A Thriving Performance Space for Artists from Around the World Baryshnikov Arts Center - Jerome Robbins Theater
The Baryshnikov Arts Center (BAC) is a foundation, creative laboratory, and performance space that represents Mikhail Baryshnikov’s vision of creating a vibrant multi-disciplinary arts venue in New York City.
BAC’s home first took shape in 2005, and was born of a joint venture with a commercial theater developer in Midtown Manhattan. The two parties purchased a vacant property in the Hudson Yards district, an area still relatively underdeveloped at that time, and constructed a striking, cast concrete building to house their separate endeavors. Once completed, the space comprised three theaters that the commercial operator rented to performing arts groups, and BAC’s independent rehearsal studios, offices and small performance space. However, the commercial operation soon proved unsuccessful, partly due to the poorly designed acoustics and sightlines of its theater spaces, and the developer decided to sell. BAC recognized this as an opportunity to transform their organization and building into something greater, and they hired Denham Wolf to help make Baryshnikov’s original vision a reality.
“The acquisition really allowed everything else that followed, and we played a significant advisory role. In essence, what began as a commercial real estate venture was transformed into a dynamic result for the performing arts community.”
—Jonathan Denham, Co-President at Denham Wolf
Though Denham Wolf’s primary role was that of project manager for the renovation of BAC’s newly acquired theater space, we played a critical part in steering the organization through the initial acquisition process as well. In addition to developing their own cutting edge theater in the building, a key component of BAC's plan for the future was to find a synergetic cultural partner to replace the commercial operator. Ultimately, BAC joined with The Orchestra of St. Luke (OSL) and they collectively bought out the original theater owner, with OSL taking the two lower theaters and BAC adding the uppermost theater to its pre-existing spaces. Though Denham Wolf was not directly involved with bringing OSL into the building, our advisory and acquisition work with BAC played a key role in the larger evolution of the building into a cultural hub.
Denham Wolf oversaw the design and construction of the theater renovation, which aimed to transform the aesthetics and audience experience as well as resolve the serious acoustical and technical limitations of the original design. One of the unique challenges the project presented was the very structure of the building itself, which had been constructed out of monolithic reinforced concrete. Though the concrete is a signature feature of the building’s architectural style, it is also an extremely inflexible material and resistant to adaptations, so a major gut structural surgery was necessary to achieve the goals of BAC’s new theater.
The original reinforced concrete balcony is a telling example of the types of problems faced and the exhaustive measures we took to solve them. The sightlines from the balcony were unacceptable, and no simple modifications could adequately improve them. So we decided to cut the entire balcony structure out of the building. A new, floating balcony was put in its place, though the installation required yet another feat of engineering ingenuity. The new design called for a 60 foot steel beam to be pinned into the side walls as the central support. The challenge was to get an object of that size into the building. In the end, we created a point of entry by removing a section of exterior wall, opening up a passage through the vent system, and finally guiding the massive beam into the building using a crane.
These large-scale, structural transformations were balanced with our careful attention to the theater’s technical and aesthetic elements, and all design work had to be carefully coordinated in order to successfully implement the highly specific acoustics and sightlines of the theater. Because of the complexity of the design requirements, Denham Wolf, the project architects, and the construction team used cutting-edge design tools such as 3D modeling to precisely outfit what was essentially an inflexible concrete box.
The new design was conceived around an orchestra seating level and a floating balcony, with the stage set at floor-level. Though we left some of the original concrete and steel exposed to establish continuity with the palette of the original design, we made significant improvements such as the inclusion of colorful and comfortable seating to improve functionality, atmosphere, and audience experience.
BAC had evolved into a multi-disciplinary organization that presented a range of dance, theater, and musical performances, so the theater had to be technically sophisticated and adaptable to a host of different uses. To accommodate these demands, we installed a technical support grid on the ceiling and walls as well as a new technical booth in the rear of the theater.
Fixed acoustical panels were built onto the rear walls, and movable, tunable panels were attached to both side walls. Additionally, we created an acoustical floor to completely insulate the theater from the OSL space below. Despite the scale and complexity of the process, our careful coordination of the schedule and its many moving parts allowed BAC to maintain full use of its offices and rehearsal spaces on the upper levels of the building throughout the project.