Sunday, May 23, 2004

brooklyn museum of art renovation

Yesterday I biked over to the newly renovated Brooklyn Museum of Art to check out its new look. I wanted to see how well the new glass atrium, the radiating lawns, the ampitheater, and the dancing fountains worked for the space. I was not disappointed.

The renovation gives the plaza and entryway a much-needed multi-level aspect and encourages the surrounding community to utilize it for a myriad of purposes. Before, the museum stood as a blank, vertical, neoclassical monolith across a flat expanse of lawn. This has been broken up by the curving glass atrium that pushes out from the building. The series of narrow lawns, along with the ampitheater to the eastof the entryway, radiate out from the entrance, drawing passersby into the museum's sphere of influence.

The steps of the ampitheater are so broad that I could sit on one step, lie my bike flat in front of me, and still afford plenty of room for someone to sit in front of my bike. These platforms, rather than being solid concrete, are instead framed by it, with the vast majority of the surface area made of wood planking. This planking also features on the walkway that leads from the top of the ampitheater around the curve of the glass entryway and affords interesting views into the entryway itself as well as across the plaza. The stairs down from the other end of the curve are also made of the same wood. While not visible if you are simply passing by, the wood softens the features of ampitheater for those who take the time to sit and conveys a sense of being on a boardwalk, along with the leisure and relaxation that connotes.

Children are drawn to the ampitheater space not just because of the opportunity to run up and down the stairs and make up multilevel activities, but also because of the dancing fountains that provide a visual focus at the bottom of the ampitheater. It has been stated by a number of people that the fountains are a legacy of mall gimmickry. But these fountains are placed right out front rather than inside some courtyard or behind an impenetrable barrier of hedges or tulips. Maybe this is why metal police barricades were set up around their perimeter yesterday. I hope they take those barricades away - looking at how the fountains are situated, I get the sense that the architects wanted to maintain a feeling of openness. Is the museum afraid of liability? That the fountains aren't robust enough for children to play in and amongst them? If they are afraid of these possibilities, and insist on making the fountains themselves off-limits, I would hope they would consider doing it in a way that retains an overall feeling of openness.

I would also be remiss if I didn't note that the fountains use a fair amount of water and I'm sure a not-small amount of energy to run. Much as I feel curmudgeonly for criticizing the fountains on sustainability grounds - since they seem to be an effective draw to the plaza - it is important that we always look to principles of sustainability especially when building new projects. It's possible that the fountains run with treated greywater from the museum and solar cells from the building's roof, and if that's the case, so much the better. In that case, they could become a public educational piece about the possibilities for sustainable design. But somehow I don't think they're doing what I just suggested.

What defines the success of an open space is whether people use it. Yesterday, despite the spurious threat of rain, many people were using the space. People sat on benches under the trees at the west end of the plaza, and a few folks lounged on the lawns in the middle. At the ampitheater, parents lounged on the steps watching their children playing down by the fountains, and not a few kids got themselves purposely drenched when the water blew their way. It was a diverse crowd on the plaza, and it was apparent that many of the people there that day came from the surrounding community. This last point is especially important and positive, because it means that the museum has succeeded in providing a service to the people who live and work around it, and so has integrated itself into the community a little bit more.


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