects is the extension of the No. 7 subway line to the 34th Street- Hudson Yards station.

The complexities begin with politics because the shed is associated with the enormous - and enormously unpopular - Department of Sanitation garage across Spring Street.

The new salt shed is replacing one on the Gansevoort Peninsula. It is one of 40 around the city. In 2010, Community Board 2 noted neighbours' concerns about salt dust and calcium chloride on the site.

That was not the only complication. Because the new shed sits above the Holland Tunnel, the caissons supporting it had to be inserted with great care.

But aesthetics also claimed attention from Ms Amanda M. Burden, the city planning director in the Bloomberg administration, and Mr James Stewart Polshek, a noted architect and a member of the Public Design Commission, which reviews art and architecture on city property.

He was not satisfied with Mr Dattner's design when it first came to the commission. "I sat there and Googled 'salt crystals'," Mr Polshek recalled. "That was the direction to take: a faceted building."

Both architects described a relationship that turned into a kind of collaboration. "Mr Polshek gave me two years of personal, intensive grief over this project," Mr Dattner said. "But he really raised the bar of what we were able to accomplish."

The project won a municipal design award in 2010. "It is in the great tradition of these necessary utilitarian buildings being done in a very appropriate and beautiful way," said Mr Tobi Bergman, chairman of Community Board 2.

It may even be the most important change to the public face of the sanitation agency since its fleet was painted white in 1967, said Mr Rick Bell, executive director of the design and construction excellence programme in the Department of Design and Construction. Not bad for what is, essentially, a box with a door 10m high and 7.6m wide.

Mr Dattner used a computer to model the shed. The dimpled facets, such as concave pyramids, were easily manipulated and turned into small plastic models.

The computer data was then used by the general contractor, Oliveira Contracting, to create the full-scale formwork into which the concrete was cast on site in 2.4m by 7.3m sections, between March and August. These moulds were made of polystyrene up to 1.8m thick.

The formwork was then stripped away, revealing a lustrous concrete surface that was glacially blue. That hue comes from slag in the mix and will fade over time as the concrete grows whiter.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 26, 2015, with the headline 'A 21m-high chunk of salt'. Print Edition | Subscribe