Stars on the Lawn

The escapist appeal of summer outdoor movies hints at bigger ideas.

To design public places for a society that gorges on private entertainment, consider movies in the park. From Atlanta to Oakland, muffled soundtracks and strewn Brie rinds have become summer staples. But we don’t show up just for the old movies, often hard to hear and available on Netflix. So what makes us unplug our iPods, forsake MyYahoo!, and jostle for lawn space? It’s what surrounds the screen, and how the screen focuses the eye on the sweep of lights that power urban experience.

The Bryant Park series, which started the outdoor-movie craze in 1997 on a restored patch of green in midtown Manhattan, illustrates this with an unscripted ritual. When the movies begin, the crowd bounds off their blankets and ululate in a goofy dance. As the sun sets, the Chrysler Building’s arrowhead lights shine to the east, the American Radiator Building’s ebony façade slides into a nighttime sentinel on the south, and the new One Bryant Park twists toward the park from the hectic corner of 42nd Street. The interplay of lights and sounds on the screen emphasize the denser interplay that goes on throughout the city. We watch the movie, but take in the honor of being in the middle of a drama whose stars are density and movement.

Not every urban screening sits in the bowl of so many spectacular buildings. But every urban screening exaggerates the flicker of light, the swirl of sound, and the morphing drama that define public life and anonymous human connections. Architects study this effect and apply it to more progressive efforts.

Here’s an example—Chinatown WORK. Marisa Yiu and Eric Schuldenfrei, the conceptual architects of eskyiu, mounted a piece this past spring on the wall of a bank building in Manhattan. A hidden camera across the street reflected passing silhouettes onto the wall. Then, software uploaded footage from neighborhood workplaces inside the silhouettes. The piece revealed what you don’t see within Chinatown’s buildings. While it may not have compelled passerbys to stop and gasp, like King Kong might, it drew on the same logic that makes outdoor movies such a hit. Moving images remind us how many stories and impressions move through a city every moment.

Venturing Out
What mix of images and text make for arresting architecture?
In midday, the Lehman Brothers and Morgan Stanley headquarters in Times Square flash words and maps and colors that become part of the district’s swirl of advertising. What balance of shapes, light, and shadow should onscreen architecture include?

What kinds of streetscapes support an urban video?
Chicago’s Millennium Park shows moving images in the middle of a field; the new Seven World Trade Center flashes block text at the dead-end of a downtown street. When should video installations reflect the chiaroscuro and pedestrian flows of their surroundings? When should they contradict them? What say should a building’s occupants get in governing its broadcasts?

How do moving images convey local flavor?
We now expect to see the same video in entertainment districts from Shinjuku to Piccadilly Circus. Can local moving images, like Yiu’s and Schuldenfrei’s, provide some only-here gravitas? Or should video be fleeting and transitory? Do you know local filmmakers or artists who can project a city’s sense of itself in a public place?

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