You always inform and entertain Christian. *
January 19, 2003
A See-Through Library of Shifting Shapes and Colors
By HERBERT MUSCHAMP
A computer-generated image of the design by Enríque Norten of TEN Arquitectos, Mexico City, for the Brooklyn Library for the Visual and Performing Arts. It will be an important part of the BAM cultural district.
TIRED of special effects? How about special causes? That's what unbuilt architectural designs represent. Models and drawings need not be poor substitutes for completed buildings. They possess their own intrinsic interest. They are links in the chain of causality that produces, sustains and transforms major cities over time. And if a design is special enough, a city can take up the cause of getting it built.
Here's a good cause for the New Year: a design by Enríque Norten/TEN Arquitectos for the proposed Brooklyn Library for the Visual and Performing Arts. Sleek, curvaceous, colorful and alive, this is New York's first full-fledged masterwork for the information age. More than any other recent New York project, Norten's design captures the spirit of the contemporary city. Its relationship to the history of urban space is profound. In short, the project crystallizes the restless energies coalescing around the culture of cities worldwide.
Norten's proposal was chosen last year in a juried competition organized as part of a program set up by the National Endowment for the Arts. Talk about good causes. Conceived by Mark Robbins, former head of the endowment's division for design, the program was established to raise the quality of public works by emulating the competition system used widely in Europe. (Competition entries by Rafael Viñoly and Jean Nouvel are on view along with Norten's design at the Urban Center in Manhattan through Feb. 24.) The model deserves wider application.
The library is a central component in the ambitious arts district planned for the area around the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The academy, the BAM Harvey Theater and the Mark Morris Dance Center are already in operation. Mixed-income housing, studios and rehearsal spaces for local arts groups are in the works. Rem Koolhaas, Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio are among the architects working on the master plan under the supervision of our very own Diaghilev, Harvey Lichtenstein. (Diller was a juror in the competition that selected Norten's design.)
Like other civic projects, this one has been delayed by 9/11. The delay could be beneficial. An incremental approach could spare the existing Fort Greene community radical disruption. The planners have tried to be sensitive to the negative as well as the positive social consequences that can result from projects like this: rise in property values; displacement by gentrification; failure to serve local as well as imported artists. But balancing the equities is an unending process in New York. The quality of architecture should weigh more heavily in the balance.
The library's triangular site (now a parking lot) is just across Ashland Place from the Academy's main building and the adjacent Brooklyn Savings Bank building, the area's most prominent landmark. Flatbush and Lafayette Avenues border the other sides of the site. The Academy may be a Beaux Arts building, but Flatbush Avenue is far from Haussmann's boulevards. The area's architectural jumble does not invite conformity. Norten offers none.
The V-shaped design extrudes the site upward into an eight-story glass envelope that will shimmer with color, light, reflections and movement. Two wings flare out from the point of the V, enclosing a trapezoidal courtyard dominated by a broad set of steps. This grand ceremonial entrance can double as an arena for performances and other outdoor events.
We're looking at full-thrust contemporary architecture. The sleek horizontal structure is composed along nautical or aerodynamic lines. The tip and one wing of the V are dramatically cantilevered from a recessed base, a structural feat engineered by Guy Nordenson & Associates. It brings to mind the Winged Victory of Samothrace. The tip projects forward in an upward-tapering curve, like a ship's prow slicing through urban congestion. The wings terminate in jutting rectilinear forms that evoke the Concorde's engines.
The ease with which Norten unifies these complex shapes is the design's outstanding feature. The building is not fragmented. Norten does not resort to collage. Rather, the contour shifts smoothly from crisp edge to curve, angle, taper and plane. This eloquent shape-shifting might be taken to represent a neighborhood in transition; the transformative qualities of art; the complex mix of uses going on behind the building's glass facades; and the transformation of the 19th-century industrial city into the ethereal information exchange that the library's users will inhabit.
Conceptually, Norton's design descends from what the historian Stephen Kern has called "the culture of time and space" — the reaction of art and literature to modern technology. Frank Lloyd Wright, El Lissitzky, Antonio Sant' Elia and Erich Mendelsohn are among the leading architects whose work was influenced by innovations in communications and transportation. Technology was collapsing the spaces and synchronizing the time differences between cities. These architects helped formulate new languages for describing that cosmopolitan ethos in urban space.
Like Zaha Hadid, Wolf Prix, Toyo Ito, Thom Mayne, Jean Nouvel and other contemporary architects, Norten is performing a similar task for ours. Formally, Norten's design harks back to Mendelsohn, the Weimar-era German Expressionist architect best known for drawings executed with broad, dynamic strokes. Norten's sweeping horizontal lines also convey movement. His design is, you might say, Mendelsohn's prototype for a Central Airport project of 1914, 90 years down the line.
Buildings don't move in space. Like civilizations, however, they move in time. Seen in this dimension, Mendelsohn's graphically dynamic contours were more than metaphoric. They were spaceships expressly made for moving along the arrow of time. And here we are.
Adam Greenfield, a young dot-com consultant now based in Tokyo, reminded me recently of the distinction Marshall McLuhan drew between "light on" (print) and "light through" (electronic) information media. Like recent work by Jean Nouvel, Norten's design communicates by laminating both types of media together. Modern glass buildings accomplished this to a lesser degree, by overlaying transparency with reflections. New glass technology allows architects a far richer range of effects.
