Bodies & Space

In creating two soaring new studios for the School of American Ballet, Elizabeth Diller discovered the connection between architecture and dance.

At first blush, it seems that the architect and the dancer have little in common. Deal­ing with structures and edifices, architects strive for permanence of form; dancers work with gestures and movements, resulting in fleeting moments of beauty. But when architect Elizabeth Diller began redesigning the School of American Ballet (SAB), in collaboration with its artistic director, Peter Martins, she was struck by the affinities between the two disciplines. “We kind of do the same thing,” she says. “We’re interested in bodies and space, and we’re interested in overcoming laws of gravity.”

A couple of years ago, Martins decided he wanted to halve one of SAB’s more spacious studios. Hav­ing another one running would mean more classes, more students, and more flexibility for his pupils, most of whom study dance part-time in addition to taking a full load of academic classes. The fifth-floor space of the Samuel B. and David Rose Building at Lincoln Center was double-height, so Martins hoped to divide it horizontally, stacking the volumes “like pancakes.”

Before Diller took on the job, the architecture firm Davis Brody Bond suggested dividing the space with a conventional floor. Unfortunately that would have blocked the natural light from the windows, leaving the upper studio dark and cramped. Hoping for a more creative solution, Martins and his colleague Marjorie Van Der­cook, executive director of SAB, approached Diller Scofidio + Renfro, which was already overseeing an ambitious $700 million renovation of Lincoln Center. About five minutes after Dil­ler saw the space, she told Martins that it was certainly possible to stack a studio on top of another in a way that allowed for plenty of room and light. “You could suspend it,” she told him. “It would float.” Martins and Van Dercook were so enthusiastic that they asked Diller to draw up plans for a similar space next door. Eight months and $7.2 million later, there were two split-level studios separated by a lounge where donors and parents can observe classes.

The construction appears to soar effortlessly, like a ballerina in flight, but it rests on technical finesse as essential as a dancer’s technique. Diller devised a way to reroute the ductwork and other mech­anicals in the ceiling to gain eight additional vertical feet. She also needed to support the new spaces without creating a bulky floor or using disruptive columns. The solution: to perch the new boxes atop three arching steel beams anchored near the floor of the upper studio.

Another challenge was that the original studios were separated by an archive room used by the Metropolitan Opera Guild. SAB arranged to take over the space and make it into a translucent lounge that pro­vides ample light from the north, east, and west. Because dance instruc­tors do not always want people observing their classes—younger students, especially, need privacy—Diller designed a liquid-crystal glass viewing wall that turns milky with the flip of a switch. And since the split studios would each have a piano keeping time, they had to be acoustically insulated. Walls made of double-pane glass separated by four and a half inches of air did the trick.

“This was the last out of the gate among our Lincoln Center redevelopment projects,” Diller says. “But it was the first across the finish line.” In January, the school began holding classes in the new studios, which have apparently been a big hit with the students. “The spaces are physically incredible,” Van Dercook says. “Every­body wants to dance up there.”

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