Pratt Brooklyn Design Center
Approaching the building from across the green, I didn't spot a sore thumb as I expected, nor did I see a designer's attempt to leave his or her architectural mark as boldly as possible. Instead I was met by a sensibly finished rectilinear volume delicately cantilevered over a softly lit entrance.
This form, which houses the building's main exhibition space, seems to float over the approaching steps, as emphasized by the clever use of light underneath the overhead structure. The gallery's two-story glass wall puts student and faculty work on display for the whole quad. It makes the Design Center a stunning focal point without being visually obtrusive to its surroundings.
The building's entrance sequence begins by slipping pedestrians underneath the hovering structure and into the main lobby. Sometimes addition projects like this suffer when unrelated elements are haphazardly mashed together. But here the designers did a wonderful job of integrating new interior finishes with the existing material palette. The aged brickwork of the adjoining buildings is left exposed to harmonize with the contemporary feel of the space, defined by a relatively basic scheme of concrete, wood, and steel. The old and new languages of the project are carefully blended in a way that makes each style complement the other.
Anxious to experience the dramatic main exhibition hall from an insider's perspective, I made my way up the stairs and into the gallery. According to students, the room satisfies the school's need for a formal presentation area, and the vastness of the space practically eliminates the size limitations that sometimes hinder artists' range of work. The double-height ceiling creates an impressive volume for three-dimensional installations.
The same glass wall that reveals the gallery's contents to the outside also allows a fine view of the Pratt campus from the inside. Should a presenter decide to limit such scenic distractions, a large shade can be drawn from the ceiling. This shade doubles as a projection screen visible from the quad, allowing the glass facade to become a canvas for films and still images.
To attain a user's perspective, I chatted with a few students passing through the new structure and working elsewhere in the building. Enjoying my tour thus far, I was essentially looking for any practical criticisms or design flaws that a first-time visitor might overlook. I figured there are few better places to acquire a critical view of architecture than a place full of interior design, industrial design, art, and architecture students.
Once again, my presumptions proved false when none of the students interviewed had anything negative to say about the project, even despite a bit of prodding from the interviewer. Everyone I spoke with found the structure to be a needed addition to the school; they had nothing but praise for the project both visually and programmatically.
The Terian pavilion incorporates several eco-friendly building systems and design techniques. Sustainable features include recycled gypsum for wall finishes, a courtyard with materials taken solely from local sources, double-glazed insulated glass windows positioned for passive solar heating, and low-VOC (volatile organic compound) finishes. A passive ventilation system, designed in tandem with mechanical engineers, draws cool air into the building through operable windows on the southern, courtyard-facing side, and exhausts warm air out windows on the north side, facing the central quad.
This project does not blend in with its surroundings, nor does it mimic the university's traditional campus vernacular. The hand-finished stainless steel facade doesn't resemble any of its neighbors, and yet the character of the building just seems to fit. Hanrahan Meyers introduced a project of unique form and materiality, and still managed to give it a sense of belonging to the rest of the campus. The Juliana Curran Terian Design Center is an impressive example of architecture that speaks its own language without being overstated, elegantly merging the old with the new.
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Joseph E. Pollack is a freelance writer and web designer, and is currently pursuing his architectural license at a firm in southern New Jersey.