Nestled between downtown Brooklyn’s Fulton Mall and the leafy residential neighborhood of Fort Greene, there’s a corner address that vibrates with energy. The Strand Theater, at 647 Fulton Street, anchors the edge of the rapidly expanding Brooklyn Cultural District, sitting amidst an explosion of residential construction. Home to UrbanGlass, and BRIC House, a multidisciplinary arts and media center, its arresting exterior of black paint, pink neon, and expressive metal letterforms, boldly announces what lies within, jolting passersby to attention. When walking, driving, or riding past, I always find myself transfixed, displaced for a moment by graphic design writ large.
Originally built in 1918 as a vaudeville theater, the building has weathered periods of disrepair and a brief sojourn as a bowling alley before a city-funded expansion renovated the space in 2013. Thomas Leeser, the architect responsible for transforming the site from nondescript to local landmark, designed a program that allowed for a multitude of uses. A gallery and retail space for UrbanGlass now occupies the short, Fulton-facing front of the building, while BRIC’s facilities—including a performance space, classrooms, public access television studio, gallery, and café—inhabit the back, with an entrance on Rockwell Place. Glassblowing studios and a hot and cold shop remain accessible on the third floor, where the sounds of heavy machinery won’t disrupt the other occupants.
With the programming firmly in place, the challenge then became how to let the community know the building was publicly accessible. Both organizations had occupied the space for many years, but remained hidden away and nearly invisible until the renovation.
“It needed to be something that screamed out,” says Leeser, referring to the building’s signage. But because most of the modest budget was spent on the interior, Leeser and his team also had to navigate very limited options and resources. The neoclassical columns for example, which decorated the original structure and now functioned as little more than “theater props,” had to remain.
“If we have to live with it, we’re going to make it really interesting,” Leeser says. “We didn’t want anyone to think this was a historic façade, but we wanted to maintain the neighborhood character.” The solution was to keep everything intact, but with an obvious tongue-in-cheek approach.
Looking at the building from the street, the signs become the architecture of the space, which is exactly what Leeser intended. The letters that spell “BRIC,” a combination of black metal frame and blue neon outline, wrap around the corner of the building, their italic forms almost in motion. The signs run across windows, around columns, and with seeming disregard for the traditional boundaries of space. When a letterform crosses a window, the material shifts, signifying the transparency and openness of the building to the street below. A thick black rectangle frames the BRIC identity, acting as a flag which points toward the back of the site and the entrance to the Arts | Media House. UrbanGlass, spelled out in bright pink neon, hovers above the entryway to the shop and gallery space, bending around the structure from the lower-right to just beyond the corner.
The italic “BRIC,” splashed across the façade, is notably different than the organization’s graphic identity, which utilizes a slightly more geometric typeface, knocked out of an axonometric volume. The mark changed during the long process of design and construction, but because it reads as architecture more than official logo, it works independently, outlasting any visual identity redesign.
The project’s embrace of bold communication over subtle expression is a welcome addition to its surroundings. The vernacular of this area, from the dollar store across the street to the BAM Harvey Theater next door, is more about standing out than fitting in, though Leeser’s redesign achieves a bit of both. The goal was to break the barrier between the outside and the interior. “People become aware of not just the place, but the urban context,” Leeser says. It’s an increasingly important role in a neighborhood undergoing vast and rapid change.
“If you take the signs away, there is no place,” wrote Robert Venturi in Learning from Las Vegas. For 647 Fulton Street, the statement holds true. A vastly different setting than the high-speed highways out West, this Brooklyn intersection is nonetheless a complex urban setting, and the building’s intensified communication enlivens this evolving non-commercial strip. “For me,” Leeser explains, “it’s actually graphic design as architecture.”