February 21, 2012

Theater in Museums' Clothes: The Museum of the Moving Image, Queens, NY

*All images courtesy John Hill
Ada Louise Huxtable's harmonious condition of "museum as specialized interface" defines architect Thomas Leeser's 2011 addition to The Museum of the Moving Image. The new space pretends to be a museum through visual cues, but its reality is that of a theater, an integrated esthetic whole tailored to the moving image. And that is just perfect. The architecture and its contents work in a closely choreographed unity. In contrast, the New York MoMA, built in 2004 Yoshio Tanaguchi, represents the type-form of the traditional, versatile museum whose architecture serves as a background for a diverse collection. In such classic museums, videos may be exhibited on the same wall as a painting, next to a sculpture. This isn't always ideal. The MoMI's success is that it breaks from this tradition; it is a content specific armature and an thus an update of the default museum, though it takes on many of the same languages.

The Astoria Studio complex was built in 1920 by Famous Players-Lasky, now known as Paramount Pictures, as their East Coast production center. The Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria has been telling stories about the moving image there since 1988, when the historic studio, a brick warehouse building, became home to the collection. Leeser's $67 million, 47,700 square foot addition and renovation was commissioned in 2008 and completed in January 2011.
The dissimulation, the theater's masquerade as "not a theater", starts with the first glimpse of the building. The new addition is a sleek, complex arrangement of theaters, exhibition spaces (theaters), a lobby/cafe, and a flexible educational area. The exterior skin, a rain screen system of light blue triangular metal panels, bundles the complex interior volumes into a neatly packaged design that fools onlookers by suggesting "museum of technology" through deployment of a futuristic looking skin patterned like an abstracted 3-D wireframe model. This exterior-interior relationship reveals the core success of the building: it is not simply about displaying technology, it is about an "other-worldly experience", as the architect states. While seemingly about the progression of film, the focus is on the escapism of the movie-going experience. This is why the building must be a theater. Leeser pulls this off brilliantly.
When approaching the entrance to the museum, a canopy, really a stylized marquee, with a thin horizontal band of brightly colored text in the museum's signature font announces that this is indeed The Museum of the Moving Image. The brightness recalls marquee lights and almost announces "theater", but the larger super-graphics in the same font which cover the three window bays surrounding the double doors would not be seen at a movie house, and thus save the canopy from giving up too much too soon. The larger graphics have reflective triangles with in the text, creating a striking visual motif, original enough to disrupt our reading of the marquee as such. The exterior formal language, the thinness of the entrance's overhang, and the absence of movie posters are the costume that fools us into thinking we are at a museum.
Upon entering through the original 1920 warehouse, the interior welcomes us like a typical theater. The lobby takes its form from the sloped, traditional stepped seating area above it. This moment, when the sloped underside of the theatre seating convenes with the flat floor, becomes the inspiration for the formal elements throughout the building, from the exterior cladding to the typeface. This strategy works extremely well as it takes the inevitability of the sloped ceiling and makes it into a cohesive and thoughtful visual treatment. The triangular panels on the outer skin, the obtuse chamfers on corners of walls, the angular details of the stairs from the lobby, and the custom triangle-inspired typeface make perfect sense to embrace and exploit through a visual language of the sloped theatre's form, especially in a building so tightly confined by an urban site. This decision and its execution pull the entire intricate museum together esthetically.
Through the front entrance, a small information desk and cafe provide theater-like detours in the lobby space. The lobby is all white like a typical museum, with white plastic furniture and white custom Corian millwork. Upon looking closer, however, the floor is actually a very pale blue, a perfect analogy for the theater's museum impersonation. Along the wall to the left as we enter, a set of projectors allows for extremely wide-format images to be stitched along a 40 foot wall. The stark, smooth whiteness keeps up the museum like appearance, but acts as a quasi-metaphorical large inhabitable movie screen, ready to be projected upon with moving images. This apparent museum-ness of the lobby also provides a blank "canvas" or, more appropriately, a "display" for the various colored light interventions coming from the two theatre entrances. The stairs from the lobby to the upper exhibition spaces are detailed as smooth white surfaces with an angular chamfer motif to match the sloped ceiling, creating a strong visual continuity throughout.
The real star of this show is the luminescent blue, sci-fi entrance to the main theatre. Vivid blue felt on the walls and ceiling, highlighted by blue LED lights on the underside of a metallic handrail, emanates a beautiful light from the angled entrance corridor. This resembles entering an amusement park ride, a perfect experiential metaphor for the "other-wordly" act of cinema. The light creates a wash reminiscent of the warming glow of a television. This flashy contemporary styling is much more appropriate for a museum than a theater, which usually incorporates a bit of nostalgia, and again visually codes the space as a place for viewing art. The same felt and colored lighting are used in pink for the entrance to the smaller theatre space.
Inside the main theater, the triangular undulating surface from the exterior of the building is repeated, this time with custom millwork and blue acoustic felt. The space functions as a performance space as well as a video theater. The theatre also features highly tunable lighting, a small orchestra pit, and the ability to show a wide range of formats, including 3D movies. Movie house-like technology and programming defines the small upstairs gallery, located at the top of the first flight of stairs. Angular benches facilitate the projection of a movie onto the wall. This flexible gallery allows many different videos to be shown, with small theater like seating areas oriented towards a blank, flat, white wall. The latest technology works behind the scenes to make the experience cutting edge and specific, which is the strength of this building.
In an age of technological innovation and increased specialization, art has become more varied and more difficult to house. Video art, sound art, and interface design are just a few examples of the expanding medium to which museums must adapt. This has led to a need for more specialized museum architecture to display specific content. The Museum of the Moving Image represents a new strain, a progression of the classic museum image and takes an evolutionary step by morphing into a hybrid theatre/museum, a genre which we should see more of. It deftly tackles the age old problems of museum as interface and progresses what we know about museums into a more specialized version of the archetypal museum, the white box. The "moving of the museum image" could mean galleries within a diverse museum which can specifically accommodate different mediums, or can at least adapt in more pointed ways. Instead of using small galleries for videos when needed, small theaters could be placed alongside larger galleries. This would help facilitate the art of a mixed medium exhibition more precisely. Adaptable soundproofing could be emplyed where needed, as well. There are many ways museums can become more harmonious with their content, and MoMI serves as a precedent. This museum contains all the necessary features to project its world-class collection of film in a world-class way and should serve as an example for the next generation of museums.

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