Corporate Culture

At the end of June, an all-star panel sat for a large audience at the Center for Architecture in Greenwich Village in New York City to discuss incorporating cultural facilities like theatres into the building of large towers for other uses, usually corporate in nature. The Jazz at Lincoln Center facility at the Time Warner Center was the discussion launch pad, but panelists were encouraged to veer off and talk about other examples and how to do it again next time somewhere else.

With Hugh Hardy of H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture moderating, Adrian Ellis from Jazz talked about the success of the group's new home, his strong board, identity issues, and why the location has served them well. The building's big picture architect, Ken Lewis from SOM, described how they fit the theatres and support spaces in a 2.7 million sq-ft. mix of office building, hotel, residential apartments, and retail. Sarah Haga from Jonathan Rose Companies brought up an example on 52nd Street in Clinton, NJ, and spoke about ways this cultural and development marriage could work in the future. Bruce Warwick, project manager for the building's owner, the Related Companies, articulately described how all the different users and their design teams needed to somehow get along, make compromises, and noted to everyone's surprise, there were no floor area bonuses for the project.

Teaming up with a developer planning a new tower is becoming a very realistic way to overcome the giant financial obstacle for small non-profits to build a theatre, have it happen soon, and get it built in the center of town. Compared to buying a piece of land and building a freestanding building, the cost of building in the podium of a new tower may be about half as much.

It's an approach that makes most sense for 99- to 299-seat theatres, rehearsal spaces for dance, music, and theatres, and under ideal circumstances, bigger halls. The developer likely gets a taller building, and it probably increases the value, given the prestige and public recognition of having a cultural component, while the non-profit gets a brand new home, fast.

Bigger cities, such as New York, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Boston, and Seattle, where downtown land gets wildly expensive, are ideal places to do this. Mixed-use buildings can benefit from being even taller but also need to squeeze as much profit out of each level that gets built. In exchange for providing the cultural space's core and shell free of charge, the developer gets to stack a handful more floors on top, charges stratospheric prices for apartments, and recoups the added cost and, likely, a good deal more. Capital costs are going to be higher to include a theatre, yet so are the profits, and overall value as a piece of real estate.

On the southwest corner of Central Park, Time Warner Center is the biggest example, having two halls for Jazz at Lincoln Center tucked between the two 750' glass towers. In downtown New York, Dance Theatre Workshop has its new 200-seat dance laboratory and rehearsal space under layers of new high-priced loft apartments. And on 42nd Street, a new block-long theatre complex is under construction on the 2nd floor of a new hotel/condo complex.

This type of real estate pairing benefits almost everyone. City residents get more to do and more to see that's easy to access in the center of town. Adventurous small venues looking for more attention gain access to a big audience and can offer far cheaper tickets than large halls, so the public can go to shows more regularly, instead of thinking of theatre as a high-cost sport, where dinner and tickets feel like a step toward bankruptcy. All this can be achieved in a compact package combining retail, residential, and culture in probably the most sustainable way to build, relying on public transportation, walking, and highly efficient, large-scale mechanical systems.

For the resuscitation of downtown neighborhoods, looking for life to be pumped back into them, this cultural and residential combo is essential. Chicken and egg are built at the same time. A rich cultural life is a reason to live there, and residents that live nearby support small culture. The goal is to have more small venues, built all over town. People can choose which they want to attend, and there will be even more reasons for city sidewalks to be lively at night.

And what miracle makes a theatre in a prime location cost so much less? Usually, it's because the theatre becomes part of the high-speed, high-leverage development process. Where decisions are made quickly, construction starts to fight off inflation, and there's pressure to be compact and to edit program space down to what's really needed rather than a wish list. And of course, the land, foundations, superstructure, the slab above and below, maybe even the elevators, are all free for the theatre company, so you can remove those expenses compared to what a theatre would have to cough up for a free-standing building.

“Good enough” is an expression that drives this type of project's decision making, rooted in compromise, as opposed to searching for the ideal. On paper, this may seem like an unattractive way to build, but consider Radio City Music Hall. Its lobby is squeezed under an office building; it has little street presence for a huge hall of almost 6,000 seats, no loading dock, and its doors open up riht onto two Midtown Manhattan streets, yet it's amazing. Disney's New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street has another hall on top, an ornate tunnel for a lobby, and no more than a big sign to announce it's there, but what a place to go see a show. If planned today, these halls would be designed to be two or three times as big, and as expensive, ending up not being built at all or stationed far from subway lines.

Dreaming of ideal halls is essential, but focusing on great architecture, rather than big sheets of square footage, can bring healthy compromises for lobbies and support spaces. Focus the money and real estate on the hall. If an organization has the money to build a free-standing architectural marvel, it definitely should. The New Museum's new glimmering-white home on the Bowery is a temple for emerging artists and already a landmark, yet few cultural organizations have the money, or luck, to do that.

The key ingredients to success — for, say, a theatre — are to be ready financially, get in the process before any of the tower has been designed, and get a firm grasp on whether the available column-free space — not under the tower — will work. The fit-out still needs to be paid. And depending on the lot size, there's only so much column-free space available. Big lots are, therefore, better. Plan on deep concrete beams eating up volume, columns getting fatter as their loads get figured out, a real need for structural acoustic isolation, and a watchful eye for ducts and pipes looking for a place to get to outside walls. All the architects and engineers representing the building's different constituents need to work together carefully for perhaps a year, working out the best route for each pipe and exhaust vent.

Elizabeth Currid's new book, The Warhol Economy, helps spell out the importance of culture to a city's economy. Her New York example illustrates how cultures of all sizes are among the city's leading economic engines. And as big performing arts centers are built nationwide and need work to fill stages, incubator-sized theatres and dance venues are needed to nurture new work and fuel the nation's swelling cultural economy. If capital costs are the primary hurdle to getting new small theatres, dance venues, and rehearsal spaces built, then combining them with new towers to get over that hurdle can benefit the cultural organization, the developer, the neighborhood, and a much larger economy.

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