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Inside the architecture of Frieze New York

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How do you design a temporary town for 40,000 people?

Frieze New York has a new home designed by the London-based architecture firm Universal Design Studio.
Raimund Koch

An estimated 40,000 collectors, gallerists, and art connoisseurs will visit Frieze New York—the annual contemporary art fair on Randall’s Island—to scope the latest offerings from contemporary art galleries all around the world. But one of the most remarkable things to see isn’t a painting, sculpture, or photograph; it’s the architecture of the enormous tent housing the works of art.

This year, the London-based architecture and interiors firm Universal Design Studio (UDS) redesigned Frieze’s visitor experience to help the space better meet the needs of the exhibitors and fairgoers. The main challenges? Making a massive fair feel more like an intimate gallery, encouraging exploration, and establishing navigability. While the temporary tent is only open for five days, UDS incorporated a number of savvy details that are at the forefront of architecture and urban design.

“It’s almost like designing a temporary town,” Richard McConkey, associate director of Universal Design Studio, says of the task at hand. Here’s how they did it.

Inside, the space is laid out like a street grid.
Raimund Koch

1. Embrace the grid.

The original layout for Frieze by the New York firm SO-IL was serpentine—visitors entered on one end and snaked their way through the long, cavernous space until they reached the other end.

Instead of this linear approach, UDS broke up the space into five smaller pavilions within the tent’s larger footprint, which is about the same area as five football fields. There’s a short passageway between each pavilion, which breaks up the space, helps fairgoers pace themselves, an encourages discovery.

“We tried to make circuits,” McConkey says.

The walkways within the tent are laid out like a street grid, with avenues stretching the length of the fair and roads coming off of them. The most prominent galleries occupy the intersections with the most foot traffic (and cost the most to rent). This layout helps fairgoers orient themselves and find the major galleries they’re looking for while also giving them the opportunity to explore the nearly 200 galleries represented at the fair.

Responding to the business needs of the gallerists, Frieze incorporated more restaurant space for meetings.
Raimund Koch

2. Give people a break.

New museums like the Whitney, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the National Museum of African-American History and Culture include special fatigue-busting spaces where visitors can take a break from seeing all the artwork; think outdoor terraces, seating areas with views outside, and cafes placed on the upper floors. A similar principle is at play in UDS’s design.

This year’s edition of Frieze New York includes 50 percent more outdoor space like terraces and restaurants. There are also more sit-down restaurants and bars, which also responded to the gallerists’ desire to have more informal meeting space to conduct lunch meetings with clients. UDS placed these destination venues in the corners of each pavilion, which also promotes exploration.

UDS oriented the structure so that it could take advantage of natural light. The north-facing gables are covered in transparent material to let indirect light in.
Raimund Koch

3. Let there be natural light.

UDS designed the tent to take advantage of natural light while also protecting the artworks inside from it. Most of the tent is covered in an opaque white scrim made from cotton and polyester; however, UDS created clerestory windows from ETFE (an architectural plastic) on the north side of the roofline that allow indirect light in—a move that helps the space feel more enjoyable and less like a cave.

The tent is located closer to the shoreline this year.
Raimund Koch

4. Engage the waterfront.

New York City has ushered in a waterfront renaissance over the past two decades and is transforming its industrial shorelines into accessible spaces for recreation and transportation. With the new tent design, Frieze is doing the same. UDS situated it closer to the waterfront so fairgoers can enjoy the scenic vista.

The structure is composed of modular prefabricated components.
Raimund Koch

5. Prefab or bust.

Modular prefabricated components measuring 50 x 12 x 5 meters comprise the UDS-designed tent’s skeleton—a move that sped construction time and also helps with sustainability. It took about five weeks to assemble the structure and it will take an estimated three weeks to demount it. An American company called Arena owns the structural components and rents them to Frieze. When the fair is over, the tent will be disassembled and the parts will be reused again.

“It’s a lot like LEGO,” McConkey says.

Frieze New York happens through May 6 on Randall’s Island. Visit frieze.com for more information about getting there (it’s accessible by ferry, bus, and car) and admission.

Randall's Island

1 Randalls Is, New York, NY 10035 Visit Website