Beyer Blinder Belle designs a Brooklyn headquarters for the Mark Morris Dance Group.
Jeff Hill -- Interior Design, 9/1/2001 12:00:00 AM
One of modern dance's brightest stars, Mark Morris has been shaking up the establishment for 20 years with his harmoniously eclectic works, which mix Eastern and Western cultures, traditional and avant-garde movement, and a variety of musical styles ranging from Baroque to punk rock. After years of working in a cramped Manhattan space, Morris finally has a state-of-the-art facility of his own in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, right across the street from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where many of his dances have premiered. "In 1988, Mark Morris Dance Group began a three-year stint in Belgium as the official company of the Théâtre de la Monnaie," begins Michael Osso, director of development and marketing. "There we had access to our own studios, orchestra, and administrative offices. Upon returning to New York in 1991, we decided that we wanted to approximate that situation here, although no other nonrepertory company in the States had done so." Space in Manhattan proved prohibitively expensive, so the company turned to Brooklyn. Harvey Lichtenstein, the Executive Director of BAM, lent a helping hand. "Harvey was excited about our moving to Brooklyn and gave us a lot of assistance in finding the right situation," Osso continues. "The building we bought was owned by New York State, and there was a built-in stipulation that it could only serve as a cultural institution. This all worked to our advantage because the price had been set years ago and was very reasonable."
The New York-based firm Beyer Blinder Belle designed the 30,000-sq.-ft. facility for the company's new headquarters. Renowned for their historical restoration of Grand Central Terminal, the firm has also accomplished several high-profile projects on Manhattan's periphery, including Ellis Island and Governor's Island. "Beyer Blinder Belle seemed to really understand our mission," says Osso. "They created something specific to our needs." Those needs extend beyond the obvious program requirements of a dance company—studios, changing rooms, administrative offices, etc.—to encompass the company's impact on the surrounding community. "Our biggest objective," comments partner Fred Bland, "was to create a building which had a prominent role in downtown Brooklyn. We described this project as the phoenix rising, a light, almost white building signifying the rebirth of this part of Brooklyn and of the arts."
The architects retained only the first, steel level of an existing structure. The exterior skin is entirely new. Patterns of grids and lattices characterize both exterior and interior. "That may be a response to working so closely with Mark," Bland suggests. "I'm thinking of his sense of order, the way his choreography remains grounded in rational thought." The gridded fenestration plays an important role in the overall design conceptually as well as practically. "We worked hard to figure out how we could accommodate large windows," Bland continues. "By day, they admit natural light from the outside in which both dancers and staff can work, but by night they conversely emanate light from inside, like a beacon for the neighborhood."
Bland emphasizes that from the outset the building was to serve not only as a headquarters for Mark Morris, but also as a public building that would help revitalize a Brooklyn neighborhood which "had been going downhill for a generation." Osso concurs: "This is primarily a facility for Mark Morris, but we've wanted to open a dance school, to rent out space to smaller companies at modest cost, and to expand our education programs within the Brooklyn public schools." As such, the Mark Morris headquarters remains completely within the architectural purview that Beyer Blinder Belle has established for itself with stunning success. "Almost all of our work is focused on making life in the cities better," Bland observes. "It's urban, public, and democratic."