Perched above the Gowanus Canal, a new art fabrication facility builds both physically and metaphorically upon the area’s long industrial history. A sulfur works and paper mill stood on the site as early as 1886, succeeded by a mammoth red brick central power station for the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company. Operations in its adjacent turbine hall and boiler house began in 1904. Inside, some 200 workers manned 32 coal-fed boilers, eight engines and eight generators to deliver electricity to the borough’s elevated trains and streetcars, which moved more than 1 million people daily. The facility later became an electrical substation for the Fourth Avenue subway line, and the boiler house was torn down. The city decommissioned the plant in the early 1970s, and used it, for a while, for incinerating cardboard. In disrepair at the new millennium, the turbine hall was occupied by a community of young runaways. In the building’s “Batcave” days, they hosted raves and turned the walls into an exemplary display of graffiti art, attracting camera-toting “urban explorers,” and eventually, less community-minded squatters. With its iconic tagged pediment, or what was left of it, the ruin tracked both the Gowanus area’s deindustrialization and its arts-and-culture reincarnation.
The area’s emerging appeal explains the 2004 purchase of the site from the city by a developer who was, in the words of a New York Times journalist, “helping expand what New Yorkers think of as livable neighborhoods.” But plans for a 400-unit “Gowanus Village” fell apart in the wake of the 2008 real estate crash, the developer’s sundry legal troubles, and after engineers completed a third environmental investigation of the site and drafted a plan to remediate the property for residential use. That work finally began after an eccentric millionaire impulsively picked up the two-and-a-half acres with a vision of canalside artist housing and studios. The project eventually became the non-profit institution Powerhouse Arts, where a team of skilled fabricators presently produces ceramics, print editions, and large-scale public art commissions for New York City’s art industry.
The four-year-long process to clean up the site reflects its extensive toxicity and the surprises of industrial archaeology. Lead, mercury, and other heavy metals, petroleum and its byproducts, volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds (VOCs and SVOCs) and toxic PCBs from the power plant’s operations all seeped into the soil and groundwater. Flooding also soaked the site in abundant contaminants from the Gowanus Canal, which has received and redistributed the entire industrial district’s effluent for more than 150 years. Contractors cleared woody vegetation, piled-up concrete, construction debris, and countless tires. They dug up 20-foot-deep hotspots of soil and fill with toxic concentrations of PCBs. In the process, they encountered buried tunnels and gatewells that once brought coal and circulated canal water to the powerhouse. Saturated with and surrounded by contaminated soil and water, the new discoveries required adjustments to the cleanup plan, and new consultants to carry them out in coordination with state and federal environmental authorities.
By the time the work was officially deemed complete in early 2018, contractors had carted away almost 30,000 tons of contaminated soil. They extracted more than 700,000 gallons of contaminated groundwater and 4,700 gallons of free floating, PCB-contaminated petroleum products. They sent waste products from the cleanup to 14 different disposal facilities from New Jersey to Utah. They drained and excavated hot spots, tunnels, and gatewells, then filled them with crushed stone and recycled concrete aggregate. The rest of the soil and historic fill, still containing the residues of human activity, stayed put, with an orange geotextile laid on top to mark the boundary between old and new, dirty and clean materials. Above, two feet of clean soil, imported from New Jersey, is capped in turn with more stone or crushed concrete. A layer of asphalt crowns the Powerhouse’s work yard, while six inches of clay provide a foundation for a public waterfront walkway designed by Ken Smith Workshop to recall the site’s industrial texture. Inside the turbine hall, workers (currently numbering some 25) are protected from the contaminated soil beneath the building by the original thirteen-foot concrete foundation. In any case, and because PCBs were found to have permeated the basement’s concrete, the subterranean level is reserved for parking, and for good measure, the floor was coated with a vapor barrier and capped with a new protective concrete slab. All in all, “site preparation” cost almost $17.9 million (with 20 percent granted back as New York State tax credits).
Herzog and de Meuron have described their architectural project for the new Powerhouse as the transformation of “an existing, derelict structure on a contaminated site into a center for artists, fabricators and other workers,” ensuring “that the industrial legacy of the site will extend into the next century.” More than an esthetic reference, the industrial past physically dictated the architects’ reconstruction of the turbine hall and boiler house. The original building’s solid foundations and elevation protect not only from flooding but from the toxic residues below ground. After a costly, yet partial, cleanup, the footprint of the demolished boiler house proved to be the only viable location on which to build a new workshop space. Instead of digging into or building on top of the site’s complex contaminated patchwork, architects loaded a new building on the exhumed concrete foundation. Mechanical towers including ventilation for wood and metal shops, print, textile, and ceramic studios conjure the original structure’s two smokestacks; the red concrete exterior matches its neighbor’s brick. The turbine hall preserves graffiti outside and in, where it houses large-scale metal fabrication, offices, and a double-height flexible space that might host exhibitions or public programs, and be rented out for the gala events that are a crucial element in New York City’s “creative economy.”
High-end residential buildings are rapidly filling in the Powerhouse’s surroundings, even as the Gowanus Canal’s cleanup will take at least another decade. To manage rapid redevelopment in this highly toxic environment, the neighborhood’s recent rezoning seeks to preserve a “Gowanus mix” of arts and industrial land uses alongside new housing. The marriage of the area’s industrial heritage and artistic cachet is at the heart of its desirability and attempts to reconcile the footprints of powerful industries of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.