Museum of the Moving Image

In its renovation and expansion, Brooklyn's Leeser Architecture creates an enhanced interface to bridge physical space and optical experience.

A wide gulf lies between a film and the constituent ingredients of its production. It is in the editing room, and ultimately on the screen, that piecemeal fragments of reality are reassembled and streamed into an optical hyperreality that bypasses the space of the body—and the space of architecture. For this reason, architecture typically disappears where the screen begins. But Thomas Leeser and his Brooklyn-based firm were not content to maintain these traditional boundaries. In renovating and expanding New York City's Museum of the Moving Image , a showcase for the artifacts and processes of screen culture, they created an enhanced interface to bridge the physical and virtual experience.

When you enter the newly reopened museum, says Leeser, "you're entering an otherworldly realm—the realm of film." Located in the burgeoning neighborhood of Astoria, Queens, this project marks one of those rare occasions where a digital-inspired sci-fi aesthetic is truly appropriate. The original 1920s structure was built as a production studio for Paramount. Although its industrial affect fit naturally with the museum's "Behind the Screen" collection, it did little to connect the various film props, archival footage, vintage projectors, and other physical paraphernalia with the ephemeral artifice of the moving image to which they belonged.
Section perspective inside the new addition. Counter-clockwise from lower left: Theatre, lobby/café, exhibition space, amphitheater, flexible exhibition space, archive. Above: The ground-floor lobby, a seamless bluish-white space that prepares one’s senses for full immersion. Blue light emanates from the tunnel entrances to the theater, defining the sloping ceiling. ©Peter Aaron. Courtesy of Museum of the Moving Image
Section perspective inside the new addition. Counter-clockwise from lower left: Theatre, lobby/café, exhibition space, amphitheater, flexible exhibition space, archive. Above: The ground-floor lobby, a seamless bluish-white space that prepares one’s senses for full immersion. Blue light emanates from the tunnel entrances to the theater, defining the sloping ceiling. ©Peter Aaron. Courtesy of Museum of the Moving Image
Leeser Architecture's adroit intervention, a $67 million project completed with public funds, now allows the museum to address both sides of the screen. The new wing adds 3500 m2 of interior space, including three distinct viewing environments as well as new public areas, plus a 1000 m2 outdoor public courtyard (set to open this spring), bringing the total museum area to around 9000 m2.
As abstract as a digital wire model, the north elevation is a lightweight skin of floating, reflective, triangular aluminum panels. ©Peter Aaron. Courtesy of Museum of the Moving Image
As abstract as a digital wire model, the north elevation is a lightweight skin of floating, reflective, triangular aluminum panels. ©Peter Aaron. Courtesy of Museum of the Moving Image
Grafted onto the back of the old building, Leeser's addition absorbs the abstraction of the screen into the body of architecture. Its exterior skin is composed of lightweight, floating aluminum panels configured in a tessellated triangular grid. Reflecting the sky in its ice-blue surface, this blank phantom evokes a digital wireframe model—the virtual environment in which many of today's visual effects are generated, from movie scenes to architectural rendering. Conforming to the enduring reality of weather, however, the channels between the triangles carry rainwater behind the façade.

"Both architecture and film are about the choreography of movement and the experience of space," observes Leeser, who worked as a partner in Peter Eisenman's office prior to starting his own firm in 1989. The first screen that museum visitors are likely to encounter is the one they must cross through from the street. At the main entrance, the full-height glass storefront is patterned with opaque triangles and overlaid with pink-edged supergraphics bearing the institution's name. This translucent veil lies flush with the building's outer surface, in contrast to the deeply inset windows of the historic landmark façade.
The semi-transparent storefront entrance, with its triangular motif and oversize pink-edged lettering, is the first screen that visitors encounter. ©Peter Aaron. Courtesy of Museum of the Moving Image
The semi-transparent storefront entrance, with its triangular motif and oversize pink-edged lettering, is the first screen that visitors encounter. ©Peter Aaron. Courtesy of Museum of the Moving Image
The ground-floor lobby is a seamless bluish-white space that conditions one's senses for further optical immersion. In this sleek cocoon of tilting planes and continuous surfaces, the cool, neutral palette picks up traces of deftly programmed light and color—a moody blue glow emanating from the tunnel entrances to the main theater, for example, or the hot pink of the corridor leading to the auxiliary screening room. A wide-format (15m-long) projection dances along a tilted wall opposite the ticket counter. Indeed one gets the impression that any surface whatsoever could suddenly burst into color and image.

