Revealing Movement pix
Passersby get a glimpse of Alvin Ailey dancers in their glass-fronted New York operations by Iu + Bibliowicz Architects
Fred A. Bernstein -- Interior Design, 5/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
For more than 40 years, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was like many New York residents: always renting, never able to buy. So when the company moved this year into its first permanent home, the Joan Weill Center for Dance, it wasn't just a practical milestone, but a symbolic one, too. "Having a building," says Ailey artistic director Judith Jamison, "conveys stability and strength." At the same time, the company's mission is to bring dance to the community. Thus, it was important to the Ailey that its new neighbors be able to see the creative activity going on in the eight-story center's 12 studios.
To the building's architects, Carolyn Iu and Natan Bibliowicz, those seemingly opposing goals—solidity and transparency—were powerful generators of form. Red brick, a common material in the largely residential neighborhood, encloses the core mechanical and circulation spaces, which wrap around the north and west sides of the building. Projecting from the hefty L-shape core are layers of glass-walled dance studios, which appear to float without obvious means of support, just like Ailey dancers in performance. Passersby see bodies in motion; dancers see midtown New York. And, thankfully, the view doesn't distract them. "They tell me that seeing skyscrapers from the windows makes them stand up straighter," says Bibliowicz.
Iu and Bibliowicz, principals in their namesake firm, are best known for designing Times Square's Virgin Megastore, which is roughly the same size as the 77,000-square-foot Ailey building but mostly underground. Only two levels of the dance center are below grade; the six top floors command the street with a crystalline geometry that's as pale as an ice cube, though not nearly as chilly. Light permeates the building; even the circulation core has windows, turning what could have been a dark scissor stair into a pleasantly airy route from floor to floor. The architects gave the extra-wide concrete steps a smooth finish, since dancers move around the building shoeless.
The center accommodates approximately 1,000 dancers with its two Ailey dance companies, the Ailey school, and numerous public dance classes. The steady stream of traffic passes through a lobby that's a virtual town square complete with Maya Lin Stones seating, a dance-accessories shop, and a monumental ' photographic banner of company founder Alvin Ailey (who died in 1989) with Jamison, his star protégé and successor. In the center of the space, a generously proportioned concrete and maple stair leads down to the building's largest room, a black-box theater with 295 seats that retract when additional dance practice space is needed.
The top four floors are reserved for company use. Each has a reception area that doubles as a lounge for administrative staff and dancers. The second, third, and fourth floors house administrative offices and two conference rooms. On the fifth floor, a Jack Mitchell shot of Jamison dancing is reproduced as a striking ' mosaic in black, white, and gray tile; on the same floor, in the lounge, the architects created a nook enclosed by translucent white acrylic sheets for watching videos of Ailey performances, some dating back more than 40 years. In fact, the designers honor the company's history by displaying archival posters and photographs throughout the center. "Those images make the dancers feel that it's really their building," says Iu.
Each of the 12 studios has slightly different proportions, with ceiling heights ranging from 16 to 20 feet. All but one have sprung floors of yellow Southern pine mounted on rubber supports. (Before the flooring was fabricated, Ailey dancers tried out mock-ups to determine the proper level of bounce.) In the studio dedicated to tap dancing, where noise is part of the art, the floor is maple. Ceilings are white acoustical tile; the windows, made of low-emission glass, appear almost white, too. The curtain wall is designed to keep street noise out and rehearsal music in.
Splashes of color—saffron, taxi-cab yellow, smoldering red—animate the center, which is billed as the largest American facility devoted entirely to dance. Still, for the most part, the architects, who are unabashed modernists, were happy to provide a neutral backdrop. "The building isn't about displaying our creativity," says Iu. "It's a canvas for the dancers to display theirs."