Westbeth Artist Housing

55 Bethune Street, New York, NY

Team: Idara Akai + Jeesoo Park

Parsons MFAID Studio. Spring 2020.

The Westbeth Artist Housing complex was founded in 1970 at 55 Bethune Street in Manhattan’s West Village as a safe and affordable haven for artists of all kinds. The original Bell Labs conversion was not only one of the first examples of adaptive re-use, but was also Richard Meier’s first foray into architecture. His influence is still strong throughout this iconic community, despite serious needs for renovations after decades of disrepair. Hurricane Sandy hit hard, causing massive flooding and devastation that has yet to be remedied. While this site was originally renovated to serve as the first artist's live/work space in New York City, today Westbeth is the now the last of its kind still standing in Manhattan. The massive 8 building complex spans an entire city block and is vital to the hundreds of residents, commercial tenants, employees, and community members who walk these halls every day.

 

Guided by our objectives of connection, circulation, and accessibility, this project focused on the physical and mental re-joining of community and space through interventions of new program that aim to energize underutilized areas to help achieve Westbeth's original mission– to provide safe and affordable spaces for artists to live, work, and play.

We focused our efforts towards the main interior circulation space, as this was a vital issue for each group of community members. We worked to solve issues of safety, flow, ADA compliance, community connection, and physical access through energizing underutilized spaces. 

Selection of Project Renders

Images demonstrate newly introduced moments like: entry points, hallways, views, gathering spaces, and galleries. Model and renders created with Rhino, Vray, and Illustrator.

9 West View copy
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11 West View copy
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10 West View copy
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4 Lobby View copy
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2 Lobby View copy
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3 Lobby View copy
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7 South View copy
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8 South View copy
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6 East View copy
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5 East View copy
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12 Basment Ramp View copy
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1 Hallway View copy
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Bench copy
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West panel copy
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signage2 copy
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Location

The eight building complex known as Westbeth takes up an entire city block and comprises a variety of residential, commercial, and educational spaces. With two world renowned dance studios and an entire section devoted to The New School. 

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Exterior

Each section has a unique feel and history, one of which has a hole removed through its center for original High Line rail way. While part of the same community, many of these structures still have no interior access to the others. Sometimes forcing residents and visitors to leave the building entirely to access a neighboring unit. 

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Current Condition

This history and lack of uniformity creates a complex set of challenges, particularly for people dealing with level changes and other non-ADA compliant features. A maze of long, stark hallways compounds difficulties for both newcomers and the aging population alike. 

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Problem

The Combination of Hurricane Sandy, aging infrastructures, aging populations, and the financial strain of maintaining this massive site as a non-profit in New York City has resulted in an increasingly urgent need for renovations and repairs. Not only is safety of all community members crucial, but maintaining a variety of available work space is at the core of Wesbeth’s mission. As a result of the love and dedication residents have to this community, the majority of the current tenants moved in the 1970s and never left. This aging population has very different needs than originally provided for. Accessibility is a growing problem in Westbeth. Not only are physical improvements needed, but also a revitalization of the connection and access to the arts and to the process of production.

Process

My team began this project with contextual and historical research that included a series of interviews with residents, commercial tenants, staff members, and neighboring community members. In conjunction with extensive site visits and analysis, our aim was to learn more from those who actually interact with this site on a regular basis to learn from a variety of perspectives what elements work and don’t work for their needs. We began a collaborative process of design interventions based on our research and conversations, which focused heavily on iterative proposals as a result of continued feedback from and connections with community members. 

Ground Floor Plan

55 Bethune Street, New York, NY

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Spatial Inversion + Use Analysis

Example: Main Lobby

In conjunction with interviews and research, a series of explorations into space usage was conducted. Inspired by Suzie Attiwill, spatial inversion helped reveal patterns between positive/negative which begins to show what and how people 'connect.'

To see the context of the spaces we aimed to reconnect, this plan view of spatial typologies shows not only improved interior/exterior flow, but also improved access to community spaces like the Theater; to learning and educational spaces; to residential and commercial area; areas for art display; stairways and elevators; and for improved lobby organization, access, and circulation.

Spatial Analysis

Existing Circulation +

Proposed Intervention 

The existing interior circulation does not adequately connect the physical spaces within the Westbeth community, and has not accounted for the increasing need for ADA features required by an aging population.

Existing Circulation
Proposed Intervention

Proposed Interior Circulation +

Isolated Interior Circulation 

The proposed ground level changes captures unused and underused areas to not only create physical connection, but to also further the connection between the residents and the act of making through increased display and educational space. 

Proposed Circulation
Isolated Interior Circulation After Interventions

Rendered Interior Circulation +

Highlighted Anchor Lobbies

The residents recently voted to restore Meier's iconic red tile ceiling in the original lobby, these recognizable features are an important part of life at Westbeth. The proposed plan keeps this red lobby intact, while introducing three new color coded areas. These anchors serve as entry points and gallery spaces. 

 

The distinct coloring allows for improved way-finding,  Getting lost in the maze of white hallways is a common complaint among both the aging population and newcomers. 

Highlighted Anchors
Rendered Circulation

Interventions

55 Bethune Street, New York, NY

One of the biggest issues that continued to be apparent in this research was the lack of connectivity and accessibility. The 8 separate buildings in the complex often did not have interior circulation, but rather forced all visitors and residents to traverse winding, sterile sets of hallways to the limited exterior doorways, down several flights of uneven and not to code stairs, and into another maze with limit spatial recognition or signage to help orient or guide. This physical disconnect was heightened by the lack of ADA compliance in a community with an average age over 70 years. 


As part of this connection, we also aimed to improve visual and physical accessibility to the making and display of art. This included gallery space for display, lobby space for activity and discussion, physical access to centers of production, and visual access through windows that allow people to see into the open making space in the basement while also increasing visual connection and orientation within the interior circulation. 

New Hallway Scene

Video: Introduction to Westbeth

55 Bethune Street, New York, NY

Our team was tasked with creating a video to introduce reviewers both to the site itself, but also to the locations and themes of our classmates projects. 

PDF: Westbeth Wayfinding

55 Bethune Street, New York, NY

This PDF served as a way finding tool through the studio's presentations, to serve as a map of the building and the locations of our classmate's projects within.

Video: Final Presentation

55 Bethune Street, New York, NY

This video is the final presentation by this group, the first project of the size completed in the early stages of the pandemic. This work would have looked very different in a world without COVID-19, however we were lucky to have already conducted many interviews and site visits before ending up in distant countries and time zones. 

PDF: Presentation Wayfinding

55 Bethune Street, New York, NY

The accompanying Pdf allowed viewers and critics to have information and renders accessible to them through the presentation that they would normally have in a pre-pandemic world. We hoped this would allow a clearer understanding of our project, and provide some agency to viewers.