Groundhog Day

Posted in architecture, Uncategorized by johnsnavely on October 30, 2007


The statement, again (ty, K, B, and J):

“We are not coeval / With a locality / But we imagine others are, / We encounter them. Actually / A populace flows/ Thru the city. This is a language, therefore, of New York” George Oppen

In 1914, a small theater was constructed in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn New York. While the population went from Dutch to Italian to Polish to Hispanic to Hasidic and back again, the building itself underwent a series of mutations from a theater, to a cinema, to a ball room, to a restaurant, until finally today it has been repurposed as a 99 cent store, apartments, and assorted retail spaces. The fluctuation of the program and the population of the site have to do, in part, with its proximity to several major forms of transportation. The site sits on directly on the JMZ line of the subway (added in , sits at the foot of the new pedestrian addition to the Williamsburg Bridge, and is a block from the BQE. Broadway Avenue a four lane roadway, which runs underneath the JMZ, is the commercial hub; streets running parallel to Broadway have relatively little retail businesses.

Although at one time Brooklyn was home to dozens of theaters, very few have survived. Though some of those businesses survived the Depression in the 30’s most eventually fled or failed during the 70’s when recession and crime crippled the area. In the last 10 years, the surrounding neighborhood – particularly to the north – has become more and more economically solvent; even so, there is still a lack of public programmatic space near the site. Part of the problem is that this area has remained relatively poor compared to neighborhoods like North Williamsburg, Brooklyn Heights and Prospect Park. The last decade’s influx of cash went primarily to North Williamsburg where developers have been swarming to construct high rise apartment buildings along the waterfront. 

Working within an idea of community and attempting a development that is successful in financial and social terms, this thesis leaves behind bourgeois minimalism (and its associated critical discourse), which has been not been consistently or successfully adopted by the whole population of the site, and replaces it with a revised postmodern, post-critical approach aimed at community building.

An aesthetic which encourages nostalgia, through reference to the past, can endear a design to a community. Robert M. Stern’s practice has used this technique with great financial success to cater to affluent financiers, but it might also be used on a different population. To find this nostalgic beauty, this thesis will revisit antique typologies like that of the movie palace, out-dated architectural techniques like poche and pastiche, and forgotten forms of ornament. Iconography and ornamentation, rather than being mere decoration of the interior, form a membrane which acts as a cultural interface to site the building in a strong, diverse, and ultimately stubborn community.


Under current economic conditions, South Williamsburg could probably not support a large performance complex, like the Brooklyn Academy of Music, for example.


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