Daily Features

From Bookstore to Model Public Space: The Van Alen Redesigned

After a successful bid to reinvent the Van Alen Institute's street-front public face, Collective-LOK discusses its inspiration for the redesign.

By Laura Raskin, Superscript October 18, 2013

In September, the Van Alen Institute (VAI) in Manhattan announced Collective-LOK as the winner of a competition to redesign its Flatiron District space. The independent nonprofit promotes design in the public realm with events, exhibitions, and its bookstore. Collective-LOK—a collaboration between Jon Lott, William O’Brien Jr., and Michael Kubo, who each have their own practices—will help the VAI create more space for public programming. “I think they saw a big advantage in bringing everything the Van Alen offers down to the public realm,” said Lott. “The current bookstore is great for small lectures, but we needed to provide for more—office space, exhibitions, large events, and lectures—and generally increase the way they could engage with the city.

A street view of Collective-LOK's winning proposal for the Van Alen's redesign. © Collective-LOK.

The VAI isn’t the only design and architecture organization that, in recent years, has upped efforts to lure in an increasingly design-curious public. The Boston Society of Architects moved to a more visible, waterfront venue in 2012, designed by Höweler + Yoon Architecture. The Chicago Architecture Foundation, located in the historic Santa Fe Building, began hosting Open House Chicago (October 19-20) three years ago. Seattle-based architecture firm Olson Kundig is about to close the doors on its experimental space for exhibitions and installations called [storefront] (attend the closing party on Oct. 23), but promises to launch a series of temporary installations merging design and community collaboration.

Jon Lott spoke with Laura Raskin about Collective-LOK’s inspiration for the VAI’s new look, which will feature scrims and screens that can be moved to accommodate different functions:  

Laura Raskin: Were you inspired by other projects that serve multiple purposes and have to draw people in from the street?
Jon Lott:
We talked a lot about Tatzu Nishi's Discovering Columbus in Manhattan. Tatzu did two simple things that force the public to address this distant urban artifact: he allowed the public to access the statue intimately, and made it more intimate by bringing the viewer into the domestic frame of a modern living room. We became interested, too, in the scaffolding around the work, because it alerted the public that they could see the statue up close. We also discussed what happens on Google street-view when somebody opts out of public visibility. The result is this very curious blur over the building, censoring it from the digital public, reserving it only for real life.

The Van Alen Institute's redesign will help the organization engage the public with flexible space for exhibitions and large events. © Collective-LOK.

LR: You’ve proposed a mirrored screen for the exterior of the VAI that will essentially become a new facade, but is also detachable for programming that occurs away from the VAI. How does it work?
It acts both as a screen for, and an extension of, the existing facade. Because the building is landmarked, any edits to the facade would prove tricky or unlikely. So the “street seat” became the way to get a new face for the Institute without having to touch the facade—it became a mask. And when the seat moves, it takes a part of the VAI with it.

LR: You designed the interior of La Casita Cultural Center in Syracuse, NY, a gallery and event space that, like the Institute, also has to accommodate books and offices. It looks like the design is somewhat similar, where a corseted informal space is lined with offices and conference rooms. Is La Casita working well for that mix of programming?
Yes, I like that description a lot! I would say the corseting is really on the formal parts, though—a way to give the most flexibility to the informal zones. And yes, the two share this fundamental strategy in plan of separating the fixed from the flexible, but they are quite different. With Casita, I was interested in dividing space into formal and informal areas, inspired by the casitas (“little houses”) in the Bronx in the 1970s. They were built by the immigrant Puerto Rican community in neglected lots and used as community meetings points.

At the Van Alen, we are much more interested in various types of screens and surfaces that provide the range of programmatic scenarios. Each of them has very distinct demands, for projections, displays, or temporary walls.

An exploded diagram of Collective-LOK's design shows new surfaces that will adapt to display a range of media. © Collective-LOK.
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