In its current state of transformation, the Brooklyn Navy Yard presents a disorienting landscape where weathering, dilapidated industrial holds give way to micro-hubs of creativity and well-designed gastronomic outposts. The shifting nature of the massive complex is palpable upon arrival, like some ancient beast stirring from a deep slumber. The tangible vibration of kinetic energy among the stark landscape renders this strange realm at once elusive and alluring.
One establishment to make a recent and otherworldly emergence from the rubble is New Lab, an interdisciplinary co-working space for various industrial and technological companies, which include concentrations in robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and urban tech, to name a few.
Officially opening its doors to the public last week, New Lab, which was founded by developer David Belt with his friend Scott Cohen, brings a kind of WeWork ethos to the shared makerspace but which focuses on a tighter community of innovators, fabricators and inventors all sharing parallel practices and goals. New Lab is “a place and platform for inciting new paradigms in manufacturing,” which seeks “to nurture companies that are pushing boundaries and developing the next evolution of responsible enterprises,” states its mission.
When shown the former shipbuilding facility in 2011 by the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s president Andrew Kimble, Belt and Cohen were inspired by the long legacy of innovation and creative thinking that has been part of the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s history. “This was the state-of-the-art of manufacturing when it was built,” says Belt on a tour of the space with Architizer, “ … We were really interested in thinking about what the state-of-the-art in manufacturing is today, and what was missing.”
“ … We were really interested in thinking about what the state-of-the-art in manufacturing is today, and what was missing.”
New Lab’s renovated space certainly brings an impressive level of quality and craftsmanship to the former industrial site. The four-story building is structured like a medieval cathedral with a large gabled roof and aisles flanking the central nave. Upon entering, one is immediately aware of its vastness as, much like a cathedral, the central space is largely left uninterrupted, the exposed pipes and steelwork guiding one’s eye to the ceiling.
Its height, aided by the flooding of natural light from both a series of skylights and clerestory windows, gives the impression of a micro-urban environment. The smooth central space abutted by various steel conference rooms recalls a city street, while an array of suspended bridges and bursting pockets of flora and fauna indicate the presence of a carefully planned infrastructure.
“We were very, very cautious about what tech 4.0 would look like. Very, very cautious about fetishizing too much the industrial nature of the space,” says Belt of his architectural development company Macro Sea’s approach to the redesign. “What really interested us at Macro Sea was the idea that we don’t know what the future’s going to look like from the future, but we know what it looked like in 1973.” The result is an array of furnishings with luxuriously lush fabrics and vibrant colors embodying a Jetson-like aesthetic. The lobby is a particularly notable emblem of the futurist concept, with its deep red carpet, primary-colored lounge chairs and yellow reception desk equipped with an infinity mirror.
“We really started thinking about what Utopian architecture looked like … how to make a really great place for people to work that wasn’t so technologically advanced that it hurt, that wasn’t so, kind of, corporate furniture-specific that it just looked like a showroom for a specific kind of corporate furniture provider.”
Indeed, the design concept, while bold, is not overwrought. Individual regions are defined by informal barriers, such as mesh metal fences or a wall of plants, bolstering the overall plan, which follows a loose but clear logic.
“We really started thinking about what Utopian architecture looked like … ”
Situated atop the encased conference rooms is a series of lounge areas, furnished with a similarly same prismatic array of seating as the first floor, and open-plan office spaces. These “open air” offices furnished with low, multicolored cubicle desks, are reserved for companies not requiring a workshop.
While the informal work spaces and more traditional offices are established in the visible areas of the space, larger workshops, production studios and fabrication equipment rooms are relegated to the side aisles. When strolling the second floor, one is afforded glimpses into these peculiar laboratories: The massive bioclimatic prototypes for urban agriculture and cricket-farming at Terreform One, rows of vertical hydroponic farming systems at Farmshelf and wearable technologies at StrongArm Tech depict feverish microcosms of productivity, lending the impression one is witnessing the height of experimentation in advanced industrial technology. The gritty and chaotic displays of these interior workshops stand in stark contrast with the almost ecclesiastical stillness of the central space.
While many other co-working and makerspaces attract a range of professionals and creatives with flexible workspaces and attractive shared resources, the founders of New Lab saw an opportunity to explore this system by drawing out the needs of a tighter community. Rather than gather a group of professionals requiring the basic amenities of a traditional office — workspace, meeting space, dining space, facilities and so on — why not pool the resources of a group of practitioners all requiring and utilizing advanced hardware?
“There are plenty of co-working spaces and makerspaces, but if you’re a company building a hardware product, there are really no facilities, unless you want to give up your IP and be part of MIT, or you want to work for a large company. We tried to create a place that would allow that to happen,” says Belt. At New Lab, tenants are required to lease an office space for a minimum of a year in order to establish themselves as an integral part of the collective community. Postured as “a community and platform that supports collaboration across disciplines,” the New Lab team carefully curates a rotation of companies that it believes will provide fertile ground for the sharing of equipment and the cross-fertilization of ideas, “like Noah’s Ark,” Belt tells Architizer.
“There are plenty of co-working spaces and makerspaces, but if you’re a company building a hardware product, there are really no facilities."
New Lab provides a range of top-of-the-line manufacturing equipment, such as a suite of 3D printers and CNC milling machines, but companies towing their own equipment are required to make this hardware available to all tenants of New Lab. Currently in use during Architizer’s visit was a massive 3D printer with a 6-by-6-foot printing bed hosted by a German 3D-printing manufacturer, in the middle of a 36-hour cycle printing a chair prototype for interior retailer West Elm.
New Lab’s general initiatives align with the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation’s underlying goal to bolster the growth of New York’s middle class through the industrial sector by providing “NYC’s design and manufacturing community access to the tools and space it [needs] to address the current era of manufacturing challenges,” as addressed in the company’s mission statement. However, the company upholds its incoming tenants to such a pedigree of establishment and quality that the question of how far New Lab’s support will reach remains as of yet unclear.
“What’s a requirement of being a member here is that we’re not taking brand-new startups. It’s all companies that have some level of funding, that have a good management team and that we feel will add something either new or productive to the overall discussion,” says Belt to this point. This standard permeates all aspects of the lab, from the richness of the materials, the cleanliness of the space, even the resounding calm, which all creates an atmosphere of refinement, the soft murmurings of the space’s occupation invoking a stillness one might find in a church.
In the self-proclaimed “cathedral of manufacturing,” the effect is certainly intoxicating. Upon entering, one feels they have been granted access to an otherworldly realm, a momentary portal to a domain that holds the future of our community in its hands. Whether or not it will eventually touch down to earth, we’ll have to wait and see.