In his prime as an architect, Frank Gehry enjoys the kind of jobs that equally ripe architects only dream of—small-scale, tight-budgeted commissions like the ones from their earliest years.
There’s nothing starchitect-y about the 70,000 square foot Signature Theater on a far West stretch of 42nd Street. It’s all stained plywood, concrete and jiggly stencils overlapping on sheetrock walls.
Last night, Gehry was comfortably in his element as he talked about the project while the hubbub of a gala opening heaved all around the energy-pumping space. “The main focus was about balancing intimacy versus the social, providing functionality for their exact needs as well as flexibility. And I didn’t want it to be at all precious,” the architect said while relaxing with a glass of red wine on a white couch that happened to be the main prop on the stage of the End Stage where Edward Albee’s The Lady from Dubuque will be performed. “It didn’t have to be fancy to be engaging. It’s kind of a throwback to my early work.”
In its relatively short life so far, the Signature Theater, founded in 1991 by artistic director James Houghton, has gone from a scrappy and focused 79-seat venue in Midtown (the company is known for producing the complete works of a single playwright each season) to world famous in 2004 for being selected as one of the seed institutions to inhabit a mega performing arts complex at ground zero and then back to scrappy after abandoning the political complexities of the World Trade Center in order to become the theatrical tenant in Related Companies MiMA condo (two theaters were razed to make way for the No.7 subway extension and the developer getting the site was obligated to make good on a theater bonus).
When the ground zero dream died, Gehry, who often prizes personal connection over size of commission, stuck by Houghton and his modest $66 million budget (OK: so the architect will eventually also be doing the performing arts center at the World Trade Center). The program was straightforward: to provide three small theaters ranging in size from 2,500 to 4,900 square feet, each offering design-effacing flexibility, two studio spaces for workshop productions, a generous social space plus lobby and administration offices. The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre is the most charmingly Gehry-esque set as it is in an extreme curve that makes sense of the buckled plywood placketed over the balcony rail and paneling the walls as sound proofing. In the End Stage Theatre, the largest of the three, the same stained and varnished plywood is layered in a more jigsaw-like pattern that shades from a dark bark color near the stage to honey tones at the top of a gentle incline as if palette were mimicking sound waves. Gehry worked with H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture, old hands at theater design and also an erstwhile partner for a theater at the BAM Cultural Center, as architect of record. There’s a whispery hint of German architect Hans Scharoun, one of Gehry’s favorite inspirations. “Scharoun made spaces people loved. He used concrete and paint and he showed that you don’t have to be fancy to be engaging. It’s a good model.”
Neither the street-level lobby nor the central space on the second floor make major design statements, which is part of their appeal. There is a grand stair of sorts, with jig-jags of blonde plywood affixed loudly with screws to steel frames, that rises through the space and bridges a two-level upper lobby. The 6,400 square foot upper lobby, called the Central Plaza, is a social mixing bowl for all the theaters and studio spaces with a bookstore and café, sofas, and free wi-fi. As is all the rage in cultural event spaces that can afford it, there are even interactive billboards, where you can record impressions and photographs of yourself and post them for all to check out, Zagat-live-like. “The idea was to have people mixing and meeting in a way that would drive energy that would drive more people to participate,” Gehry said, adding with mischief-making glee, “it’s the kind of connectivity that is still missing at Lincoln Center.”