When designing cultural institutions and museums, what is your approach to the building’s relationship to its community and the city at-large?
Architecture is itself a form of cultural production and as such one of the first things to consider is its impact on the community, on the institution itself and its contribution to the city at large. Architecture plays a key role in the way we feel about our cities, neighborhoods and the environment we live in. It is therefore very important to realize that architecture is in many ways one of the most powerful voices an institution like a museum may have. This puts the architect into a position of extreme responsibility far beyond the mere functionality of a building.
Since the 2008 recession, have you seen a shift in attitudes for design that reflect an arts organization’s relationship to the city, including issues such as politics, race, and gentrification?
All I know is that when we started with the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, it was a very different neighborhood. Many things changed over the years, and after we opened the museum in 2011, it had become apparent even to people who initially felt that the architecture wouldn’t matter that much in a neighborhood with very little foot traffic, that it was quite the contrary. Architecture mattered in a real big way. It suddenly helped shape a new identity for the neighborhood. People who you wouldn’t expect to pay attention to Astoria suddenly talked about it as if it was a new institution on the Upper East Side. It was really interesting how people who would never go to this part of the city suddenly knew about it. At the same time, it was really satisfying to see how people who had lived in the neighborhood for a long time suddenly developed a new sense of pride. This was really one of the greatest moments for me as an architect – to see how architecture actually affected peoples lives in such a positive way. It was a confirmation of what I believe is our biggest task as architects in our society. And I think a similar thing is happening with BRIC House. All of a sudden, BRIC House has a face that one can see, a locus that one can recognize and orient oneself on within parts of Brooklyn. All of a sudden you can feel and see the institution that was literally invisible before.
Your design for BRIC House (which will for the first time bring the organization’s contemporary arts, performing arts, and community media programs under the same roof), incorporates a very large indoor stoop. Are there other architectural gestures that encourage interaction and exchange between artists and the public, or that ties the building’s activities to Brooklyn culture?
The large stoop is of course central to the design, the institution, but it’s also meant to be symbolically central to the neighborhood. Brooklyn is a multi-cultural city unlike any other, and BRIC House is located precisely at Brooklyn’s cultural center. As such, it seemed appropriate to provide a non-formal place for social interaction precisely between the theater, the TV studio, the gallery and the street. And it is at the street level where we made a small but significant gesture by pushing the street front into the facade as to allow a visual and physical connection with passersby to the symbolic center of BRIC House.
Architecture can have a profound affect on a community. How does engaging with that community and ‘place’ affect you, as an architect?
It is the very reason to be an architect. To affect the community and our environment, which means to change it. Change – in the sense to enable one to understand one’s environment and world around us in a new way – allows us to see things in a different light and to open one’s experience and the way we feel about things. This is what we can only hope to achieve when we design for our community, and this is what affects us as architects in return.
Has your vision and design approach as an architect changed by working with many artists, performers, and arts organizations over the years?
I started as an artist, which I feel is a very uncomfortable description of one’s activities. Maybe this is why I decided to become an architect, and yes, working with artists is always influencing the way I think about things. This is what artists need to do, and this is what I want to be inspired by.
Being based in DUMBO and in a building that includes artist studios, non-profit organizations, and an incubator for media start-ups, is cross-arts collaboration or dialogue something you seek out? Or is it a natural part of your life and work?
It is of course both, but being in an arts community like DUMBO, a lot happens by osmosis. Just walking down the street and seeing many ideas leaking out of the many workshops, galleries or the theater across the street is daily inspiration for me.
Thomas Leeser studied architecture at the University of Darmstadt, Germany and at The Cooper Union, NY under John Hejduk, Peter Eisenman, Raimund Abraham and Bernard Tschumi. He has taught at such institutions as Princeton, Columbia, and Harvard universities, and he is currently a professor at Pratt Institute. Leeser Architecture has won many international awards, including most recently the prestigious Red Dot Award for the design of the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. Current large scale projects are under construction in Abu Dhabi, Bangkok and New York.