When architect Thomas Leeser designed the renovation and expansion of the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, NY, he didn't just build a building to educate the public about the art, history, technique, and technology of film, television, and digital media. He went a step further by taking his vision and letting it inspire him to create a space that embodies the museum's purpose, both inside and out. The moment visitors pass through the translucent mirrored entrance of the metallic multifaceted building and into the lobby, they are immediately transported into the ephemeral world of the digital image through the architect's masterful use of color, light and unusual angles.
The museum, which is now 97,700 square feet, is located on the site of the former east coast production facility that was owned by Paramount Studios in the 1920's. Eventually the Museum of the Moving Image was formed and opened to the public in 1988. When Leeser designed the renovation and expansion, he had to fuse the old with the new. He explains, "When we started the project, we had to create a completely new vision and image for the museum. The old building was dark and had black walls like many theaters. What we needed to do was to bring the museum into the digital age."
The interior space is quite striking and almost futuristic. Leeser explains, "The basic concept was to create an atmosphere of an electronic space so to speak, and to submerge the visitor in the world of digital film. We introduced a lot of white and a very pale blue color, blue being the color of digital light."
The walls of the lobby are almost faceted, as they have been strategically cut and folded to allow for the projection of moving images. Leeser explains, "As you come into the lobby, the first half of the lobby is the older building and the second half of the lobby is the recent new theater. We tried to make this as seamless as possible so when you actually come in, you don't notice where the old building merges with the new one. The floors are seamless and the stairs are designed in such a way that a kind of connectivity and continuity of space is created, especially with the very pale colors."
Leeser has created a very unique world in which visitors can feel as if they are walking through a moving image, with the clever use of light, shadow and the subtle distortions they produce. "Even though it's not soft and round, it's kind of sharp, it has the sense of continuity and fluidity nonetheless. Everything is done in white and very, very pale blue, a kind of a sky blue. Most areas of the theater are finished in white but then when you look at the shadows you realize it's actually blue. In fact it's very ambiguous. It's like an electric color."
"The floor is a seamlessly cast polyurethane floor which is a very light blue. It is an incredibly durable floor and actually easy to maintain. It took us a little while to convince the client to use it because it's counter-intuitive - a very light floor can be very fragile and prone to dirt, but with this floor it's actually quite the opposite."
"We wanted to have a feeling of continuity and fluidity in the spaces, but then when you come into the theaters themselves the colors are vibrant. The main theater is an Yves Klein blue, a bright cobalt. The other theater is a similarly powerful kind of pink. The use of these strong colors creates a disengagement from the real world as you enter those theaters into a completely different atmosphere."
"On the second floor we have the amphitheater where the circulation of the museum is actually brought directly through a gallery that typically has black curtains. What we did instead is we brought the gallery right out into the circulation space so that as you're walking through the museum, there's actually no dedicated circulation space. You're always walking through galleries. Throughout the museum, visitors are invited to sit on benches that are almost folded into the floors. So there are moments where you can sit down and rest, but at the same time you're actually constantly moving in a way. It is a little bit like the idea of how film is actually created through the movement of cameras and the light constantly shifts. The walls of the building are slightly tilted and leaning so they create inverse perspectives and strange little moments where you think the wall is straight. As you're walking you realize that the wall is actually vice versa. So this idea of motion and movement is suggested through the slight distortion of geometry and through the fact that the materials are all the same throughout the museum, with a few exceptions."
"The third floor gallery is treated a little differently because it's a changing exhibition space which is not exclusively dedicated to media art, so it's probably the most traditional space."
The exterior of the building is quite stunning but it also perhaps posed the greatest challenge for Leeser. He explains, "In a way the most challenging but maybe also the most fun was the design of the exterior of the building because there are absolutely no windows. There is glass on the ground floor because the lobby is open to the courtyard, but the rest of the building is completely windowless. It's really difficult to design a windowless façade that is not overly ornate and ornamental but at the same time not boring and kind of dull. So we designed these triangulated aluminum panels with a very subtle system of joints. They're wider joints and by placing them according to a design logic of folds and cuts, the façade has a lively, active look to it. We also designed the façade in such a way that the joints are open. There is no caulking in this building, so the triangulated panels appear to seamlessly flow around the volume of the building, which further enhances the concept of the fluidity and continuity of film. For me it was quite exciting to see the first mockup we built, to see the power of it and the absence of the caulking. The fact that these joints are open makes the building look extremely sharp, almost like a hyper-focused image in a way, so it was very exciting."
The renovation and expansion of the Museum of the Moving Image was completed in 2011. Leeser adds, "We enjoyed very much working with the client. The director at the time, Rochelle Slovin, was very supportive of our vision. That was a fantastic working relationship."
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