Long before the first curtain is drawn at Brooklyn College’s Leonard and Claire Tow Center for the Performing Arts, the drama has already begun, with challenges facing the school and the project’s architect. The center will anchor the college’s eastern campus—a formerly non-descript entrance—forming a gateway to a new arts quadrangle. “We wanted to create a building that is a portal—a signifier—of the campus,” said Lorenzo Mattii, lead designer and principal at Pfeiffer Partners Architects’ New York office. “We wanted to open up the building to the neighborhood.”
Situated next to the college’s signature 2,500-seat Whitman Hall, the new facility will replace the mid-century Gershwin Hall. However, the site is complicated by a sewer with a 30-foot diameter, and no construction is permitted above the easement.
A scuffle broke following the completion of the new eastern campus masterplan, when the New York Department of Environmental Protection learned that Whitman and Gershwin halls were built over the sewer easement in the 1950s. The agency initially sought to demolish both, prompting Iris Weinshall, vice-chancellor at City University of New York, which oversees Brooklyn College, and wife of Senator Charles Schumer, to help broker a resolution saving Whitman Hall and allowing the old stage tower at Gershwin, already built atop the sewer, to be preserved and incorporated into the new structure.
To create the glass-filled gateway he hoped for, Mattii sought to bring a modern aesthetic to the new facility. “We needed to convince the school that they could have contemporary architecture on a traditional Georgian campus,” he said. “We took them through a step by step process, peeling back brick to reveal more and more glass. It was a tough sell.” The resulting facade features “a staccato rhythm of glass, brick, and metal that recalls a curtain drawing open,” said Mattii. He extended the rhythmic pattern into the lobby to provide visual connection to the street.
Mattii designed the performing arts center’s recital halls, practice rooms, and rehearsal spaces as “boxes within a box,” each built atop isolation pads and with double-layer walls to ensure pristine acoustics. There is also a black-box theater and a large rehearsal room that doubles as a theater. The signature 212-seat recital hall, which also doubles as a theater, is built with massive 31⁄2-foot thick walls to maintain sound quality. Four layers of lacquered medium density fiberboard bounce low and mid-frequency reverberations around the room for a rich sound, forming undulating horizontal ribbons that conceal perimeter lighting. “The wall panels were prefabricated,” said Matti. “They all look different, but there are really only four or five different types.”
The $55 million facility, Brooklyn College’s first LEED-Certified building, broke ground in May and will be complete in 2014.