About 20 minutes into a ferry ride up the East River on an overcast Thursday afternoon, a luminous white mass appeared along the western shore of Randall’s Island. Up close it looks like a catering tent stretched to the length of three football fields. But inside, the home of the first New York edition of the Frieze Art Fair is an airy and comfortable if sprawling exhibition space.
Brooklyn firm Solid Objectives – Idenburg Liu (SO – IL) designed the temporary structure to house exhibition booths for a global roster of 180 galleries offering work to collectors during the fair’s four-day run, May 4-7. Rather than a single tent, the volume is actually comprised of six. Principals Florian Idenburg and Jing Liu sourced the largest tents available from a New Jersey-based rental company, but instead of placing them in a line, they angled the components away from one another at the corners to create an s-curve along the riverbank. While the rectangular segments are covered in translucent white material to protect the art on offer from the sun, SO – IL enclosed the wedge-shaped spaces between them in transparent material, opening views out to the river. They then placed a café, lounges, and other social spaces in these interstitial spaces. The entire 250,000-square-foot structure reportedly cost $1.5 million to erect and will be taken down when Frieze closes.
It’s a simple design, but it does a lot to break up the typical art-fair monotony, let in some daylight, and connect the event to its place. The project also exemplifies the value of hiring architects to think through the design and planning of art fairs, a trend that has grown in recent years. Two concurrent fairs in New York this weekend are also working with designers. The multi-talented firm Common Room has outfitted the former Dia space on 22nd Street in Chelsea for the first New York City edition of the NADA(New Art Dealers Alliance) fair, and the Pulse fair enlisted Lead Pencil Studios—alums of the Architectural League of New York’s Emerging Voices program—to create an installation for its fair at the Metropolitan Pavilion on 18th Street.
Frieze has been on the vanguard of working with designers. The first outing of its 10-year-old London edition was designed by David Adjaye, and the fair has continued to work with emerging firms to set up shop in Regent’s Park every October. Beyond creating inviting exhibition spaces, SO – IL’s New York structure also has an appealing strangeness as it looms on the water. Reaching Randalls Island—in the middle of the East River where Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx converge—requires fighting traffic in a taxi (or for fair VIPs, a BMW complete with driver and commissioned audio installation) or taking some combination of train, ferry, and bus. A trip up there—like the first stateside edition of the British fair—feels like an unusual event, a sense heightened by seeing SO – IL’s snaking encampment stretching along the riverbank.
SO — IL raised the tent off of the ground to accomodate heating, cooling, and electrical systems. While the firm opened views to the river to the west, they positioned restroom and mechanical facilities behind the struture to the east.
The view from a departing ferry shows the illuminated Frieze tent snaking along the edge of Randall's Island.