OHNY intern Kelly O’Grady works at the contemporary French restaurant, Brasserie, in the Seagram Building. She takes us on a tour of the restaurant’s interesting design for this week’s Field Trip Friday. Originally designed by Philip Johnson, along with the Four Seasons above it in the same building, Brasserie was redesigned after a kitchen fire in 1998 by the interdisciplinary architecture firm originally founded by husband and wife duo Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio. Inspired by the socio-technological world of today, many of Diller + Scofidio’s designs use media installations, of which the redesigned Brasserie is a prime example.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Diller + Scofidio’s design harkens back to the modernity of the original Philip Johnson design of the restaurant in 1959. The restaurant’s original design reflected Philip Johnson’s collaboration with the Seagram Building architect, Mies van der Rohe, known as one of the pioneers of modern architecture. The Seagram Building’s façade of glass (above) is one of the first examples of the curtain wall. Johnson’s Brasserie and van der Rohe’s Seagram Building both referenced the modernist values of transparency and clarity as well as exhibit the modernist trait of blurring the distinction between interior and exterior space. Diller + Scofidio, in their redesign of the restaurant, blur this distinction even further by employing technology and using translucent materials such as glass.

The shell of the original Philip Johnson design for the restaurant was maintained in the redesign. Guests pass through the first stage in a two-part entrance into the restaurant by entering through the original 1959 revolving doors. Guests enter the dining room virtually before they enter physically, as a motion-sensor camera photographs every guest. These photos then appear as a rotating display of blurred images on the 15 televisions above the bar.

Preceded by their image, guests then come to the dramatic second stage of entering the restaurant. Leading down into the dining room, is a gradual, translucent resin staircase, reminiscent of a fashion runway (seen below). Several feet underground, the stairs lead guests into the center of the dining room. The inside of the dining room is a distinctly separate world, encased in layered pear wood and warm lighting, a welcome contrast to the translucent pale green resin tabletops and stairs and the ubiquity of glass.

The interior was completely replaced when Diller + Scofidio designed the restaurant, which reopened in 2000. The clearest difference between the original and the 2000 design is a reworking of the treatment of personal and shared space. For one, when guests check their coats, they notice a virtual window to the outside world, the only window of any kind in the Brasserie, aside from the doors. Embedded in the restaurant’s sign that faces the street, a tiny camera captures what goes on during cigarette breaks outside, allowing those outside to maintain a virtual presence inside the walls of the restaurant. In another example, the continuous pear wood shell that harbors all but the booth and the bar seating exaggerates the physical separation between those dining on Brasserie’s famous French onion soup and the outside world.

The detachment of booth seating to one side provides a sense of privacy for those eating inside each booth. Though, in reality, both the booths and the bar are, in fact, on display for those sitting in the center of the room. In addition, the glass stairs divide the dining room, creating a physical barrier. However, the stairs do not create a visual barrier as guests can see through the glass.

Perhaps most spectacular is the bar. Bright lights behind the bar showcase hundreds of wine and liquor bottles, competing with the video installation but blurred behind yet more translucent, floating, sliding glass panes. The bar installation, a mediation of the reality of our presence and absence, also references the 40-year time space between the contemporary Brasserie and the original. As guests leave, the motion-sensor camera captures them again, temporarily extending their virtual presence in the Brasserie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These pastry bags are three of about 14 showcased behind partially obscured glass walls in the candle room that are blurred unless viewed at a right angle. The frosting extruding from the piping bags make the shape of little men and women (look closely at the imprint at the end of each frosting tube) entangled in what appears to be classic 1950s gender games. In the first, a woman waves to a man. In the second, a woman and a man make one figure, and in the third, a man chases after a woman. Quirky details such as these make the Brasserie an interesting experience beyond the culinary aspect.

Looking at their playful approach to the Brasserie’s architectural history and their use of video installations, it is easy to see how Diller + Scofidio’s contributions to the world of architecture surpass their architectural building designs and originate in the realm of spatial theory and criticism. New York Times’ Herbert Muschamp heralded the work of the duo as “Rigorously analytic, sometimes chilly, always playful, they are intellectual comedies.”

Work by Diller Scofidio + Renfro can be seen and pondered in other locations in the city as well, including the Highline, Lincoln Center, Alice Tully Hall, The Julliard School, Governer’s Island, The School of American Ballet, and elsewhere.

Brasserie
100 E. 53rd St. between Park and Lexington.

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