Flushing Meadows Corona Park, in the borough of Queens, N.Y., is larger than Manhattan’s Central Park, and this former swamp and ash dump now provides an array of cultural and sports activities. Which is why, in this vibrant urban green space, a collection of enormous architectural ruins—the graveyard for New York State’s contribution to the 1964–65 World’s Fair—is, at best, an unexpected sight. The glory has long since faded from the once awe-inspiring structures designed by Philip Johnson with Richard Foster and structural engineer Lev Zetlin. The decrepit remains include the Tent of Tomorrow, Astro-View Towers, and Theaterama. Adding insult to neglect is the proximity of the modern U.S. Tennis Association Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, host of the U.S. Open every August and September, and Citi Field, the new home of the New York Mets.
The contrasts are stunning, and one wonders why the remains of the World’s Fair haven’t either been repurposed or removed. Economics and bureaucratic inaction notwithstanding, the relevant answer is that there’s still life there. Theaterama, which Johnson envisioned as a venue for avant-garde art at the fair, was a technological marvel when it opened because of its use of slip-form concrete construction. Recognizing its commercial value, the city converted the cylinder, measuring 44 feet tall and 100 feet in diameter, into the Queens Theatre in the Park in the early 1980s, then commissioned a major renovation of the space in 1993.
In the early 2000s, the theater’s growing success and popularity created a critical need for more space and accessibility. The city commissioned Long Island City, Queens–based Caples Jefferson Architects to undertake modernization and expansion of the theater for the limited price tag of $20 million. The program called for a renovation of some existing spaces, new offices and a 75-person cabaret in an addition that wraps around the existing theater building, and a mechanical system overhaul. The most noticeable new space, however, is a reception center, which provides a 600-person preperformance gathering area and leasable venue for non-theater-related events.
Caples Jefferson designed a glass cylindrical structure to complement the circular geometry of the existing theater. It’s a translucent form that subtly juxtaposes Johnson’s opaque one. The two volumes are conjoined at the 1993 theater entrance, but the reception hall is sited on axis with the skeletal remains of the gargantuan Tent of Tomorrow, with a view of the rusted observation towers—a move that cleverly concedes the visual clutter of the site, and frames it as strange beauty from another era.
“The challenge was to create the impression of round spiraling forms with large, flat, structurally glazed units,” explains principal Sara Caples, AIA. The architects designed a unitized curtainwall made of 5,000 unique glass panels to suggest a perfectly round cylinder. Aluminum fins at the vertical joints in the system intensify the perception of a vanishing perspective as the fins move (and disappear from view) around the curving wall, and 2-inch-deep aluminum tubes on the interior surface of the glass breaks trace horizontally around the curving form. The project did not pursue LEED certification, but the architects diligently sought to make the building energy-efficient. They accomplished this by installing gas-filled insulated glazing units with low-E coatings to reduce solar heat gain, and by using silicone sealant joints rather than metal mullion caps. Laminated outer glass lites allowed for a larger unit size and help protect against vandalism.
Inside, the ceiling plane is an inverted gypsum dome, clad in acoustic plaster over sound insulation, with three skylights rendered by deep round voids—a composition inspired by artist Barbara Hepworth’s sensuously carved marble sculptures. The ceiling and oculus walls are tinted orange and set the space ablaze when the sun passes over. At night, colored, cold-cathode lighting fixtures, muted behind a translucent acrylic fascia, spiral upwards around the perimeter.
Caples Jefferson demonstrates that additions, even to sites as loaded as this one, don’t need to mimic the past. The new pavilion doesn’t ape the site’s architectural relics, but neither does it dismiss them; more importantly, it brings new life to the site.
ToolBox: Design Process
When an architect’s client is a local, state, or federal agency, the process for completing any project can be complicated and drawn-out. Design and construction are generally budget-constrained and must be readily buildable to fit within the constraints of the publicly funded City bid-build process. Furthermore, there are often multiple stake-holders, which must each review and approve the design at every phase of the project.
In the case of the renovation and expansion of the Queens Theatre-in-the-Park in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the process took no less than 11 years, from the awarding of the commission to opening. It began with a Request For Proposal issued by New York’s Department of Design and Construction (DDC) in the summer of 2000. The contract was awarded to Caples Jefferson Architects that fall, and the contract was signed a year later. The DDC’s task order (not released until August 2002) included a program for a 250-person lobby, 90-person cabaret, ground-level public toilets, and a service elevator. Caples Jefferson’s schematic report was submitted a few months later, in November.
The next two-and-a-half years were spent refining programming. The DDC added program elements, including offices above the cabaret, and expanded the scope of the lobby/reception addition to accommodate 600 persons. The DDC, the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA), and Queens Theatre approved the revised scheme that summer, which was then presented to the City’s Art Commission in September for approval. The architects presented interior finishes, renderings, and design development documents to the same three entities in November.
In Spring 2004, the City added additional programming, including a cabaret kitchen and renovation of existing cellar production offices. The architects submitted construction documents to the DDC the following January, followed by the compliance (bid) documents in April. The construction manager, Hill International, awarded construction contracts in June 2005, and staging work began in July.
In summer 2009, the theater received a Temporary Certificate of Occupancy, although the interiors were still under construction. Unfortunately, plastic panels started falling off the remains of the neighboring Tent of Tomorrow and the observatory towers. The City erected emergency sidewalk bridges around site September 2009 and stabilized the adjacent buildings. Construction was completed in fall 2011.
Not surprising, the review process was arduous. In addition to numerous meetings with the DDC, the DCLA, and the Queens Theatre, the architects met 16 times with the Parks Department. They also presented their scheme to the mayor, and, on more than one occasion, to the Queens borough president, the theater board, the Mayor’s Office, and the occasional focus group of theater patrons and theater operators.
None of this rattled the architects. Principal Sara Caples, AIA reflected on the effort, “The process of doing these projects is a real management hurdle. It is extremely important to seize on every challenge and complication to make the design stronger. To think otherwise is to allow the process to hopelessly water things down.”