Light Fantastic

Architect James Polshek and his team created an airy entryway for the Brooklyn Museum of Art that virtually scoops visitors inside. (Photo Credit: Richard Barnes/Polshek Partnership Architects.)

In an age of cosmetic surgery, it is easy to confuse architectural intervention with, well, call it façade-lift. But Cinderella transformations can rejuvenate and even redefine buildings grown rigid and opaque with age and which, in the case of cultural institutions, have come between the dancer and the dance. Architecture is destiny, and it can be sublime—witness the various permutations of the Guggenheim. Even absent wholesale reconstruction, some institutions are discovering what a modicum of intervention can do: A little nip and tuck can have the impact of a total personality transplant. Both the Brooklyn Museum of Art and Lincoln Center have recently answered the self-corrective call, and each is now emerging with a much blither spirit.

At the end of Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta decides to make the move from Brooklyn to Manhattan, in a leap up New York’s evolutionary chain. Today, his son would ride the subway back, stride through the Brooklyn Museum’s glassy new portico, and down the champagne. Having tried harder for at least two decades, the Avis of New York museums is at last hitting its stride as a joyous temple of the borough’s renaissance. Across the East River, on the Upper West Side, Lincoln Center just unveiled a $325 million redesign by Diller Scofidio + Renfro that is every bit as open and people-friendly as the museum’s, but touched as well with a sly Duchampian wit. What the designs have in common is an imaginative leap beyond the predictable that will help capture a generation of patrons who have largely ignored these institutions, having found them elitist and, worse, forbidding. The new projects are indirect responses to massive demographic shifts—first to downtown, and then to Brooklyn—that have altered the cultural map of the city.

I first became aware of the talent drain to Brooklyn in the mid-eighties, when, writing on architecture and design for the Times, I noticed my Rolodex fattening with 718 prefixes. Not long after, the borough started getting seriously cool, with all those Robert Wilson productions at BAM, plus the imports from the Royal National Theater at BAM’s self-consciously “distressed” annex, the Majestic (now the Harvey). Restaurants followed, and soon reviewers rained stars on local chefs (who knew?).

Yet twenty years ago, no museum was mustier than the Brooklyn, an inflated Beaux-Arts edifice by McKim, Mead & White. Here the unsuspecting visitor had to climb a penitential 28-foot-high flight of stairs to an entrance colonnade in a Sisyphean, all-too-symbolic attempt at rising to high art: The permanent dominance of culture over the individual was cast into the building’s posture.

“The designs share an imaginative leap beyond the predictable that will help capture audiences.”

This nineteenth-century artifact now boasts a spectacular new front stoop, a fanning semicircle of glass, grass, and steel that already is proving to be a breeder reactor of spontaneous urban life along Eastern Parkway. On members’ night, thousands of the borough’s hip and young—there was Michael Arad himself, winner of the World Trade Center memorial design competition, pushing a baby stroller—swarmed the elegant, futuristic structure on their way into a galvanizing exhibition of home-grown contemporary art, “Open House: Working in Brooklyn.”

James S. Polshek, of the Polshek Partnership Architects, has reversed the McKim, Mead attitude with a $63 million entrance and plaza that extends a warm architectural handshake. Today, visitors emerge from the reconfigured subway station into a small orchard of cherry trees arrayed by landscape architect Judith Heintz as the outer ripples of structured circles radiating from the museum’s inner hall. Architects frequently pivot buildings on circles, which are omnidirectional, and Polshek plucked the idea from an unbuilt hemicycle of steps detailed in McKim, Mead’s original plan, repositioning it at the front to take people into its 180-degree embrace.

Working with management partner Duncan Hazard, in coordination with Joan Darragh, the museum’s vice-director for planning and architecture, Polshek expanded and transformed the classical device of a portico into an environmental art piece. A computer-programmed fountain of geysers by WET Design—irresistible to kids—dances in the outer ring, facing bleachers nested in the stepped semicircular profile. A boardwalk invites visitors into the inner rings of the steel-and-glass superstructure, offering 360-degree views inside and back to the street, as though the museum and city were theatrical happenings to be observed alongside the exhibitions within. A diagonal path pierces the concentric rings, delivering visitors to the ticket desk in the luminous pavilion.

