The legendary Philip Johnson was behind the structures of the New York Pavilion for the 1964 Worlds Fair Exhibit in Queens, two of which have stood abandoned for forty years as the rest of the fair’s site turned into ruins. The third, the open-air cylindrical Theaterama, however, has been hosting up to 300 performances a year. When Caples Jefferson Architects were brought in to design a new home for Queens Theater-in-the-Park, to house offices and a cabaret for 90 people and a reception hall for 600, the team walked a fine line between paying tribute to Johnsons’ design and doing something that was original and relevant to today’s world and the uses of the theater.

Photo Courtesy Of Caples Jefferson Architects

“We tried to work with forms that were not an imitation of what was there, but playing in that spirit with circular forms, and working with great variety, to add to the variety created by Johnson,” says Sara Caples, principal at Caples Jefferson Architects.

The designers took the circular planning and cylindrical forms and applied it to the new building, spiraling the glazed curtain wall of 5,000 separate and unique glass panels designed and fitted together in CAD, along with spiraling mullions reinforcing the upward effect, and vertical exterior fins giving the facade a uniform and upright appearance. From the reception hall, the design guides the viewer toward the oak alleys and the iconic Unisphere, as well as the ruins of the rest of Johnson’s Worlds Fair structures. Outside, just as Johnson invited Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, among others, to install murals on the outside of his pavilion, the new theater has banners to be used by local artists as well.

A major constraint from the start was the budget. As a community project overseen by the city’s Department of Design and Construction, the building’s materials and construction methods, as well as the eventual energy consumption, had to be cost-efficient and resistant to wear-and-tear at the same time. To achieve this, the team used low-emulsion coating to reduce heat gain, silicone sealant in place of metal mullion caps, gas-filled insulating units to lower heating needs, and laminated outer lights to protect against vandalism.

To address the needs of a performance space, the team took its cue from the pavilion, whose roof droops down. Inside the new building an inverted sphere hangs from the roof “to create visual termination,” Caples says, while at the same time helping with acoustics: regular dome spaces have strange acoustics, where it’s possible to hear someone across the hall but not someone whispering in your ear. The inverted dome solved that problem.

Visually, however, the inverted dome required some more planning: taking their inspiration from Rothko paintings, the team wanted to make the edge hazier and deeper, and to get one color to fade into the other, the acoustical plaster was sprayed in three passes, according to Caples.

Key Players

Developer/Owner: New York City Department of Design & Construction
General Contractor: C & L Contracting, College Point, N.Y.
Construction Manager: Hill International, New York
Architect: Caples Jefferson Architects, New York*

*Submitted Project to New York Construction