Their work has been transformative and widely celebrated, as when they turned a former power station into the acclaimed Tate Modern in London in 2000.
So why would the prizewinning Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron take on the Park Avenue Armory, a project that is more restoration than renovation, more fixer-upper than fresh take?
Wouldn’t their sense of creative license be inhibited by the wood-paneled period rooms originally designed by the likes of Louis Comfort Tiffany and Stanford White? Wouldn’t they yearn to break free of the building’s 19th-century confines by inserting their own contemporary vision?
On the contrary, Mr. Herzog said in a recent interview, the armory presented a compelling architectural challenge. Rather than transform it, he said, the architects would use the building to explore the very act of transformation, the evolution of an important structure as it is seen and used and worn down by one generation after another.
“What is time?” Mr. Herzog said. “What is history? What are the materials? These things are involved in such a project.
“We wanted time and the layers of the time to be visible,” he continued. “It’s not so perfect.”
As a result, the design for the new armory — unveiled on Wednesday — represents not so much an act of creation but a process of excavation: peeling back the layers of paint, plaster and wallpaper that have built up since the building was completed in 1881; burnishing the chandeliers; and in some cases adding new fixtures and other elements like copper chain-link curtains to reduce the glare.
Built as a military site and social club by New York State’s Seventh Regiment of the National Guard — the first volunteer militia to respond to Lincoln’s call for troops in 1861 — the armory has been best known as home to the Winter Antiques Show. The building became a cultural center in 2007, when the nonprofit Seventh Regiment Armory Conservancy formally acquired it from the state under a 99-year lease.
The conservancy has used the building’s cavernous Drill Hall to advantage in its programming, which has included Royal Shakespeare Company performances on a replica of the company’s stage and art installations like Christian Boltanski’s “No Man’s Land,” featuring a crane and a mound of salvaged clothing. In addition the building houses a homeless shelter, which will remain. The $200-million restoration is expected to be completed by 2015.
“You can’t say the building is this and only this,” Mr. Herzog said. “So many lives and ideas have been expressed there.
“If you renovate, where do you go back to? There is no particular point in history. History is a process. We believe every time and every contribution has its importance, versus something that freezes one moment in time.”
In some places the architects have left evidence of what came before even as the rooms — two of which have been completed — clearly have been renewed. “If we could get to the original layer, we always went there,” said Ascan Mergenthaler, a senior partner at the architecture firm. “We left traces and some interventions we couldn’t remove. It’s really this meticulous surgery.”
Rather than large architectural flourishes the project has been distinguished by painstaking detail: researching the extensive photographs and documentation about the building, sending paint samples to a lab in Washington for analysis. One room alone was cleaned with 280,000 Q-tips.
“They have worked at the most exquisite level of detail,” said Rebecca Robertson, the armory’s president and executive producer. “Every move is small and subtle, but there are so many of them.”
The architects have become known for transforming existing structures, though they also have designed many new buildings, like the expanded Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, N.Y.
“The way we understand architecture is not just doing one new building after another, but investigating the role of architecture today,” Mr. Herzog said. “To deal with existing buildings is an interesting challenge. What has ultimately been described as presentation is much more complex: how to deal with something that is here.”
In addition to the 18 period rooms at the armory, the architects have applied their understated approach to the building’s signature Drill Hall, a 55,000-square-foot airplane hangar of a space. There will be no drastic, visible changes. Instead, the architects are shoring up the infrastructure, installing production equipment and stabilizing balconies for seating, cables, exhibitions and circulation.
“The emptiness is the great potential and also the flexibility this emptiness offers,” Mr. Herzog said. “Any intervention would not be necessary. We don’t want to turn this into a ridiculous version of itself.”
The space will remain unobstructed, so that artists can define it. “The relation of the audience members to the art can be anything it wants,” Ms. Robertson said. “You can be walking through the art, you can be looking down on the art.”
Over all the armory retains its aura of frayed grandeur, a quality the architects strived to maintain, even as they refreshed the building that had suffered from water damage and years of neglect. “All the scars are visible,” Mr. Mergenthaler said, “but they don’t dominate.”
That’s how the armory’s administration wanted it. “Part of the mandate to them was: We didn’t want to lose the soul of the building,” Ms. Robertson said.
The architects recognize that the armory as an exhibition space is a far cry from conventional “white cube” galleries, or what Mr. Herzog called “egocentric, architecturally driven museums.” But he said the spaces are likely to inspire artists, not limit them. “Artists have increasingly started to like strange places to put their art,” he said. “The specific conditions are unique and interesting and every artist is challenged to put his paintings or performances in such historic conditions.”
The project remains very much a work in progress. Still unresolved are questions like whether to keep the entrance staircase wood dark or to restore its original honey-color glow. “I’m undecided, I must say,” Mr. Herzog said. “We don’t have the answers yet for every corner.”