The New York State Pavilion presides over Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens, New York, like an alien spaceship that’s touched down and since been abandoned.
The whole structure, while instantly recognizable to locals, is rather mysterious. The circle of 100-foot columns, topped by a suspended roof made of colorful cables, was designed by Philip Johnson for the 1964-65 World’s Fair. The pavilion hasn’t had a proper use since the end of the fair decades ago, and is now a shadow of its former self. But advocates for its restoration compare its architectural significance in New York to Grand Central Station. In an editorial in the New York Daily News, Matthew Silva, a documentarian and co-founder of the restoration advocacy group People for the Pavilion, wrote:
Today, the thought of demolishing Grand Central Terminal seems ludicrous. I hope that one day we will feel the same way about the New York State Pavilion, when it is restored and we cannot imagine our city without it.
According to a report released by the Parks Department in 2013, restoring the structure would cost the city $53 million, while tearing it down would cost $14 million. But with the support of the Queens Borough President Melinda Katz–who has secured over $12 million in funding for the Pavilion restoration project–public opinion seems to have landed on revitalizing Johnson’s futuristic structure and making it a central public space in Queens, not unlike the High Line was for the West Side of Manhattan.
This year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation partnered with People for the Pavilion to raise awareness about Johnson’s masterpiece and bring it back to life. The first step? A competition that asked the local community, and architects and designers around the world, to radically reimagine what the Pavilion could be–while still respecting Johnson’s original vision.
“I feel like now there’s this aligning of stars and there’s this tremendous amount of support from the local level and city level to do something with the structure,” said Salmaan Khan, co-founder of People for the Pavilion. Khan, who was born in Queens, has always found the Pavilion fascinating, and devotes his free time to raising awareness about its history. During the day, Khan works for Friends of the High Line as their manager of capital projects and planning, and has seen how Queens and the Bronx in particular have been overlooked in the ongoing efforts to revitalize public spaces in New York. “Flushing Meadows is the best park in New York City, to me,” Khan said, “and the most representative of the diversity of the city. The Pavilion is a natural center of the park.”
Khan believes the time has come for the Pavilion to become a central part of New York’s public space. “The interesting thing about the structure is that it was always meant to be a multi-functional public space,” Khan said. “When it was built for the fair it was used for performances and gallery openings.”
More than 250 ideas from all over the world were submitted to the competition. Here are a few of the winners.
The winner of the ideas competition proposed using the columns as a base to support a suspended garden, which would act as an environmental education center and showcase phenomenal views of New York. Called Hanging Meadows, the Seattle-based architects Aidan Doyle and Sarah Wan of Wandoy Studio were inspired by Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, which has become a prime tourist attraction and combines stunning architecture, entertainment, and environmental awareness.
They also used Seattle’s Space Needle, another architectural marvel resulting from a World’s Fair, and its surrounding Space Center, as a model for what the Pavilion could be in Queens. “The way it has been adapted over time to a new set of uses while maintaining this incredible energy is pretty great,” Wan said. “It shows us that there’s a lot of potential for these old World’s Fairs sites to be vital in the current day.”
The second prize idea, Civic Hub, was by the architect Javier E. Salinas, who proposed restoring the Pavilion to its original function: as a multi-purpose space for public programming, including local events and festivals. With an eye toward community input, Salinas imagines that the Pavilion could be used to support programming like senior fitness, Queens reading programs, Parks After School, BeFit NYC, and art programs for all ages. Shuttles from local community and senior centers would help make the park and the Pavilion more accessible.
“The NYS Pavilion ideas competition appealed to me because it presented a unique opportunity to present ideas that serve the public, preserve history, and promote a healthy and hopeful future for the community it serves,” Salinas said. “I was inspired to invigorate [the Pavilion’s] charm by restoring its original splendor and also make it a symbol of a public space that promotes people’s health, happiness, and well-being.”
In keeping with the spirit of the competition, a local prize was also chosen. Cesar Juarez and Alida Rose Delaney’s Pavilion Park was selected as the Queens-based winner. They proposed turning the Pavilion into the framework for a public park that would feature a stage and built-in stadium seating.
Juarez, an architect, grew up in Queens. “As a child, I remember visiting the park often—whether to play around or catch one of the many soccer matches,” he said. “I remember being distracted and intrigued by the Pavilion. It caught your eye and made you wonder, ‘what could it possibly be?'” As native New Yorkers, Juarez and Delaney’s collaboration focuses on building a flexible space that will benefit the community.
“It was important that our Pavilion Park maintain much of Philip Johnson’s original and one-of-a-kind design,” said Delaney, a performing and visual artist. “We wanted the NYS Pavilion to reflect that of the surrounding park and play atmosphere, while also offering a space that can easily suit the various needs of New Yorkers.”
For now, the fate of the New York State Pavilion rests in the hands of New York’s Parks Department, which owns the structure.
For Jason Clement, the director of community outreach at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the most meaningful submission to the ideas competition came from a young girl during one of the many public events the Trust and People for the Pavilion put on to engage the local community. “A little girl wrote, ‘I want this to be a place where every kid is happy,'” he said. The event was right after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, and Clement was moved to see a child speaking so calmly that a public space could be a place where people are happy.
Meanwhile, Khan’s favorite ideas weren’t actually the winners, and instead landed outside the realm of buildable possibility. He liked the New York Whales Pavilion, which went sci-fi and imagined the structure as a sanctuary for whales. Another favorite idea proposed using the pavilion as a UFO landing site. “It’s really representative of how far out of the box you can imagine something,” he said. “It speaks to the futuristic design of it. During that era, it was supposed to be a representation of what the future was going to be.”
A selection of entries from the ideas competition will be on view at the Queens Museum until August 28.
[All Images (unless otherwise noted): courtesy National Trust for Historic Preservation]