When the owners of the new Sperone Westwater Gallery on NYC’s Bowery were first planning the construction of their new building, they had to contend with an incredibly limited building footprint of just 2,500 square feet. Certainly small for a gallery of this caliber, given the prime location in one of NYC’s most lively neighborhoods, they knew they had to be flexible with the site. Their solution? Build up instead of out. Hiring Foster + Partners to design the new building, this unlikely choice of architect Norman Foster as lead — who’s better known for creating colossal designs over small spaces —  is certainly a risk that has paid off. Officially opened just this past September, the resulting gallery is a stunning, innovative and moving space, highlighted by a 12×20 foot freight elevator that travels up and down the structure to showcase the various collections on display.

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“Any approach we took was hopelessly compromised by the constraints of a 25-foot-wide slot for showing contemporary art and the need to move that big art around. It was like banging your head on the wall trying to figure it out,” Foster told the Architect’s Newspaper. “But once we realized the freight elevator didn’t have to be just for moving crates, but could be used to show art, sculpture, installations, whatever, there was a Eureka moment. And that became the dynamic for the facade.”

The moving room supplements the relatively tight quarters of the gallery, providing a unique space to display art. It gently glides between floors, taking you on a ride so smooth you might not even realize you’re moving. The elevator’s cherry red exterior makes its vertical trip visible through the building’s glass façade.

Standing in the small lobby, you may not realize that the ceiling above you is actually the elevator until it pulls away, letting sunlight stream through the glass front. Like promised, the building makes extensive use of daylighting. Large windows in the back supplement the light coming in from the façade.

The official cost of the building was not disclosed, but Bloomberg estimates it to be around $20 million. In addition to the moving room, there is a 27-foot display wall that stretches from the first floor to second floor, where a curving balcony lets visitors examine the artwork from a unique perspective. On the eighth floor, there is a library with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a large picture window that offers a stunning view of the small park behind the building.

The building is somewhat of a departure for Foster + Partners, who are known for massive projects like the Hearst Tower and the Beijing Airport. But the creative layout and moving room make it clear that Foster really can do more with less. Next time you’re on the Bowery, stop in to take a ride in his bright red box.

+ Foster + Partners

+ Sperone Westwater

Images © Nigel Young/Foster + Partners