Alexandra Lange | Essays

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.

Posted in: Architecture, Arts + Culture

Jobs | July 13