Meet James Seger, PBDW Architects
On May 18, the 2023 Open City Benefit will bring together hundreds of New Yorkers for a festive evening at Powerhouse Arts—a 117-year-old power plant that has been transformed into a contemporary art center and fabrication space on the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. At the event, we will confer the Open City Award to the design and development team behind Powerhouse Arts led by Herzog & de Meuron, PBDW Architects, Urban Atelier Group, Buro Happold Engineering, Silman, and Ken Smith Workshop.
James Seger, Partner at PBDW Architects, shares his thoughts about his team’s role as Executive and Preservation Architects on the project and his hopes for how Powerhouse Arts will benefit local artists and the Gowanus community.
Tell us what role you played and what it was like to work on this transformative project.
As a resident of Brooklyn for almost 30 years, the iconic BRT Powerhouse building was always intriguing to me, but it seemed to be an untouchable ruin. Being involved in bringing it back to life was literally a dream come true for me and PBDW—a firm of designers who care deeply about New York City’s architectural heritage. We served as the executive and preservation architect on the project. There was a lot to love about that seemingly indestructible building, but it was actually quite fragile and needed vision and a lot of TLC to make it viable.
Tell us about the team effort required to bring this project to life.
The complex is a celebration of artistry in the craft of building. The structure and infrastructure are largely exposed, so planning and execution were key. Powerhouse Arts, Herzog & de Meuron, PBDW, UAG and all the myriad consultants and hands-on tradespeople collaborated extensively from start of design through the end of construction. Together, we shaped the image and ensured that the highest quality fit and finish of elements was both achievable and practical. And, of course, the project would never have happened without the generous commitment of Joshua Rechnitz and his vision to create space for artists in this unique building.
What is your favorite feature of Powerhouse Arts?
I love that the renovation embraces the Batcave era of the building – when homeless youths took up residence in the abandoned building and adorned nearly every surface with graffiti – and that we didn’t lose the romance of the ruin. It was during that period in the early 2000s that the building became a magnet for artists; the effects of time and neglect changed the meaning of the structure to align with its current use. That is most apparent in the lobby where the original industrial architecture—including its vaulted ceilings, exposed steel beams and columns, and original brick, all decorated with graffiti—is juxtaposed with the raw yet new contemporary elements. The harmonious interplay between old and new really energizes the space.
“The building lends authenticity to the rapidly evolving Gowanus district, remaining a majestic outlier amongst its new neighbors. Like any good work of art, it has something to say. Originally conceived to convey the promise of electrification, the powerhouse has evolved, organically and then deliberately, to embody the power of the creative spirit.”– James Seger, Partner, PBDW Architects
How do you hope this facility will benefit local artists and the surrounding community?
My hope is that the building becomes—indeed, remains—a center of inspiration for the creative community, a place for artists to come together, express themselves, and support each other. The building lends authenticity to the rapidly evolving Gowanus district, remaining a majestic outlier amongst its new neighbors. Like any good work of art, it has something to say. Originally conceived to convey the promise of electrification, the powerhouse has evolved, organically and then deliberately, to embody the power of the creative spirit.
What statement do you think Powerhouse Arts makes about New York and the city’s future?
Artmaking is here to stay in Gowanus. The ability to fabricate art locally is important to maintaining the city’s creative gravitas. Gowanus generally, and the Batcave specifically, have been hotbeds of art production for decades, but the area is rapidly changing and will soon be largely residential. Powerhouse Arts keeps the artistic flame alive in Gowanus and remains a symbol of the area’s storied past while continuing to be an incubator for industry, technology, and creativity.
As an architect practicing in New York City for over 30 years, James Seger has a keen appreciation for the city as an ever-evolving organism, full of opportunity but also in need of caretaking. His firm, PBDW Architects, works to create architecture that invigorates the communities it serves while respecting and acknowledging the importance of New York City’s significant architectural heritage.
Through his work on such venerable buildings as the Park Avenue Armory, the William Goadby Lowe mansion for the Spence School, and Powerhouse Arts, Jim has explored ways that adaptive reuse of buildings can maintain the cultural richness of NYC’s neighborhoods while infusing contemporary uses to maintain their vibrancy. He focuses on helping non-profit cultural, educational and religious organizations further their missions through architecture that both inspires its occupants and gives something back to the community.
Jim is a partner at PBDW Architects. He earned his Bachelor of Architecture from Mississippi State University and has been a registered architect for 30 years. He is a long-time supporter of numerous civic and advocacy groups including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Humane Society, the Park Slope Civic Council, and Open House New York.