Friday, January 3, 2014

Lakeside, a New Skating Rink in Prospect Park

rink-580.jpegLakeside, a New Skating Rink in Prospect Park : The New Yorker

JANUARY 2, 2014

The last few weeks of Michael Bloomberg’s third term were a marathon of ribbon cuttings, as the Mayor opened pedestrian plazas, recycling facilities, and future tech campuses right up until December 23rd. The most seasonal event was the opening of Lakeside, a seventy-five-thousand-square-foot ice-skating facility in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, just in time for Christmas. Lakeside, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects and officially known as the Samuel J. and Ethel LeFrak Center at Lakeside, replaces the late, unlamented Wollman Rink, and is the first major building added to the park since the end of the nineteenth century. That long pause proves to have been a smart one: the emphasis of twenty-first-century architecture on sustainability and materials dovetails nicely with Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s artful, artificially-constructed park landscape. Lakeside, a significant work of plain, bold contemporary design, makes perfect sense in Prospect Park by combining that old sensibility with new bluntness. The curves of its two rinks echo the park’s swoops and lawns, while its rectangular roof stands out like a billboard.

The architects chose a parking lot installed during the twentieth century as their site, taking out a minimum number of trees and restoring naturalistic planning that had been overrun by asphalt. Wollman Rink sat over part of the park’s original lake and absorbed the romantically named Music Island, a hillock surrounded by water from which bands once played. Christian Zimmerman, Prospect Park’s lead landscape architect for twenty-three years, coördinated with the architects and engineered the restoration of the lake, where the island is an island again.

The architects’ pre-recession design had placed the rink and a garage needed for park vehicles under an enormous artificial hill, screening the lake view from the south and disguising the building’s bulk. Remnants of this larger idea can be seen in the existing building, where much of the interior square footage is hidden below two gentle slopes. Approaching the building from the east, all one sees is a hill, with a curved, rusticated stone wall leading you down toward the building’s official entrance. On opening day, that wall had been dusted with snow like decorative sugar, highlighting its irregular surface. You could just as easily approach from the north or the west: all paths are unobstructed, flowing freely through, over, and around the rinks. The mountain might have been an impediment, whereas the slimmed-down version breaks neatly into programmed sections that you can visit as often as you need. There are public bathrooms and outdoor picnic tables, skate rentals and party rooms, plus a giant chilling plant, indicated by steam billowing from one of the hilltops.

This technique of splitting the building in two is one that Williams and Tsien have used elsewhere, most recently at the Barnes Foundation, in Philadelphia. There, the entrance pavilion and the collections pavilion (whose galleries and layout mimic the proportions of the original Barnes building, in Merion, Pennsylvania) are joined by a large, pale, stone-faced room, lightly furnished with sofas, that always feels dead to me. It is a room that may reach its full potential only during an evening party. At Lakeside, that party happens every day, and is central to the building’s function. The covered rink is positioned at the center, with the outdoor oval and the adjacent terrace waiting for exuberant spillover. In the summer, there will be roller-skating under the roof and water play outside, activating the ring of teak benches clustered closely around the edge of the oval. The architects describe the water that will stream from below those benches as a “glassy sheet.” Because these empty, expectant spaces are the building’s reason for being, the composition works. Once you are under the roof, everything opens up. The glass façades of locker rooms and a future café are visible across the ice, providing internal orientation.

Williams and Tsien say that the building’s real façade is the underside of the roof. It is what you see when you are skating, and one of a few places where the restrained architects have let their decorative imagination run (somewhat) wild. Into a midnight-blue stucco surface the architects carved silver-painted arcs, some snaking, some short, punctuated by flashes from different-sized spotlights. These lines are obviously reminiscent of those made by skaters on ice, but the execution is abstract enough to avoid preciousness. From outside or from the terrace above the rink, the lines draw your eye out from under the roof, back to the park vistas framed by the hard edges of the ceiling and rink. The arcs connect with the curves of Olmsted and Vaux’s park, leading in particular to the restored lake edge. The architects enhanced this effect by cantilevering the corners of the roof past the last stone-clad column, allowing it to hang in the air, sending you off into space. There’s a similar dark, starry roof in Williams and Tsien’s Cranbrook Natatorium, in Michigan. In that sports facility, as at this one, the combination of pierced walls and a heavy ceiling makes it feel as though you are exercising in a perfected, climate-balanced version of the great outdoors.

A return visit on the Sunday after the rink opened to the public offered a slightly different experience. Rather than childish screams, the dominating sonic indicator was Taylor Swift (“You belong to me-ee-ee-ee”), courtesy Radio Disney. Skaters paraded in and out of the building, taking full advantage of the rubber surface leading from the rink to restroom to lockers. An enterprising donut truck offered hot cider and fresh rings, six for eleven dollars. A ragged, undifferentiated line formed to pick up and drop off skates. No sign or staff member indicated that to do the former you had to line up first outside, along that curving stone wall, to pay at the stainless-steel ticket windows. In an omnidirectional space, signage (surely to come) plays an even more important role in laying out the steps from street to ice. The building can’t tell you where to go first, so graphic design must offer directions. It’s a sign of the strength of Lakeside’s architecture that it was not diminished by the crush and the backpacks and the temporary radio tent, though, I suspect, the architecture may be easy to ignore for anyone trying to corral a couple of kids. At ground level, one can be thankful for the comforts and ignore the superstructure.

Looking at the roof from the lake side, I wondered about its thick, lead-coated copper edge. Could it have been slimmed so that the midnight-blue bled into the real thing? Its straightforwardness seemed like a choice, related to that gray rubber and white tile. The roof will remain as a solid, minimal image of shelter, whatever commercial indignities may come. Vegetation will grow on top and on the slopes of the half-buried building (the complex is aiming for LEED Gold certification). Porosity is a terrible cliché of contemporary architecture, but Lakeside actually has it. Like the best of parks, including Prospect Park itself, you can move freely between building, activity, and landscape. It will reach its fullest potential when we forget it wasn’t always there.

Photograph: Alexandra Lange

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