In Norten's design, the glass skin functions as a theatrical scrim. Natural light can be varied, according to interior function, by the density of fritting on the surface. Viewed from without, this technique will diffuse the rainbow of colors that will differentiate the floors. It will also allow images to be projected on the skin, converting portions of the facade into a billboard for events throughout the arts district. People moving inside the building will appear, alternatively, as three-dimensional figures and as a frieze of silhouettes.
In principle, the modern glass curtain wall dissolved the barrier between inside and outside. Norten's design articulates the membrane as porous spatial boundary. It assumes the symbolic dimension of the overlap between our inner and outer worlds.
They say that architecture is frozen music. Are we ready for a frozen Margarita? One juror observed that only an architect from a sunny country could produce such a cheerful building. Norten, who was educated in Mexico and the United States, now conducts a transnational practice. In addition to running his firm in Mexico City, he teaches architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. He has recently opened a satellite office in New York.
Norten's design reflects the increasing visibility of Latin American architects in New York. It would be silly to reduce the design to a fusion of Latin and North American influences. Rather, it exemplifies the range of cosmopolitan influences that are widespread in architecture today.
Architects like Norten are not preaching the old modern message about machine-age standardization. Neither are they falling for today's similarly homogenized (New Urbanist) formulas for "sense of place." A sense of displacement, actually, may best describe what they are up to: a joyous response to the dislocation produced by changing times. *
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
You always inform and entertain Christian. *
Thanks, but I usually just post articles.
The building is quite gorgeous.
I can't wait
www.archleague.orgThe themes that arose in all of these projects-colored coded program, creative siting, the experimentation with glass facades and interstitial spaces to interlace building and surroundings-deeply informed TEN's submission for the Visual and Performing Arts Library Competition.
Norten began his discussion of the library project by outlining the history and features of the site, a wedge- shaped lot near downtown Brooklyn, delimited to the west by Atlantic Avenue, to the north by Lafayette Avenue, and to the east by Ashland Place. Across Ashland Place, it faces the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Art Deco tower of the Williamsburg Savings Bank, which dominates the area's skyline. The neighborhood already has a number of arts and cultural institutions, many of them affiliated with the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The competition for the library is part of an energetic initiative to revitalize the neighborhood by taking advantage of its plentiful cultural resources, to make it a focal point of New York artistic and cultural life. Part of this initiative is the Brooklyn Academy of Music cultural district, master planning for which has been carried out by Rem Koolhaas and Diller and Scofidio.
The competition for the Visual & Performing Arts Library, which was funded through a $50,000 grant form the National Endowment for the Arts, featured submissions from TEN Arquitectos, Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Huff + Gooden, and Rafael Vinoly Architects. The competition brief, Norten recalled, was challenging. It demanded an ambitious 150,000 square foot program to include reading rooms, stack space, multimedia archive spaces hosting both traditional and contemporary technologies, exhibition space, performance spaces, a cafe, copy center, administrative, development and circulation spaces, 24/7 indoor space, and an outdoor public space. Moreover, a plot on the northern edge of the site has been reserved for the future construction of a theater. Lastly, the brief demanded explicitly that the new library be highly integrated with the surrounding neighborhood.
From the outset, TEN's overriding goal was "to create a new vocabulary of the library, something much more inviting and part of the community than the traditional heavy stone building." Norten explained that TEN wanted to "discover new possibilities for space and light" while competently and coherently answering the ambitious program requirements." Formally, Norten explained, his team undertook to create a "a permeable building, a transparent building." "This can be taken literally or conceptually," he said, "and the two interpretations come very close together."
A major challenge in the project was how to tie together a complex program and create a coherent and unified "spatial experience and understanding," while sufficiently maintaining the independence of each programmatic component. Norten discussed several of TEN's responses to this challenge. One was the creation of a floor-to-roof central volume in the interior of the building. This central atrium, Norten explained, serves to "anchor one's sense of place" and acts additionally as a light well for the main circulatory spaces. In plan, the architects deeply indented the base of the "triangle", to open up a v-shaped public plaza that serves as a focal point for neighborhood civic life, and leaves ample space for the theater to be built on the site's northern edge.
Zoning regulations limited the height of the project to eight stories above grade, so the project features two underground floors. To gain square footage in spite of the cramped footprint, the project increases in area as it rises, giving the building an appearance somewhat like an anvil or an inverted iron. At the northwest corner of the project, floors five and higher form an overhang that shelters the public space at street level. The underground floors contain parking, mechanical facilities, and an auditorium. The ground floor features lobby, cafe, book and gift shop, and 24/7 public space. The middle floors host the library's arts and music archives, multimedia facilities, library services, performance spaces, and library circulation functions, while the upper floors take in office space for library development and administration. The different programmatic areas and floors are distinguished by the bright colors of their walls-the ground floor is blue, the middle floors radiate teals and greens, and the upper floors reds and oranges. These colors are visible through the glass facade that envelopes the entire project. The facade, a key component of the project's "permeability," is formed of two or three layers of sandwiched glass, depending on the program it shelters and its orientation. For Norten, the glass facade both welcomes the neighborhood into the project, and can serve as "a billboard" to project the library's activities outward.
In conclusion, Norten expressed his optimism that it would contribute to the richness of what "is going to be one of the most important areas of the city."
I was at the site today. I was imagining.
Anything new about this development? I'm excited!
This building is super sleek! Its architecture is belonging of Venice Beach.