Firms Negotiate Chaos of Art

Reports from the Field by • 04/29

Event: Architecture: Designs for Living: Cultural Sustainability
Location: Center for Architecture, 04.14.08
Speakers: Robert M. Rogers, FAIA — Principal, Rogers Marvel Architects; Sara Caples, AIA — Principal, Caples Jefferson Architects; Mitchell Kurtz, AIA, LEED AP — Principal, Mitchell Kurtz Architect; Joseph Haberl — Project Designer, Leeser Architecture
Moderator: Kate D. Levin — Commissioner, NYC Department of Cultural Affairs
Organizers: AIANY Cultural Facilities Committee
Sponsors: Champion: Studio Daniel Libeskind; Supporters: Gensler; Humanscale; James McCullar & Associates; Friends: Costas Kondylis & Partners; Forest City Ratner Companies; Frank Williams & Associates; Hugo S. Subotovsky A.I.A. Architects; Mancini Duffy; Magnusson Architecture and Planning; Rawlings Architects; RicciGreene Associates; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Syska Hennessy Group; Trespa North America; Universal Contracting Group

QTiP

Queens Theatre in the Park is one of many cultural projects working with strict constraints.

Caples Jefferson Architects

New York City has some 1,400 nonprofit cultural organizations, noted NYC Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate Levin; more than half are performing-arts groups. Her department, currently the nation’s largest arts funder, hears from 1,100 of these groups annually, half with budgets under $250,000 and 74% under $1 million. Small theater and dance companies (music wasn’t a focal point here) make enormous contributions to the city’s quality of life, she said, and consequently to its long-range economic health as well.

Many such challenges fall into the “little-D design” category, Levin said (borrowing a distinction from former AIANY Chapter president Susan Chin, FAIA); not every arts group’s problems call for real-estate-based solutions. Still, the financial and spatial limits of small and medium-sized venues can generate challenges for architects. Panelists presented four projects whose constraints became opportunities: a new building for a two-client, mixed-program partnership; a futuristic downtown space for an experimental theater; and two renovation projects with missions to preserve different components of the city’s history.

The Ballet Hispanico shares a new West 90th Street mid-rise tower with the Stephen Gaynor School for children with learning disabilities. In serving contrasting programs, balancing the needs of populations who use the building at different times of day, and making the most of a tight mid-block footprint, Rogers Marvel Architects allocated the readily accessible lower floors to the children and the large, daylit upper floors to the dancers, choosing a reinforced-concrete core to address the acoustic complexities of studios above classrooms.

At Queens Theatre in the Park (see “Queens Theater Offers Night on the Town,” e-OCULUS, 04.15.08), where performances will coexist with construction until the end of the year, Caples Jefferson Architects has created both a functional theater and a viewing space that respects the site’s distinct features (the landscape of Flushing Meadows/Corona Park and the World’s Fair “ruins”), with spiral forms continuing from two approach paths into the central cylinder and inverted-dome ceiling to create a dramatic sense of arrival.

Renovating the aging Cherry Lane Theatre and juxtaposing modern and older elements, Mitchell Kurtz, AIA, LEED AP, drew on his experience in stage design to help envision the specific needs of actors, directors, and theatergoers, such as an angled center aisle to optimize sightlines and an acoustically ideal placement of mechanical elements (“as far away as possible,” he said — preferably NJ; realistically, the rooftop).

For 3-Legged Dog, the first cultural organization to re-animate a downtown venue after 9/11, Leeser Architecture transformed a ground-floor site in an MTA garage into a high-tech, high-concept theater whose bent-glass front wall integrates performance space with street life, with an opaque white “urban jetway” for a lobby.

Arts groups are sometimes superb architectural clients, Robert Rogers, FAIA, said, with their combination of entrepreneurial spirit and creativity. Kurtz noted these clients’ similarities to architects themselves, highly adaptive in the face of adversity, “very simpatico… and also very poor.” Perhaps Sara Caples, AIA, pinpointed these clients’ defining quality when she observed that “a group that presents 300 different shows a year has enormous tolerance for chaos.”

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