Wise gardeners know how to plant a yard to attract birds, and Polshek has interpreted the new entrance so that it captivates people. He breaks the circles into segments, giving each a role, creating a diversified environment for looking, stopping, playing, visiting. The informality promotes a participatory relationship, and people vote with their feet all over the structure: Form provokes activity, which in turn encourages visitors to enter the museum, searching for more. The glass structure, its dynamic steel columns leaning forward in contrast to the stiffly static museum, counterintuitively forms a shimmering and fragile visual base for the heavy limestone edifice. Polshek removes the ground visually from the imposing mother building, making it look buoyant and magical. This is a sympathetic and respectful contemporary addition to a designated landmark.

Lincoln Center learns a new Broadway vernacular.Photo: Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

If BAM, the Harvey, and now the Brooklyn Museum are all fresh and alluring, Manhattan institutions risk growing predictable, not to say stale. MoMA, stuck in its own magnificent rut of monographic shows on modern masters, knew it was losing the next generation, and linked with P.S. 1 in Queens to attract new blood. Like MoMA, Lincoln Center urgently needed a jolt of Viagra, and hired Diller Scofidio + Renfro, arguably downtown’s hippest architectural boîte, to bring back the thrill.

Each of the center’s companies is encased in a modernist monument; through friendly alterations, the designers are using architecture to crack open the treasure houses so that the energy of the city flows inside through glassy portals, and intimations of the spectacles inside reach the street. A glass prow floating above Broadway, for example, allows passersby to watch Juilliard dancers rehearsing. Interior and exterior charge each other. Dismantling the fortress in favor of urban charisma benefits the immediate neighborhood; at the same time, it represents an open invitation to festivity.

Like Polshek and company, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, working with Fox & Fowle Architects, also show great deference to quasi-historic buildings. Removing the wide, oppressive bridge over West 65th Street and eliminating intrusive driveways, the architects transform this ominous service corridor by reestablishing its “streetness” with storefronts, lobbies, and marquees. They propose a theater lobby along 65th for Eero Saarinen’s elegantly refined Vivian Beaumont, next to a juice bar, all under a restaurant with a potato-chip-shaped roof whose top doubles as a parabolic lawn for Juilliard students and visitors alike.

And just as Polshek formed the Brooklyn Museum entrance as an environmental field rather than as a focused object, the Lincoln Center team distributes additions like barnacles throughout the north campus in an abstract language of diagonal lines and oblique and warped planes. The effect is as if Lincoln Center had eloped with Brasília in a mad moment. The dynamic cuts in the opaque walls are like incisions opening the interior anatomy for public viewing. At Alice Tully Hall, the architects extend and deform the existing Euclidean box and destabilize the building visually, investing the regular structure with a strange and even uncanny beauty. In an illusionistic tour de force, the architects slant the north plaza around the reflecting pool so that water appears to slope downhill.

Poets of a postmodern sensibility, Diller Scofidio + Renfro weave virtuality into the design, creating a luminous electronic space at 65th and Broadway, its curved organic walls, like an orange peel, inset with monitors scrolling programs. Digital ticker tapes mixed within new staircases splice the virtual world into the physical. The sum total of the digital gadgetry promises to expand the cityscape with views of the happenings inside, bringing shows to the street, affirming the architectural gestures that already open the various theaters. Making many working parts of the complex visible, the architects act as conductors, orchestrating the whole complex into an outdoor urban performance.

In both the Lincoln Center and Brooklyn Museum projects, the architects graft additions that grow from the original concepts into unexpected hybrids. But they are not just making formal alterations to give the institutions an image makeover; the additions are helping to update the culture of the institutions themselves, broadening their programs, democratizing their identities, renewing their very missions. Architecture is the can opener for these closed containers, creating a more porous and interactive relationship between the city at large and institutions that ultimately prosper in the open.

Light Fantastic