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Architect Imagines Art and Tech Museum in Roosevelt Island's Power Plant

By Amy Zimmer | September 24, 2012 8:26am

MANHATTAN — As Roosevelt Islanders wonder what the future holds for the aging — but still active — power plant whose two giant smokestacks rise up behind the tramway station, one resident already has ambitious dreams for its second life.

Architect Tad Sudol wants to turn the industrial building into a museum, in the same vein as the wildly popular Tate Modern in London, which transformed a power plant into a contemporary art hub.

The plant, which was partly built in the 1930s and finished in the 1950s, provides the energy for Coler Hospital, on the island’s northern end, and Goldwater Hospital, the sprawling 10-acre complex on the southern end soon to be replaced by a $2 billion eco-friendly state-of-the-art campus for Cornell NYC Tech.

Island officials have not announced plans to close the power plant, but Sudol has begun to share his vision of a Museum of Technology, Art and Science — or MOTAAS — in a show at the Gallery RIVAA, Roosevelt Island Artists Association, at 527 Main St., running through Oct. 14.

"It’s not going to close imminently.... But I can try to plant the seeds now with the people making the decisions,” said Sudol, who has lived on Roosevelt Island for 21 years.

The RIVAA exhibit includes a depiction of Sudol's vision for the potential use of the plant, along with images of the mechanical insides of the structure. 

Sudol has also led some of his future neighbors on a tour of the plant, including Cathy Dove, vice president of Cornell NYC Tech.

"One of the reasons we were so drawn to Roosevelt Island is the entrepreneurial spirit that exists here, and Tad's vision is one of the many exciting ideas that Islanders are pursuing,” Dove said in an email.

“It certainly seems like an ambitious project to transform that space from its current use,” she added, “but New Yorkers are known for successfully undertaking massive projects when there is great passion and broad-based support."

Sudol said the plant would be much better as a museum.

“The technology is outdated.  An enormous amount of oil is burned there every day," he said.

But as a museum, the four-story structure, with light streaming in from a giant skylight, “is big enough, but not overwhelming like the Tate," he said. "The elements of the machines and technology would be left in place. I’m trying to do the opposite of the Tate in this sense by keeping the old technology while showing the new technology.”

He wants to celebrate the beauty of the machinery and expose the “harsh world” of it while also highlighting new and more efficient modes, many of which have been pioneered on the island, Sudol explained.

When Roosevelt Island was built in the 1970s, for example, a complex system of underground pneumatic tubes was created to whisk trash away rather than have garbage trucks clutter up the streets.  Also, innovative underwater turbines in the East River boost renewable energy goals.

Sudol expects many more cutting-edge technologies to be developed on the island with the arrival of Cornell.

The combination of technology, art and science would be great for students and engineers, said Sudol, who would also stage dance and other performances in the space.

“They can’t think only in terms of physics and mathematics," he said.

Officials from the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, which oversees island operations, said it was too early to comment on Sudol’s idea since the facility was still being used.

Sudol admitted that he did not know how much such a renovation project would cost of where the money would come from.

“Of course, there’s a question of who would pay for it, but first you have to have an idea,” he said.

“Everything costs money. But all of these problems could be solved. You are not building something new," he noted.

Sudol wants to inspire Islanders to look at the old power plant in a new way.

“We are starting with something that exists but it can start to open our imagination," he said. "There is a soul in this building and many examples around the world of how industrial buildings can be transformed into something more than art studios or apartments while keeping the machinery in the building.”