Carnegie Hall retractable rooftop pavilion

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The great design that never was.

Fortunately or not, some structures never see the light of day. Take for example the spherical Cenotaph for Isaac Newton (1784) by the acclaimed French visionary architect étienne-Louis Boullée. Did not happen. Or Eliel Saarinen’s 1922 soaring setback design for the Chicago Tribune Tower. Although notable architects (Louis Sullivan) thought it was the premier design, when all votes were tallied, the Finn’s tower won second place. And then there was Frank Gehry’s voluminous addition to Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. After six years on the drawing table it was canned in 2005. Oh well.

Although modest ventures when compared to neoclassical tombs, skyscrapers and cultural institutions, more than a few designs for retractable fabric structures are nixed. One project of note was the 2009 Carnegie Hall Roof Pavilion by FTL Design Engineering Studio in New York City. The renowned performance venue wanted to utilize its spacious rooftop for fundraising events and celebrations. With New York City as a backdrop, how could they lose? But lose they did.

FTL worked with the Building Architect, lu + Bibliowicz and the landscape firm Olin Partnership to design a trellis-like steel frame structure with a retractable roof of approximately 12,000 sq ft that could accommodate a good 1,000 patrons. The cable system roof of translucent Tenara EPTFE fabric could be mechanically deployed in three minutes by house staff. It used a W-fold system that allowed water to run off both sides and it would automatically retract if winds exceeded 30 mph. When not in use, the three-tiered roof could be folded and stored neatly under a glass canopy at one end of the site.

The walls of the three-season structure consisted of a panel system of inflated ETFE bladders on tracks that could be removed and stored compactly to one side. A building elevator would access the rooftop pavilion.

Elegant, translucent and stepped back from the roof’s edge, the comprehensive Carnegie Hall Pavilion and landscape design projected a garden environment. Unfortunately, New York’s Landmarks Commission did not approve the $5 million project, citing that edges of the structure could be seen from street level. Given the cost of the project, it did not make sense for Carnegie Hall to scale back the Pavilion to accommodate far fewer people. One wonders what the commissioners think about the mammoth rooftop air conditioning and heating units.

Mason Riddle lives in Saint Paul, Minn., and writes about the visual arts, architecture and design. She has contributed to Architecture Record, Artforum, Dwell, Metropolis and the Minneapolis StarTribune, and has contributed to Fabric Architecture sine 2005. She is the former director of The Goldstein Museum of Design and the MN Percent for Art in Public Places program.

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