The Van Alen Institute in Manhattan, an advocate of “smart public design” for more than 100 years, is taking to the street.
Last year David van der Leer, the institute’s new director, arranged to swap its longtime quarters on the sixth floor of a Flatiron district building for a storefront space in the same building, where, van der Leer says, “our ability to connect with audiences is much greater.” But gaining accessibility meant going from 5,600 to just 2,500 square feet. So before renovating the ground-floor space, which is both narrow and irregularly shaped, Van der Leer organized an architecture competition. Judges, including architects like Ada Tolla, Mark Gardner, and Winka Dubbeldam, selected a scheme by Collection-LOK, the team of Jon Lott (PARA-Project), William O’Brien Jr. (WOJR), and Michael Kubo (over,under).
The result, unveiled in December, joins a large event space to a series of alcoves, used by Van Alen staff, that can be hidden behind accordion doors during public programs. But there’s no hiding away the ceiling, a grid of deep coffers made of perforated aluminum panels, powder coated white, and top-lit by fluorescents. It recalls the coffers of Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum as well as the tantalizing scrim installations of artist Robert Irwin. The ceiling is at once monumental and ephemeral, stunning with the lights on or lights off. Don’t be surprised, during even the most compelling programs at the new Van Alen, to see audience members looking up.