Brendan McGetrick
Recent works and current obsessions

ARTFARM

ARTFARM is the nickname given to New York’s most stylish storage shed. It is located on the country estate of a NY-based art dealer named Chris Mao, who commissioned it in 2006 from the Swiss firm HHF.

HHF’s design betrays nothing of the building’s contents from the outside. The facade is steel, matte silver and crenulated, evocative of the metallic accordion arms of a 1950s robot. There are almost no windows and this, in combination with its heavy industrial materials, gives the impression that ARTFARM is sheltering some highly valuable property (an alien corpse?) or project (the creation of a weapons-grade virus?).

The building sits silently on a clearing in the midst of forest, lake, and farmland and on the idyllic autumn day that I visited, the design’s emphasis on defense felt like a form of aggression. To ignore so rich a natural context seems to go against architectural impulses, but in the case of ARTFARM there are ambitions that extend beyond architecture. The building doubles as an art piece – as HHF’s project text puts it “an equal member of a whole group of sculptures which are spread out in the landscape” – and in many ways, ARTFARM is equally effective as either architecture or object; against a backdrop of rolling hills and hay bails, its presence is immediate and somehow touching, a lonely artifact of antiseptic modernism in a setting dominated by water, wood, and mud.

The building is a composite of three boxes joined by narrow connectors, reminiscent of a line of railway cars. The client Mao describes it as a supplement to his gallery in Manhattan, and ARTFARM performs many of the same functions. Each box serves one of the gallery’s fundamental needs – display, administration, and storage. Most visitors will enter into the display unit, an exhibition space featuring work by some of China’s leading contemporary artists, including Ai Weiwei, who shares an author credit on the project. As is required by international law, the walls of the gallery are constructed of white gypsum board.

Gypsum board lines the entire structure, but in the second unit it gently folds in to accommodate an office and a meeting room. From the chairs that frame the building’s primary meeting space in the gallery, the second unit appears as simply a corridor. With nothing to obstruct it, visitors receive an axial view from the exhibition space to the storage unit. It is rare (perhaps unheard-of) to find a gallery’s backstage revealed with such openness and pride. I asked the client if this was part of the building’s concept, but he explained that it was not and showed me a modest barricade system he’d erected to prevent visitors for wandering around the storage area during ARTFARM’s opening. It seemed to me a wasted opportunity, particularly for a gallery that will receive no walk-in visitors, but Mao explained that practicality trumps idealism when products of this sort of delicacy and value are involved. Protection is the first priority for all storage sheds, even those with funny names.

Originally published in Domus 920 (December 2008)