The Great Hall at the New York Hall of Science in Queens was designed to give visitors to the 1964 World’s Fair the feeling of floating in deep space. Over the following decades its 5,400 concrete panels embedded with cobalt blue glass, speckled in places with red and yellow, dulled; the mid-century building’s undulating architecture required stabilization. Last month, after a six-year, $25 million renovation, the Great Hall reopened, and now instead of transporting viewers to the stars, its new exhibition considers the ecology of our own planet.
Connected Worlds opened on June 27 as the Great Hall’s permanent exhibition for the coming years. The digital interactive environment, created in collaboration with Design I/O and Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network, simulates six ecosystems that are controlled by visitors’ movements. A 45-foot animated waterfall flows onto the floor, which visitors can guide with “logs.” The exhibition is aimed at engaging kids with water conservation and climate change, as choices about where to distribute water, plant seeds, cut trees, and generate clouds impact the future of the ecosystem. On my visit the adults seemed much more enthusiastic about playing with the whimsical fictional creatures and experimenting with moving their hands in front of the screens, while kids rolled over the floor logs seemingly oblivious to their environmental impact. It is a game that has a bit of a learning curve, but it’s definitely an impressive experience with a lot of different interaction points, and it’s easy to see a school group or crowd of determined kids getting really involved with this environment.
Renovations on the Great Hall began in 2009, and the outdoor plaza’s revamp is still underway through the fall. The space has been closed in the interim, although there have been periodic events, such as Björk’s 2012 futuristic five-show residency and Arc Attack’s Tesla coil performance during Maker Faire in 2010 and 2011. Few major structures remain from the 1964 World’s Fair, and several of those that survive, such as the New York State Pavilion and Terrace on the Park, have decayed in plain view. The Great Hall is exceptional in that regard, and in mid-century architecture in New York City, where gleaming glass skyscrapers and relics of the Gilded Age tend to be more readily celebrated.
Nicknamed the “cathedral of science,” the Great Hall was designed by architect Wallace K. Harrison of Harrison and Abramovitz Architects, who previously experimented with the illumination of glass and concrete at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York, in 1951 and the “Fish Church” in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1958. The Great Hall was perhaps his most ambitious, with a 100-foot-high ceiling and not a right angle or straight wall in sight. From the exterior, the building is stern, with a brutalist heaviness, but inside the “dalle de verre” slab glass technique in the curved walls instills in the darkened room a sensation of limitless space. The renovation, by Ennead Architects, involved cleaning by hand each of the glass panels and tracking down the original glass manufacturer in Philadelphia for replacements. The six-year wait was worth it, as the Great Hall is not just completely different from any other space in New York, it’s also the heart to the science museum, still captivating young visitors with the potential for human exploration, now focusing on our environment while its simulation of the stars hovers above.