Oh, to live in the unbuilt world of Thomas Leeser! While most architects have by mid-career accumulated a village of unrealized projects, all offering glimpses of unbuildable wonders or cancelled near-misses, Leeser’s exceptional collection features unbuilt buildings that seem at once otherworldly and down-to-earth. With a long-refined vocabulary of tessellated-panel cladding, continuous-curve surfacing, laconically sculptural massing, knife-sharp edging, and a certain icy taste for sparkle, his practice has produced an evanescent architecture for a counterfactual world, more exciting and exacting than our own: For Yakutsk, Russia, a wooly mammoth museum whose facade tessellations extrude into leggy permafrost-foundation piles, all with the irresistible creaturely charisma of the animal it exhibits; for Abu Dhabi, a hotel whose voluptuous curves manifest as Wright’s Guggenheim in full ballroom spin; for Heidelberg, Germany, there’s a solid-looking museum that, at least seemingly, melts into air.
Now, remarkably, one of those projects has found its way into the real world; like many recent arrivals from exotic realms, it lives in Queens, New York. It’s an addition to the Museum of the Moving Image, a shiny renovation of the existing interior along with a theater and screening room, and three new stories at the back, enrobed in a rounded and inscribed aluminum facade. The museum is a worthy city-run gallery of film and television, housed since 1988 in a surprisingly swanky complex of former studios and backlots built by Paramount Pictures in the 1920s.
Setting aside that old saw about frozen music, architecture and cinema are the most intimately conspiratorial of arts, the formal language for the latter having been established by that notably failed architect, Sergei Eisenstein. And within the context of the moving image, Leeser’s architectural vocabulary has an acute critical relevance. The seamless surfaces that curve from floor to ceiling before splicing into deep re-entrant corners and incisions—these recall the long steady-cam tracking shot that immerses the filmgoer in a borrowed world. The rectilinear openings and tubular ramps that cut into those smooth surfaces to provide circulation and services—these recall the classic thumbs-and-forefingers framing of the cinema screen, and the startling displacements of a jump-cut montage. The color palette enhances these effects, with a bright white interrupted by shocks of red, and illuminated by concealed LEDs of retina-blasting blue.
For the tectonically fastidious, these gestures might be more moderne than modern: the coating in seamless white of a diverse assortment of plasters and resins and composites and metals suppresses a desirable legibility of how these different materials are deployed. But this privileging of visual effects is complemented by an economy of means in both programming and detailing: a stray cove underneath the banked seating of a second-floor theater becomes a lobby seating area of cunning grandeur; a handrail in a screening room doubles as a visually white-hot light-catcher, seeming to glow as it bounces the illumination of an otherwise banal fluorescent concealed nearby. That second-floor main theater is an attenuated icosahedron lined with blue felt panels. The linear gaps between those panels, arrayed at the same scale and harlequin pattern as the aluminum panels outside, challenge the eye’s reading of the form and edges of that volume to transporting effect. (For what is presumably the price of mere meters of their signature luminous tropical hardwood, the admittedly much smaller Blue Theatre strongly recalls the most instrumental effects of Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s contemporary Alice Tully Hall, with similar felt walls, cove lighting, panelized extremities, and demi-hexagonal geometry in plan and section.) Much of what distinguishes Leeser’s project, like surprising sightlines and hardworking shadow gaps, is achieved, as it were, for free. After navigating funding cuts and schedule delays, it reportedly arrived right on budget, doubling the museum’s size to some 100,000 square feet for a surprising $67 million. And, as they say in Hollywood, all the money is up on the screen.
Although glazing at both ends of the long lobby draws light deep into the floor plate, the interior lacks a soaring see-and-be-seen space worthy of this scrappy museum’s ambition and mission. But a densely woven cross-section, and frequent double-programming of shared circulation, exhibition, and projection spaces, packs a remarkable amount of punch into a smallish total volume. Much of the addition provides circulation space to galleries embedded in the historic Paramount building, which combine discursive exhibits and high-tech new media with charmingly hokey ephemera like an original puppet prop of Star Wars’ Yoda, somewhat worse for wear at age 931.
The addition works because, unlike the hermetically bombastic work of many would-be-Yodas of the architecture galaxy, it poses not as a prophetic artifact from an as-yet unbuilt world, but integrates itself with a surprising combination of swagger and subtlety into an existing architecture, and into the virtual and actual landscapes of the cinema it houses and the city it inhabits. On a recent evening, a screening in that blue theater of 2001 yielded an uncanny convergence: a view of stars framed by the door of a space station’s landing bay aligned precisely with the rectangle of the screen, which in turn aligned with the lateral cross-section of the theater itself; as Kubrick’s camera pulled back into the depth of the bay, that space suddenly became, by single-point-perspective alignment, a telescoping extension of the theater, launching the audience deep into the heavens. Downstairs, snow from a recent blizzard drifted against a glittering window-wall, blended seamlessly with the ice-white floors, and by juxtaposition and reflection sent that same audience through the looking glass, through the silver screen, out into the night.