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Immersed in Images and an Age of Blurred Boundaries

Immersed in Images and an Age of Blurred Boundaries

New York Times 1/13/2011


For those familiar with the old Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, stepping into the new addition will feel like Dorothy landing in a digital 3-D version of Oz.

Designed by Thomas Leeser, the swollen baby-blue form, which has been grafted onto the back of a 1920s building, effectively blurs the boundaries among architecture, film and viewer. In doing so it immerses you in the kind of fantasy world you usually get only when the lights are turned off.

The high level of architecture is all the more unexpected given that this is an institution getting by largely on public financing in these lean times. And it is a boon to an area of Queens — across the street from the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts and a charter school — that has been trying to recast itself as a cultural hub for years and is now getting the kind of civic heft that it sorely needed.

The original museum building was part of a studio complex built by Paramount Pictures in 1920, just as the silent film era was coming to a close and after most of the movie industry had shifted to Southern California. By the 1940s the complex had been taken over by the Army Signal Corps, which used it for a while to make training films. Eventually most of the buildings were abandoned, and the city began casting around for ideas about what to do with them.

The museum, which opened in one of the buildings in 1988, was intended to provide a peek behind the scenes of the filmmaking world, with exhibitions on production design, makeup and more. But that renovation, done in a watered-down Modernist style by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates, didn’t weather well. And in recent years the museum has begun to look like a period piece, one completely removed from the dizzying digital world of films like “Avatar.”

Plugged into the back of this building, the new addition will overlook a small courtyard — yet to be completed — that will serve as the main entry for school tours. A long, narrow ramp runs along the lower part of the building’s facade, leading past a small cafe and into an orientation room. Hovering above, the addition’s bulging baby blue facade looks like a big mechanical cloud that has settled into one of the studio’s empty back lots. Its windowless surface, made of triangular aluminum panels, comes in and out of focus depending on the light, sometimes fading into the blue sky and other times picking up the reflections of the stone and concrete buildings around it.

Most visitors, though, will continue to enter through the old building on 35th Avenue, where the only hint you get of the extent of the renovation are the bold hot-pink graphics that spell out the museum’s name on the lobby’s exterior. Once inside, however, the line that normally separates the concrete reality of architecture and the fantasy world of film quickly grows hazy. On one side, the wall folds up to create a long, knifelike bench; on the other, video images drift across the surface of a long white wall, which tips back to set the room slightly off balance.

From there visitors either go up to the exhibition floors or turn into the cocoonlike main theater. The theater is Mr. Leeser’s single nod to the past, making references to the films of the old European avant-garde in witty contrast to the images of commercial Hollywood that dominate the museum’s collections. The theater’s faceted interior, composed of triangular felt panels colored a shocking Yves Klein blue, bring to mind early German Expressionism. The curtain, a violent explosion of color designed by Cindy Sirko, looks like a digital version of the paintings of early Soviet artists. (When I was last there a welder was working in a corner, and sparks flew across the blue surfaces, adding to the impression that I had stepped onto a set for “Metropolis.”)

But it is in the exhibition spaces that you are able to immerse yourself fully in Mr. Leeser’s architectural vision. Climbing the main staircase you slip past an informal video room with a system of shallow benches and ramps that are seamlessly integrated into the floor. Mr. Leeser wanted to avoid the boring box enclosed behind a black curtain that is used to display video art in most museums, and here he has created something both more casual and more intimate.

The projection wall extends directly over the staircase, so that visitors entering the space from below will sometimes seem to emerge directly out of the image. From there they follow the stairs up another flight to the main galleries, where videos will be projected onto temporary partitions, creating a maze of images that further erases the distinction between the architecture and the visual imagery it is meant to house.

The idea is to capture, in a building, the essence of a world in which images proliferate all around us — from our phones, in the back seats of taxis — and in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate physical reality from the sleekly manufactured realities of the digital age.

But the impact of the design has less to do with that idea, which is not novel after all, than with the striking contrast it presents with the older galleries, which remain largely unchanged from the early days. They include row upon row of publicity photos from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, the kind of pictures you’d find in a Beverly Hills steakhouse. Just across from one of them the prosthetic teeth Marlon Brando used in “The Godfather” sit in a glass case; not far away is a display of toy figurines tied to the original “Star Wars” movie.

By the time you emerge back into the sunlight, Mr. Leeser’s world is looking more attractive than ever — and even the digital age feels slightly more palatable.