Pleasant daylight seeps in from the courtyard, but the lobby's spatial effects are most pronounced after dark. A sloping ceiling in the lobby traces the underside of the adjacent theater, forming a sharp crease where it meets the upward-sloping floor. The allure of this ethereal terrain, softly illuminated by recessed lighting, is not lost on youngsters, who dash eagerly along the incline. Luxuriously long, monolithic Corian benches and counters equip the ticket counter, shop, and café. Inside the 264-seat theater, blue felt walls and ceiling envelop the audience as in a capsule, ready to transport them to an alternate domain.
The 264-seat theater is a luminous cocoon whose walls and ceiling are wrapped in blue felt. ©Peter Aaron. Courtesy of Museum of the Moving Image
The 264-seat theater is a luminous cocoon whose walls and ceiling are wrapped in blue felt. ©Peter Aaron. Courtesy of Museum of the Moving Image
A hybrid gallery-screening space called the "amphitheater" lies at the first landing of the main stair. Exhibiting both screen art and physical art, this informal space invites visitors to view media art while circulating, just as they would view paintings. "We didn't want total darkness, like a sacred room, which people often avoid," explains Leeser. On the third level, a new column-free space of 400 m2 provides for rotating exhibitions. The inaugural show, titled "Real Virtuality: Six Experiments in Art and Technology" and featuring works by Pablo Valbuena and Bill Viola, demonstrates the museum's ambition to keep abreast of contemporary digital media. Among the core collection of historic memorabilia, which still occupies the largest amount of exhibition space, highlights include the original model of the Tyrell Corp. headquarters from Blade Runner , and a number of ancient kinetoscopes, magniscopes, cineographs, and other exotic projection apparatus. Various hands-on installations allow visitors to sample the obscure arts of sound editing, stop-motion animation, and other production techniques.
The Video Screening Amphitheater is an informal viewing space with built-in benches and ramp. ©Peter Aaron. Courtesy of Museum of the Moving Image
The Video Screening Amphitheater is an informal viewing space with built-in benches and ramp. ©Peter Aaron. Courtesy of Museum of the Moving Image
In redefining the Museum of the Moving Image, Leeser Architecture advances the ongoing encounter between architecture and media, a field that promises to escalate further in the coming years. The project's greatest achievement is to create a multivalent portal—to the museum's collection, to daily screening events, and to new public space.
Behind the grand stair, the secondary screening room beckons through a pink vestibule. At left, a 15 m-long wall projection transforms a tilted wall into a screen. ©Peter Aaron. Courtesy of Museum of the Moving Image
Behind the grand stair, the secondary screening room beckons through a pink vestibule. At left, a 15 m-long wall projection transforms a tilted wall into a screen. ©Peter Aaron. Courtesy of Museum of the Moving Image
Location: 35 Avenue at 37 Street Astoria, New York
Museum Leadership: Rochelle Solvin, Director Herbert S. Schlosser, Chairman of the Board of Trustees
Architect: Thomas Leeser, Leeser Architecture
Project Manager: David Linehan
Design Team: Simon Arnold, Kate Burke, Sofia Castricone, Henry Grosman, Joseph Haberl
Museum Leadership: Rochelle Solvin, Director Herbert S. Schlosser, Chairman of the Board of Trustees
Current Museum Building: 50,000sq ft
Total New Contruction: 47,700sq ft
Indoor: 37,300sq ft
Budget: $67 million
The 68-seat screening room, with exposed loudspeakers and perforated grey acoustical surface, accessed through a pink corridor. ©Peter Aaron. Courtesy of Museum of the Moving Image
The 68-seat screening room, with exposed loudspeakers and perforated grey acoustical surface, accessed through a pink corridor. ©Peter Aaron. Courtesy of Museum of the Moving Image

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