Park Avenue Armory

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 43 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned The surveillance show undermines its cautionary purpose by outlining a lot of frankly very silly spying technologies developed over the years.  The CIA apparently spent $15m trying to surgically wire a feline for sound, to approach and unobtrusively listen to conversations.  Sadly, “Acoustic Kitty” failed by being run over by a taxi on its first test deployment.  Truly cat-astrophic.

Park Avenue ArmoryThere were once 49 armories and arsenals in the Naked City (according to Wikipedia).  Today 24 remain. One of the survivors now serves as a leading-edge arts and performance space.  This is that one.

What’s an Armory anyway?

As the city grew, open air parade and training grounds for the militia (what we now call the National Guard) became increasingly scarce.  So the government built a slew of armories and arsenals starting in the early 1800s and extending through to the early 1900s.  These buildings often looked like castles or fortresses, and could take up their entire city block.  Some of them included vast, open, interior spaces for practicing bayoneting and such. 

Each military company used its armory as a sort of clubhouse, too, and so they became encrusted with awards, portraits, and other memorials to great men who served.  Nowadays some armories remain in active use, but many have been decommissioned.  The Park Avenue Armory, completed in 1888, served as the home to the Seventh Regiment.  Adopted by a nonprofit, it underwent a massive restoration that continues to today, room by room, opening to the public in its new role in 2007.

Awards, Park Avenue Armory
Assorted Regimental Awards

A Castle for Art

Today the Park Avenue Armory is a fortress for the arts, both visual and performing.  Many of the ground floor ceremonial rooms are open, and they contain wonders — ancient silver trophies, beautiful decoration and light fixtures.  They are glorious feats of interior design, featuring Tiffany and virtually all the other great designers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Park Avenue Armory, NYC

And then there’s the Drill Hall.  It’s an amazing space — 55,000 square feet with not a column in sight — to have at the disposal of art.  But at the same time, it must be daunting as an artist to get commissioned to do something there.  I read that once about the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern–it’s hard to do justice to the space.  Just so with the Park Avenue Armory.

Just by way of comparison:

  • The Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London measures 500×75 feet, so 37,500 sq. feet, and it rises to a height of 115 feet. 
  • The Drill Hall at the Armory is shorter, with “only” an 85-foot ceiling, but much larger in area, measuring 55,000 square feet. 
  • And just to round out the size-off, Grand Central’s main hall measures 33,000 square feet, with a 125-foot ceiling.  Bottom line, the Drill Hall is BIG.

Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel at Park Avenue Armory
Me, Surveiled

The current Park Avenue Armory show, called “Hansel and Gretel,” typifies the difficulties of filling the space.  Ai Wei Wei along with architects Jacques Hertzog and Pierre de Meuron collaborated on a commentary on the surveillance state.  They did so via a complex technological deployment whereby visitors wander around in a very dark Drill Hall, while drones whir overhead (on tethers so they can’t decapitate anyone if they malfunction), and infrared cameras capture images of visitors which they then project onto the floor of the hall in real time.  You see photos of yourself, in grainy black and white, with red boxes picking out your appendages and such.

It’s…interesting?  But there’s no reason for it to be in the Armory, as opposed to a much smaller place.  I felt lost, wandering in the dark, waiting for something more exciting to happen.  And the darkness defeats the Drill Hall’s grandeur, the whole point of going there.

Park Avenue Armory
Majestic Drill Hall, Park Avenue Armory, in the dark

Caveat:  Perhaps the experience is more compelling when the Drill Hall is full of people.  I went on a weekday afternoon and it was quite sparse.

Following the wander in the dark, visitors then enter the smaller historic rooms where they have a gift shop, a tiny snack bar, and a bunch of tablets that tell more about the history of state surveillance, drone strikes, etc.  Which you can do at home, for free, here.

Bottom Line

I’m happy that I’m reviewing the Armory itself and not the Hansel and Gretel installation (my review: skip it!).  Everyone should visit the Armory.  The restored meeting and administration rooms positively glow.  If you can take a guided tour of the building I heartily recommend that.  And whatever they fill it with, assuming the lights are on the Drill Hall will take your breath away.

Park Avenue Armory, NYC

Wandering through these historic, once-dusty rooms, I imagine the era when our municipal and national security depended on forts along the waterfront and arsenals inland. When the worst we had to worry about were invading naval fleets or anarchist insurrections.  I don’t want to sugar coat other problems of the past, and I would never downplay the threat of anarchists.  But from the perspective of security (and surveillance, too), I envy those simpler, more innocent times.

For Reference:

Address 643 Park Avenue, Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $15 (exhibit) and $15 (building tour)
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