Design Observer

About
Books
Job Board
Newsletters
Archive
Contact



Observatory

About
Resources
Submissions
Contact


Featured Writers

Michael Bierut
William Drenttel
John Foster
Jessica Helfand
Alexandra Lange
Mark Lamster
Paul Polak
Rick Poynor
John Thackara
Rob Walker


Departments

Advertisement
Audio
Books
Collections
Dear Bonnie
Dialogues
Essays
Events
Foster Column
From Our Archive
Gallery
Interviews
Miscellaneous
Opinions
Partner News
Photos
Poetry
Primary Sources
Projects
Report
Reviews
Slideshows
The Academy
Today Column
Unusual Suspects
Video


Topics

Advertising
Architecture
Art
Books
Branding
Business
Cities / Places
Community
Craft
Culture
Design History
Design Practice
Development
Disaster Relief
Ecology
Economy
Education
Energy
Environment
Fashion
Film / Video
Food/Agriculture
Geography
Global / Local
Graphic Design
Health / Safety
History
Housing
Ideas
Illustration
India
Industry
Info Design
Infrastructure
Interaction Design
Internet / Blogs
Journalism
Landscape
Literature
Magazines
Media
Museums
Music
Nature
Obituary
Other
Peace
Philanthropy
Photography
Planning
Poetry
Politics / Policy
Popular Culture
Poverty
Preservation
Product Design
Public / Private
Public Art
Religion
Reputations
Science
Shelter
Social Enterprise
Sports
Sustainability
Technology
Theory/Criticism
Transportation
TV / Radio
Typography
Urbanism
Water


Comments Posted 11.16.09 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Alexandra Lange

Smaller Wonder: Brooklyn Children's Museum


From my archives, an excerpt of a review I wrote for The Architect’s Newspaper on the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, published November 19, 2008. When I wrote this my son was almost too small for the museum, and now he is just right. We went this rainy Saturday, and I initially felt a softening of my opinion toward the building. It is fun to be driving the car and able to say, “Look for the yellow building!” as you head down Brooklyn Avenue.

But, as with 41 Cooper Square (reviewed for Design Observer) most of the architecture is on the outside. Inside, it is another cacophonous barn, filled with small things, low to the ground. Yes, it is for children, but I continue to believe children can respond to atmosphere and larger gestures. My son just bounced from place to place to place (he is 2, after all), and it felt like there was no place to settle. Saddest of all, a temporary exhibition for which kids were supposed to be “toy testers” featured the 1969 Eames film Tops, so surrounded by graphics and overwhelmed by other elements, that even today’s digital-happy kids weren’t looking at the screen.

When you are a design critic and a new parent, your first encounter with much of babyworld leads to many questions. Why does every toy come in three primary colors, rather than a single hue? Why so bulbous? Why does it need to light up/sing “Old McDonald”/moo? My first encounter with the expanded Brooklyn Children’s Museum, which reopened in Crown Heights this September, made me ask almost the same questions — and with the same fear of being a spoilsport.

Rafael Vinoly Architects took a 1977 Hardy Holtzman Pfeiffer building which housed the 109-year-old museum (the country’s first expressly designed for kids) on two underground levels, and wrapped it in a two-story yellow-tile shell, almost doubling its size to 104,000 square feet. That shell is a hovering, wavery, L-shaped form that seems intended to evoke many metaphors, and cute nicknames from kids, but all I could come up with was Jell-O. The $49 million new building’s slight exterior curves and its relentless artificial hue, augmented by supporting single-story steel boxes in red and green and brown, are derived from the language of Toys R Us, not the natural world (or even the world of wooden toys).

Which is to say, it looks fun, it looks new, and it looks like it is for kids, so while I might wish for something more subtle (a mysterious aluminium-clad cloud, a sinuous scaly tube), symbolically RVA has more than done its job in repositioning the museum for the current repopulation of Brooklyn by babies. While the color and shape are wildly out of context in a neighborhood of gorgeous townhouses, the museum lies low, its roofline just under the cornices of the houses across the street, just above the rise of historic Brower Park with which it shares the block, and so is a model contemporary interloper…

There’s an ongoing tension in the exhibits, too, between the real and the ersatz. I do not feel qualified to judge children’s exhibits, but on the nature side, kids were asked to plant those fake lettuces, spot a motionless preserved bug, catch a stuffed fish. Only in a few cases were there real, living, moving critters to see or touch. Everywhere you looked there was another little table, a computer monitor, a glass case, without a real sense of progression or even labelling about which activities were appropriate for which age group. To me it felt cacophonous visually, educationally and sonically…

Classrooms and bathrooms are put in sheetrock boxes along the upstairs halls that only take up half its height; above these the steel underside of the roof is exposed, sprayed with lumpy gray fireproofing. Budget restrictions are to be expected on a city — and state-funded project, but the mismatch of architectural ambition on the interior and exterior was deeply disappointing. It felt as if the museum had all this new space, but not enough stuff to fill it, and that the architects had checked out after the lobby.

|
Share This Story

Comments

Design Observer encourages comments to be short and to the point; as a general rule, they should not run longer than the original post. Comments should show a courteous regard for the presence of other voices in the discussion. We reserve the right to edit or delete comments that do not adhere to this standard.
Read Complete Comments Policy >>


Name             

Email address 




Please type the text shown in the graphic.


|
Share This Story



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexandra Lange is an architecture and design critic, and author of Writing about Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities. (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012). Her work has appeared in The Architect's Newspaper, Architectural Record, Dwell, Metropolis, Print, New York Magazine and The New York Times.
More Bio >>

DESIGN OBSERVER JOBS









BOOKS BY Alexandra Lange

Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities
Princeton Architectural Press, 2012

Design Research
Chronicle Books, 2010

More books by contributors >>

RELATED POSTS


Lucia Eames, 1930-2014
An appreciation of Lucia Eames (1930-2014).

The Astrodome and the Challenges of Preservation
The Astrodome and the future of preservation.

Not Afraid of Noise: Mexico City Stories
A photographic tour of Mexico City, house by house, wall by wall.

Genzken and the City
A review of Isa Genzken's current retrospective on view at the MOMA.

Premature Demolition
The Folk Art Museum, David Adjaye's market hall, and the first addition to the Morgan Library. If three makes a trend, then premature demolition qualifies.