After nine years of planning and construction, the Film Society of Lincoln Center opened its doors Friday to a new $42m facility. Best known for hosting the New York Film Festival, which kicks off this year on 30th September, the Film Society is so much more. But its poor visibility on Lincoln’s Center’s campus has made it the ugly stepchild of the dozen constituent groups located there. So when the opportunity presented itself to upgrade its facility, the Film Society saw in the renovation project a chance to raise its public profile and reinvent itself as a serious player in film, albeit one that could appeal to a much younger and digitally savvy audience. It hired new staff to get the word out about its diverse program offerings, relocated to a more visible site on Lincoln Center’s campus and hired architect David Rockwell to refashion what was then a parking garage into the best space in the county for screening films.
Aside from being a state of the art movie house with excellent public exposure, the facility will have to draw visitors in at a time when the economy is still weak and when there is an emergence of new ways to view films, begging the question as to whether the movie house, as we know it, is all but dead. It is perhaps in response to these concerns, that Rockwell has designed the center to be more about creating a community of film rather than a one-on-one experience with the screen.
Located on West 66th Street, the new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center is a contemporary take on the historic Italian opera house with a vestigial nod to its former use as parking garage. To draw people in, Rockwell has designed an eye-catching entrance comprised of a 90ft glass wall imprinted with the names of more than 1000 films that have been shown at the society, an LED ticker displaying movies and screening times, and a box office that extends over the sidewalk. On the sidewalk are located more than 160 in ground orange lights that ‘create a kind of welcome mat’, said Rockwell. Once inside the lobby, visitors will encounter a 78-seat amphitheatre with the country’s largest plasma screen, a 152” Panasonic.
Carved deep into the ground, the amphitheatre has tiered bench seating in hues of orange and yellow and is finished in maple panels with vertical slots that provide air conditioning and sound absorption. The space is dramatically punctuated with a 16ft wide garage door. Flanking the amphitheatre are two small screening rooms (one with 90 seats and another with 150). While comfortable and commodious, these rooms seem small given the Center’s aspiration to become the City’s top spot for film viewing, but their size and low ceiling heights were dictated by the existing structural grid.
To absorb sound, which was indeed a challenge given that the space is located above the mechanical plant for the entire complex, the traditional fabric curtains are here replaced with pleated perforated metal ones that are an homage to the Italian opera houses of the 1920s. Visitors exit the screening rooms via ramps making their way back to the amphitheatre, where they can convene to discuss the film, watch previews of future screenings, or listen to a lecture by an emerging or seasoned film director. A small café is planned but is yet to be completed.
It’s too early in the game to know whether or not the Film Center’s new digs will make it the premier space for screening films in New York City. But for sure, David Rockwell has given this august arts organisation a younger, more spontaneous feel and greater visibility both within and outside New York, but especially Uptown, which lags behind Downtown for film-going opportunities.