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Monday, May 20, 2013

The Public Theater



The Public Theater in New York City by Ennead Architects, 2012

Sometimes the smallest and most discrete of projects can have the greatest impact. Such is my take upon experiencing the new lobby for The Public Theater at Astor Place, and hearing the history of the building and project from Ennead Architects (formerly Polshek Partnership). The Public occupies the former Astor Library, which actually consists of three buildings constructed over the course of 30 years in the middle of the 19th century. The Byzantine landmark nevertheless appears as one entity, with bilateral symmetry about its taller middle section. Over the years the building changed from a library to a boarding house and then to a theater, when Joseph Papp persuaded the city to save the building from demolition in the 1960s. Small physical changes had large effects, especially the relegation of the library's exterior steps to the interior, a situation that made the lobby of The Public's five theaters less than ideal.

Easily the most important design decision in the transformation of the lobby and entry by Ennead Architects is the relocation of the steps from inside the building back to the sidewalk. This decision certainly complicated the process, as it brought the city's Department of Transportation into the picture, but the benefits to both The Public and the city outweigh any potential headaches or delays. First, ADA ramps were provided, a much better arrival than the handicap lift formerly by the front door. Second, the shallow and generous three-sided steps are a nice public amenity, accomplished by bumping out the curb in front of the steps. Third, the addition of a canopy over the stairs helps to give the institution a strong identity on Lafayette. Fourth is the fact that the exterior steps free up space in the lobby, something that gave the Ennead team, led by project designer Stephen Chu, design counsel James Polshek and management partner Duncan Hazard a bit more freedom in their lobby design.

Upon walking inside, the first impression is the fairly generous size of the space (not huge, but bigger than before). Yet the second impression is the most important: the space flows from the lobby in all directions—through the arched openings on the left and right, through the larger rectangular openings in the back wall, and up to the new mezzanine inserted above the ticket booth opposite the entry. Ennead's reworking of the circulation, in particular the fire stairs bordering the lobby, enabled them to provide access to the five theaters and Joe's Pub (formerly entered via an alley on the north side of the building) through the various openings of the lobby. Red and black text (done with Pentagram) is seemingly pressed into the white plaster, giving clear orientation from this central space.

Given the opening up of the lobby and the flow of space through the openings, it's not surprising that very little of the design is object-based; even the lighting is hidden above the beams where it highlights the coffers as it illuminates the space. The only objects inserted into the space are an elliptical bar, a chandelier above it, and the aforementioned mezzanine. The latter attracts attention through the red-glass guardrail, yet it fits with the general scheme of white, red, and black. The bar and light fixture, combined with the ticket booth behind as well as the openings on both sides, reinforce the symmetry of the building and the lobby. Most striking and dynamic is the Shakespeare Machine, the large light sculpture designed by Ben Rubin. Even as it anchors the center of the lobby with the bar, its swirling form and ever-changing readouts capture the motion of people in the space as they venture to and from shows. Yet the lobby and mezzanine are also places for lingering, something that would have been furthest from people's minds in its previous incarnation.

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