Designed to enhance the magical illusion of stage and screen, theaters of the past boasted plush red velvet and gilded carvings. Radio City Music Hall comes to mind. Part of the mystique was the slow reveal: no exterior windows reduced the impact of the splendor to come when the doors were thrown wide. Nor was there any desire to keep you there once the show was over. If these five new theaters are anything to go by, a paradigm shift has occurred, in purpose as well as in design.
Inspired and executed by renowned architects, these are as bright and transparent on the outside as they are welcoming on the inside. Indeed, with the predominant use of glass, these theaters light up the New York scene. Each encourages visitors to savor the theater-going experience with spaces for eating, drinking and gathering. And each is the conception of a non-profit organization made possible by philanthropic supporters as well as loans and grants and inclusionary zoning from the City of New York. The nature of these non-profits should not go unremarked since they too have come a long way from the days of cap-in-hand charity. Entrepreneurial in spirit, they create their own revenue streams by renting out their facilities and they see it as their role to develop an audience through smart programming, low ticket prices and community outreach. Clearly, a winning combination.
BARYSHNIKOV ARTS CENTER (BAC) AND THE DIMENNA CENTER FOR CLASSICAL MUSIC
BAC opened in 2005 at 450 West 37th Street and is a pioneer in breaking new ground on the far-West Side. The six-story building fronted entirely by an elegant glass façade in a striped motif is in a strategic spot. New towering apartment buildings surround it. Nearby, Hudson Yards are ready to be developed and the northern end of the High Line is only a few blocks to the south. The area between Ninth and Tenth Avenues is booming with construction and teaming with old vitality.
World-famous dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov envisioned a place where creative projects in dance, music and theatre are fostered and performed, and artists-in-residence can research their ideas. A fall and spring season of events is presented in the Howard Gilman Performance Space and the Jerome Robins Theatre. BAC’s facilities on the upper floors include flexible spaces with great views of the Hudson and southwest Manhattan.
The DiMenna Center joined BAC as the building’s co-owner in 2008 to create a permanent home for the Orchestra of St. Luke’s (OSL). It provides rehearsal and recording space for its musicians as well as others who need modern facilities. Hugh Hardy and Geoff Lynch of H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture redesigned 20,000 square feet which opened in 2011 to reveal a new second and third floor with seven beautiful, high tech spaces. The largest space, Mary Flager Cary Hall, is finished in wood paneling and acoustically-calibrated wall coverings to accommodate a full symphony orchestra and chorus. All the spaces, even the smallest practice rooms, are designed to eliminate outside noises from the Lincoln Tunnel. OSL musicians perform free for the public and for community education events while the DiMenna Center is often used by other groups for a wide variety of performances. The light-filled lobby with a bright red staircase brings the public to the Charles Grossman Cafe on the second floor, and third floor Lounge, both of which offer views of the changing cityscape through the glass facade.
PERSHING SQUARE SIGNATURE CENTER FOR THE SIGNATURE THEATRE COMPANY
Since the fall of 2011 when Signature opened its multipurpose new Center at 480 West 42nd Street, the bright lights and excitement of Broadway have been closer to the far-West Side, now filled with high rise apartment buildings. The two blocks of 42nd Street beyond Eighth Avenue, rather dim and uninviting in comparison to Times Square, now draw pedestrians to the sparkling two story canopy of the innovative Signature Center.
The building is designed by Frank Gehry who formed a relationship with Signature when it had plans to build at the new World Trade Center site. However, that was not to be and Gehry stayed to design a very different building created as part of the MIMA mixed-used development. The new concept now attracts visitors and theater-goers for outstanding productions in a unique environment. The innovative approach starts at the glassed-in ground-level entry space and ticket office, a contrast to the more usual prison-window for ticket purchases. The walls are graced with large sketches of the playwrights connected with Signature since it began in 1991.
The sketches continue on the second floor, reached by a graceful but practical wide staircase of architectural plywood that is a hallmark of Gehry design. Two surprises await at the top of the stairs. One is the band of wide windows with sills to lean on that stretch across the entire front of the building overlooking the always active scene on 42nd Street. The other is the open landscape of the lobby. Open noon to midnight, its informal café and full bar, bookstore, tables and colorful chairs (also Gehry designed) signal that this is a place for conversation and interaction.
Signature’s three theaters, each created for a different theater experience, are reached through the lobby. The energy of people in the midst of diverse activity, either a play or special program, is palpable. Casual visitors stopping by for a sandwich at noon or for a late drink in the evening can learn of Signature’s $25 ticket policy and its playwrights-in-residence on the three panel Interactive Media Wall.
By Ingrid W. Reed
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