Sidewalk shed gets makeover

World-renowned architect Zaha Hadid created a white and silver fabric wrap (above) to hide the shed of a condominium project in New York.
World-renowned architect Zaha Hadid created a white and silver fabric wrap (above) to hide the shed of a condominium project in New York.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

New York looks at how to prettify sidewalk sheds that keep people safe from construction overhead

NEW YORK •Zaha Hadid has designed some of the most remarkable buildings of this generation.

Whether a striking factory for BMW, daring Olympic venues or museums in Rome, Glasgow and Cincinnati, the work of the Iraqi- born, London-based Hadid has brought her global renown and a Pritzker Prize, considered architecture's Nobel Prize.

Now she has tackled one of New York's most intractable building problems: the ubiquitous and unloved sidewalk shed.

Construction is under way on her first project in New York and with it comes the inevitable shed, as emblematic of the city's landscape as the Empire State Building - though the only souvenirs they produce are mysterious stains and ripped clothing.

The city is entombed in almost 320km of metal bars and plywood decking that protect pedestrians from falling debris and construction material. Even the High Line has them, in six spots, including Hadid's project.

Given its location, the developer of the 39-unit condominium project, Related Cos, sought to do something different and asked Hadid to create a special wrap to help hide the shed.

Mr Greg Gushee, a Related executive vice-president, said: "Zaha is an artist as much as an architect, so we thought it'd be interesting to see what she could do with our shed."

Equal parts civic gesture and promotional material, the shed is made of a taut swoop of diaphanous white and silver Serge Ferrari fabric. It resembles an oversized light reflector, such as those seen on movie and photo shoots that also block sidewalks across the city.

"It looks quite like a spaceship," tourist Karen Reinhard from Manchester, England, said. "It enfolds you and sort of creates a view and blocks the view at the same time." Exactly as Hadid intended it.

The architect said in an e-mail: "The fabric is distorted - it blends and stretches and creates its own world, while giving an interesting play of orthogonal versus amorphous structure. It creates a fluid four-dimensional world whilst the translucent fabric allows views to the city beyond."

Installed two weeks ago, her shed will come down when the project is finished in a few years. But this summer has also brought hope for a more permanent solution to this nuisance overhead.

The New York Building Congress, an advocacy group for some of the city's top contractors, engineers, architects and landlords, this summer held a design competition for a better sidewalk shed. The idea was to create something aesthetically pleasing, with improved retail visibility and sidewalk mobility, without sacrificing safety.

Mr Richard Anderson, president of the building congress, said: "These sheds are so pervasive, so many of them stay up for so long and they're horrible, by and large.

"If we, as an industry, can do something to make them even a little bit better, it could have a huge benefit throughout the city."

Submissions were due last week and more than 30 firms responded. Winners will be announced on Sept 25 and the building congress plans to create prototypes that will be installed on some of its members' buildings.

But many developers said little will change unless the city, through mandates or incentives, gets involved. Most building owners do not have the budget for a welldesigned shed, and given that the run-of-the-mill version does its job well, city officials have not considered shed-beautification a priority.

Mr Douglas Durst, a third-generation developer and a sponsor of the Building Congress competition, said: "Street sheds are obnoxious, albeit necessary, features of New York's sidewalks. A safe and economically viable alternative that will improve pedestrian flow and won't be dark, dank and drippy is desperately needed."

Arguably, more attractive sheds are most important during real estate downturns, not boom times, when stalled sites and their scaffolding can languish for years.

Without endorsing the building congress' competition explicitly, Mr Rick Chandler, the city's buildings commissioner, has expressed enthusiasm for it.

And who knows? Build a nice enough shed and people might be sorry to see it go.

"It wouldn't be so bad if they kept this one," Mr Martin Goodman, a Bronx-born California transplant, said while sitting on a bench beside Hadid's High Line shed. "It's quite pretty and I like the shade."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2015, with the headline 'Sidewalk shed gets makeover'. Print Edition | Subscribe