At the New York Tolerance Center, NBBJ offers a hope for world peace
Jane Margolies -- Interior Design, 5/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
As they pass by New York's Daily News Building, a 1930 landmark by Raymond Hood and John Mead Howells, people have been doing a double take. Glimpsed through street-level windows is the word tolerance, spelled out in 6-foot-tall letters across a curved wall of backlit acrylic.
Welcome to the NBBJ-designed New York Tolerance Center, a training facility where police officers, teachers, and other front-line professionals immerse themselves in issues of anti-Semitism, bigotry, and racism—and grapple with their own beliefs and prejudices. "It's a social laboratory," explains Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Based in Los Angeles, the human-rights organization launched both L.A.'s Museum of Tolerance and its New York counterpart.
New York's eye-catching tolerance installation is part of what NBBJ architects call the Smart Wall. A mounting surface for video monitors, audio speakers, and touch-screen terminals, this glowing acrylic S snakes through the 18,500-square-foot two-level space, tying the high-tech exhibits together. "With content so dark, we needed 'a way to guide people through gently," says Timothy Johnson, NBBJ's partner in charge of the $8 million project.
As docents lead scheduled groups of visitors away from the entrance, the Smart Wall greets them with quotations from wise men and women of the past and present. (Albert Einstein, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Helen Keller.) Opposite the Smart Wall, curved cherrywood panels enclose an 80-seat auditorium that the group files past to descend a painted steel staircase. As it cuts through the Smart Wall, visitors get a peek at the fiber-optic cables, data lines, and projection devices that power the exhibits, created by Houghton Kneale Design.
Along the staircase, visitors pass a section of Smart Wall where Jenny Holzer–esque vertical running LEDs alternate with synchronized plasma screens posing the first of many challenging questions: "Are you prejudiced?" In the main corridor at the bottom of the stairs, NBBJ installed vinyl-padded bleacher seats and touch-screen monitors that provide access to hate sites on the Internet.
Just off this corridor, the space called the Millennium Machine addresses human-rights issues on a global level. Actual news clips flash on plasma screens mounted on the Smart Wall, while multiple-choice questions pop up on small monitors attached to counters clad in powder-coated perforated aluminum. What's the biggest threat to refugees? a) Execution. b) Frostbite. c) Land mines. d) Starvation. (Answer: c.)
The circular Point of View Diner combines ethics questions with a conversational atmosphere. Visitors sit on molded-plastic ' stools or a vinyl-upholstered banquette to watch individual plasma screens showing the enactment of an incident. For example, a teenage boy dies in a drunk-driving accident returning from the prom with his girlfriend. After the video, everyone votes on who's most accountable, including the girlfriend, the parents, or the liquor-store owner. "It helps people get in touch with their own reactions," Johnson says.
Next on the journey comes a 60-seat theater for a film on the Holocaust. Names of concentration camps are etched on panels of the Smart Wall, as are stories of individuals who risked their lives to save others. Following the 40-minute presentation, the audience proceeds to a 920-square-foot space that divides into three separate classrooms via sliding Polyolefine partitions. Facilitators write directly on the glossy white marker-board walls, leading workshops on diversity at the office and in the community.
To exit the Tolerance Center, visitors pass through a long, spare corridor. Its squared pillars and raw cement floor call to mind that most New York of public places: the subway platform. "You make the transition from the global to the local," Johnson says.
When closed, hinged wall panels detail the history of Jews in the U.S. When open, the panels reveal posters conceived by New York high schoolers. One shows five young hands of diverse skin colors making peace signs joined in the form of a star. A fitting farewell image, it's a radiant symbol of hope, unity, and cooperation.