Polonsky Shakespeare Center by H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture
Brooklyn, New York
Architects & Firms
At a recent performance of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center (PSC) in Brooklyn, New York, Titania, queen of the fairies, levitates into the heavens on a cloud of billowing white fabric while Puck descends into the underworld below the stage. It's a magical production, as tightly choreographed as a ballet.
From the street, the Polonsky is the essence of a black box: gunmetal-hued and framing a public “stage”—a ground-floor lobby and two balconies, the top one stepped back—that is on display through a glass curtain wall. The architects clad the exterior in glossy dark-gray aluminum composite panels that reflect the sky and everything around it, a good trick for the nearly windowless facades required by a theater. It cuts a simple, strong profile in the Downtown Brooklyn Cultural District bordering Fort Greene, an area that has been the focus of a concerted renaissance since the late 1990s, when the Brooklyn Academy of Music began its own transformation, leading a movement to use cultural capital to create a more vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood. With the support of New York City's former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and the Department of Cultural Affairs, the shift has been gaining momentum. Today there are approximately 29 real-estate developments in play in the area, including a residential tower under construction to the south of PSC by Enrique Norten, with a dedicated city-owned arts and culture space. Also to the south, developer Jonathan Rose is working with Dattner Architects, Bernheimer Architecture, and SCAPE Landscape Architects on the design of an apartment building that will also house Eyebeam, an art and technology organization.
H3 wanted to make the theater welcoming to the community—Fort Greene has been home to artists and creative types long before this new wave of development—so they created a soaring triple-height lobby with a terrazzo floor that appears to flow out onto the concrete plaza beyond. Landscape architect Ken Smith designed a curving pattern of 4-inch-wide stainless-steel strips embedded in the outdoor plaza, and H3 carried his pattern inside, setting aluminum divider strips into the terrazzo—a beckoning gesture. “It's like, come on in, have a beer,” says H3's Geoff Lynch, partner in charge. A bar and concession stand for the first floor is currently in fabrication and will be installed this month, to be operated by restaurateur Danny Meyer's Union Square Events.
But the black-box/courtyard theater inside is the real destination. A state-of-the-art and highly flexible take on the Cottesloe Theatre in London, it contains three tiers of seating surrounding three sides of the performance area, one at orchestra level, and two on balconies. From the stage to the grid above that contains lights and mechanical equipment, it's a soaring 35 feet (most off-Broadway theaters are 19). Rear stage doors that conceal the backstage and rehearsal room beyond it can be opened to, say, march an army from the back of the building to the back of the house—100 feet. A 20-foot trap exists below half of the stage. A Broadway theater might have these features, but it would also have 800 to 1,500 seats; the Polonsky has only 299. The seats on the balconies are freestanding, so audience members can pull them up close to the guardrails. (During Midsummer, these were a wing's distance from fairy children who often took up residence on the catwalks built for the production.) Depending on the play, the seats and stage can be reconfigured in many different combinations.
Though the mostly steel-frame theater sits above a subway, one doesn't hear or feel it. The front two thirds of the building rest on a 12-inch concrete slab supported by 8-inch-thick steel-reinforced rubber pads that isolate vibrations. “The acoustic isolation was actually a far greater challenge than the acoustics in the auditorium,” says Lynch. “It's very challenging to get a rubber that's hard enough to support a building and will last 100 years.”
The PSC has all of the bells and whistles to satisfy a director who uses every inch of the theater, like Taymor, but it also honors the audience, making them privy to the mechanics of the production, without being overwhelming, and allowing them to observe each other across the stage—a constant reminder that theater is communal. Founding partner Hugh Hardy “knows how to make those rooms people love,” says Lynch. “Architects take theaters too ideologically, so they are often too hard or too much about an architectural idea, and not about going to the theater.” Horowitz is clearly thrilled with his company's new home, which switched sites three times in Brooklyn alone. Finally he has a place where “you can conjure dreams that are much larger than everyday realism,” he says.
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27,500 square feet
$47.4 million ($27 million construction)