Today, that hasn't changed, now that the 56-year-old Byrne has made a musical instrument out of architecture—the Battery Maritime Building, located at the southern tip of Manhattan. For the installation, entitled "Playing the Building," a collaboration with New York-based arts organization Creative Time, Byrne spent three weeks hollowing out the back of an old-fashioned organ and replacing its insides with a bevy of colored compressors, pipes and motors that connect to various parts of the 9,000 square-foot space, which together are able to produce "music" without the need for speakers, mics or amps. Visitors to the exhibit are welcome to sit down and "play" the massive sound sculpture on their own.
According to Anne Pasternak, artistic director of Creative Time, the origins of the project go back to 2005 in Sweden, when a local gallery tapped Byrne to use a sizeable building and objects to create tones and rhythms. "A friend of mine runs an art space in Stockholm called Fargfabriken and invited David to do a project there and that's where the idea of an organ [as a multi-instrument] emerged," Pasternak says. "David had this old organ sitting in his studio and thought it would be interesting if people could actually play the building. If they tap the keys of the organ, somehow they could activate the sounds of this 1973 paint factory."
After the Stockholm performance, the musician wanted to bring the same effort to the Big Apple. Byrne, an avid bike rider, was cycling through the city one day and came upon the Battery Maritime Building. With permission from the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC), he went in "with his little rubber mallet and started hitting different parts of the building to see how they would sound—the columns, the radiators, the steel girders and the pipes," says Pasternak. "He realized this was the perfect place, we started working on it and got permission from the city to open this building that hadn't been open to the public for 60 years."
Since the installation opened at the end of May, throngs of visitors—up to 150 at a time in many cases— have tried their hand at playing the building. "It's pretty wonderful to sit at this organ hitting keys, making noise in columns in front of you, next to you and making pipes whistle," says Pasternak. "It's really wonderful to imagine the sonic capabilities we take for granted."
The exhibit is free and runs through August 24,th, Fridays through Sundays from noon-6pm.