Thomas Leeser’s Movie House: A Belated Review

New York City has been setting, backdrop, plot device, antagonist, and main character in thousands of movies, TV shows, video games, and YouTube clips since Thomas Edison invented the Kinetoscope in West Orange, New Jersey. This town was where Ricky loved Lucy, where Harry met Sally, where Carrie married Mr. Big, and where Jerry, Elaine, Kramer, and George lived pointless, inane, lives in a show about nothing. For the moving image, New York City is the greatest of urban muses.

Astoria, the center of New York’s film industry, and the oldest cinematic neighborhood anywhere, is home to the Museum of the Moving Image. The museum reopened earlier this year after a three-year renovation, with a startling and surreal addition to its original building, the former East Coast studios of Paramount Pictures.

Designed by architect Thomas Leeser, the addition doubles the museum’s size and includes a battalion of desperately needed new amenities, including a theater, screening rooms, a café, temporary exhibition spaces, an educational wing, and on-site collection storage facilities. Although within an historic building, not much beyond the façade is left. Leeser’s design works around the façade, not wholeheartedly embracing it, but not overpowering it either. This is Thomas Leeser’s first big completed building, and his first big New York statement. He is a young architect eager to claim his identity, but he does it well.

The Leeser addition, behind the historic building, and most visible when approaching the museum from the rear, (It’s on a corner lot, but faces 35th Avenue), is a pale blue cloud, a tessellation of prefabricated triangular panels that has moored itself on the white Paramount building. The main entrance is still in the old building, but Leeser’s airy lobby slices through both, ending with a broad lass wall looking onto the still unfinished courtyard. The lobby’s far end includes a café, making the space multifunctional, and is flanked by the new theater, smaller screening room, and educational wing. The courtyard will be finished in a second phase, with an outdoor movie screen, and a school group entrance.

As with his cloud-like exterior, Leeser’s interiors for the Museum of the Moving Image are otherworldly and fun. Leeser restrains himself against making corny architectural allusions to movies, or TV, but he breaks the film art form down, subtly manipulating the visual with solid colors, and the auditory with acoustics. The main theater, entered from the lobby, is a swirling womb of Yves Klein blue, while an accompanying smaller screening room, opposite the theater is covered in bubblegum pink. These bursts of brightness tell you you’re in a space specifically for the act of viewing, as compared to anywhere else. Both spaces are acoustically sealed from the outside world, making them wombs for movie watching. The rest of Leeser’s interiors, including walls, ceilings, and details are white Corian, a material he uses for its creamy matte blankness and its plasticity, and the floors are a light blue.

From the lobby, one ascends a grand staircase to permanent and temporary exhibition spaces on the two levels above. The second floor landing widens into an open plan screening room, with built-in bench seating on a gently sloping floor, and tilted creamy white walls. This is a foyer of sorts, leading to more semi-programmed exhibition spaces on the second floor, as well as Behind the Screen, the museum’s core (read “permanent for an impermanent medium”) exhibition space.

Behind the Screen, which has been updated in the new museum, is another instance, as with the façade, where Leeser sees his limits and demures from confronting them. His work stands clearly to one side of the core exhibition’s entry doors, while the core exhibition, redesigned by another architect, is definitively on the other.

Most of the Leeser’s new architectural innards are a little, shall we say, slanted. Reality is distorted slightly, as if this isn’t the architecture of the everyday, but of the world within the movie screen. Many of Leeser’s new walls have a slight cant to them, while some are extremely diagonal, and many ceilings slant. The staircase leans slightly to one side. These angles are Leeser’s whimsical solution to working with the theater form, and the variously shaped “leftover” spaces created by sloping auditorium floors. His design elegantly embraces these tilted spaces, repeating them throughout the museum.

On the third floor, the final ascension of the grand staircase pops into the center of the museum’s temporary exhibition space, a wide, nondescript chameleon of a room that is adaptable to the objects it contains. This is where Leeser’s design almost disappears, giving the museum’s curators reign over the room’s changing look.

Leeser doesn’t cheapen the museum experience.  He doesn’t use filmstrip motifs, doesn’t duplicate a movie studio, and doesn’t plonk down fake movie sets. Your fantasies of kissing on Titanic’s bow, sitting in the Millennium Falcon, and wandering through Diagon Alley, are better satiated in Orlando, as there is no cheesy satisfaction here. He does, however, include two archetypes of movie architecture. These are the main theater, which is monumental and rather plush – a futuristic movie palace – and the central staircase, which is just big enough to make a grand entrance.

Leeser is no doubt making a personal statement with his addition to the Museum of the Moving Image. A light blue cloud with white Corian innards doesn’t immediately evoke cinematography or TV, and instead you see a lot of himself in it. You see the young, ambitious architect given the power to transform a New York museum. He got a big break and is screaming to show his talents off. But this young, ambitious architect handles that scenario very well. Leeser has made the right choice to not depend heavily on the museum’s contents for inspiration, instead creating a subtle, ethereal, airy, and somewhat otherworldly vitrine for those contents to be presented in. He may be expressing himself in the Museum of the Moving Image, but he has created a new museum in which the possibilities are endless.

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