Meet Philip Schmerbeck, Herzog & de Meuron

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.

Philip Schmerbeck, Associate at Herzog & de Meuron, shares about the team effort required to bring the project to life and how he hopes the building will benefit local artists and the Gowanus community for years to come.

Tell us what role you played and what it was like to work on this transformative project 

As a resident of Brooklyn for the past 24 years, the area of the Gowanus and the Powerhouse site has been an important neighborhood for me and the creative community in my life over the past decades. It was clear from my first official step onto the project site in late 2015 that this would be an exciting journey. I have had the honor of acting as the Project Director for Herzog & de Meuron, leading the design effort for the project from the initial concepts and feasibility, through the design and research phases, and unto the present construction completion.

A project of this historic resonance and environmental sensitivity also demanded a forensic process as much as a conceptual one. This was a dream project for someone who loves spending time in the field – and there was a lot of watching and learning from active art workshops throughout the neighborhood and the city, coupled with the need to decipher clues from the existing fabric of the building and site in order to unlock its potential to be reactivated. Being exposed to so much hands-on in-person learning shoulder to shoulder with our client and collaborators was a rewarding experience, and all this rich feedback was in turn fed directly into the design real-time.

Tell us about the team effort required to bring this project to life

A project like this required a highly skilled team of experts and thinkers. From the start of the project, we worked intimately with the Powerhouse and the vision they had incubated prior to choosing a design lead, to ensure we invited collaborators to the table which we have enjoyed successful working relationships with previously, on similarly complex design challenges here in the city. Bringing a relic from New York’s early industrial beginnings up to modern and hygienic standards also meant very careful coordination between, contractors, consultants and engineers to ensure our collective efforts would not erase the magic of the place as we found it. Design occurred on our feet, with in-situ testing, one-to-one physical mock-ups, and detailed site observations as much as it happened at our respective drawing boards and studios.

What is your favorite feature of Powerhouse Arts? 

It is hard to focus on one aspect, but I would highlight the generous space and resiliency of the ‘forecourt’ – the large open work yard between the Powerhouse and the Canal. It was not immediately obvious that this space, extent from the 1904 masterplan, could be preserved where it was used by the power station as a staging ground for coal received by barge from the canal. 

We took this large residual urban open space as-found and raised the elevation to align with the first-floor workshops of the building – at nearly twenty feet above sea-level. This ensured the facility would have additional resiliency as a waterfront property in the city while maintaining more access to the sky. The neighborhood is already seeing the effects of a dramatic zoning transformation where the community’s access to the canal will be increasingly modulated by high density residential high-rises in close proximity to the water’s edge. This space, open to the sky, will provide civic-scaled relief as the waterfront continues to densify along the canal in the coming months. It may also come as a surprise that we took inspiration and cues from the distant reference of the outdoor courtyards of the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, Spain in our early conceptual studies of the forecourt.

Courtesy of PBDW Architects

“Powerhouse Arts exemplifies a way forward, without having to wipe the slate clean, by building on and enhancing what remains of the past.”

— Philip Schmerbeck, Associate, Studio Director, Herzog & de Meuron
Credit: Albert Vecerka/ESTO

How do you hope this facility will benefit local artists and the surrounding community?

The hope is that this facility will remain a resonant ‘place’ in the neighborhood where industrial functions may continue to have a home at the heart of the Gowanus and the city. Art fabrication is often broken down by individual media and made in separate shops – the Powerhouse Arts is bringing these all under one roof with safe hygienic conditions often difficult to achieve even in an art school. The fabrication shops of the city are disappearing; we hope this project may offset this erosion of light-industrial functions in the neighborhood and maintain a diversity of use-groups for future generations of New Yorkers and artists.

What statement do you think Powerhouse Arts makes about New York and the city’s future?

Anchoring neighborhoods by enhancing their historical and architectural icons is a necessary counter-exercise as the city continues to re-invent itself, densify, and react to powerful and often speculative market forces. Powerhouse Arts exemplifies a way forward, without having to wipe the slate clean, by building on and enhancing what remains of the past. It took the vision and dedication of many people and lots of  time, but the pay-off ultimately points to a long-term, full spectrum concept of sustainability which is as much about maintaining communities as it is about finding new and innovative uses for a project’s aging ‘bricks and mortar.’  We wish for the vibrant people and culture already here to remain, along with the renewed industrial buildings they work within. 

About Philip

Philip Schmerbeck began his collaboration with Herzog & de Meuron in Basel in 2007 and became an Associate in 2011. Since 2007, he has been the project manager in charge of 56 Leonard, a high-rise residential development in Manhattan. After relocating to the New York office in 2008, he became project manager in charge of the Parrish Art Museum through its completion in 2012. Since this time Philip has maintained oversight of a diverse range of US projects as Project Director in various phases of design including the completion of 215 Chrystie (Public Hotel, New York), 160 Leroy Street (Residential, New York) and CityCenter DC Conrad Hotel.

He is currently overseeing the waterfront project Powerhouse Arts, a contemporary arts fabrication center being completed in Brooklyn, New York, and the Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis, Tennessee. Through his range of experience he has gained specific knowledge working in residential, cultural, and adaptive re-use of heritage buildings. As of 2022 he has assumed the role of Studio Director USA.

Philip studied Architecture at Mississippi State University, Jackson, Mississippi, USA and graduated in 1999 with a Bachelor of Architecture degree. He collaborated from 2000 to 2001 with the studio of Terence Riley & John Keenen in New York City, and from 2001 to 2007 with 1100 Architect in New York City.

Herzog & de Meuron