Photo © Michael Moran


Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects

Brooklyn, New York

The Ice Rink Cometh: At the heart of Brooklyn's Prospect Park, a new public recreation area updates and restores a section of the borough's revered green space.

By Jennifer Krichels

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In his final days of office last year, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg cut the ribbon on the Samuel J. and Ethel LeFrak Center, a Tod Williams Billie Tsien–designed skating facility in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. Standing nearby, the architects waited for a crowd of invited children to dash onto the ice, but when the rink's gate finally opened, “You saw one little kid creeping out slowly, holding like mad to the edge of the wall, and then the next one and the next one,” remembers Tsien. “It was like a line of little ants.”

Since those first hesitant kids, skaters of all ages have warmed to the ice, with visitors waiting in long lines to buy tickets. The center's two rinks, along with the restoration of the adjacent landscape, are part of Lakeside, an ambitious $74 million project to restore and reinvigorate 26 acres of the sprawling and beloved park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the 19th century.

They originally planned the site to stage a formal moment, as they famously did by the water's-edge at Bethesda Terrace in Manhattan's Central Park. A carriage concourse terminated near the shore of Prospect Park's lake, where visitors could listen to performances by musicians stationed across a small channel on Music Island. In a 1961 overhaul, the channel was filled in to make way for a shedlike ice-skating facility and—in typical Robert Moses–era fashion—a parking lot replaced the carriageway.

Williams and Tsien worked with landscape architect Christian Zimmerman, vice president of capital and landscape management for the nonprofit Prospect Park Alliance (PPA), to restore if not replicate Olmsted and Vaux's vision, reviving the green space while retaining the site's role as a gathering place. The center's two rinks, an uncovered ellipse and a canopied hockey rink, are both open for public skating in the winter, and the hockey rink will host roller-skating in the summer, filling a void left by the closure of the Empire Roller Skating Center, an institution in the nearby Crown Heights neighborhood. (The new plan even revives Music Island—but replaces the once awkwardly marooned musicians with a wildlife habitat.) “I feel that this is the most important piece we've ever done, because it's the most public,” says Tsien. “It's the one that everybody can go to.”

Only visitors who want to skate need to pay; anyone else may walk freely through the facility, which has no fences (it has nearly doubled the number of public restrooms in the park). The overall project was realized through a public-private partnership between the PPA and the New York City Parks Department that persevered through years of bureaucratic snags and financial challenges.

When Lakeside opened in December, the public was introduced to two single-story rectangular buildings topped by roof terraces that bound the rinks in an L-shaped plan. One building contains an ice-making plant, mechanical facilities, a café, and storage areas, and the other houses skate rental, lockers, a shop, and offices. Vegetated berms conceal these structures from the park's main path—visitors can be on top of the center and almost unaware of the crowds twirling below to a soundtrack of pop songs. At a serendipitous (and unplanned) point while crossing a bronze and reclaimed-teak footbridge connecting the terraces, the top of the Verrazano Bridge comes into view in the distance. “It's not unlike what Olmsted and Vaux had designed,” says Zimmerman. “They didn't want you to see everything all at once. They wanted that illusory feel that things disappear and come back and disappear again.”

To achieve this effect, the architecture is deferential to the park's landscape and historical character. While the hockey rink's 25,000-square-foot canopy—its rooftop planted with sedum—appears massive from below, it barely registers from the park's East Drive, and will be even less noticeable as the landscape matures. The 10 granite-clad structural steel columns that support the canopy are irregularly spaced to leave corners open, giving skaters unobstructed sightlines to the lake. Everywhere, Williams and Tsien echo the park's original architecture with granite, bluestone, and bronze, among other materials.

Their bolder gestures are appropriately playful. The midnight-blue stucco ceiling of the hockey rink canopy is as striking in person as it is in the Instagram photos frequently posted by skaters, though carved silver markings styled after blade marks on ice could look kitschy in a few years next to the more timeless lighting, which resembles a starry sky. At times, the old and new clash, such as when the rink's contemporary luminaires come into view from the neighboring esplanade, with its old-fashioned lampposts.

Ultimately, the structures aren't the focus. “The experience of being there is the point,” says Tsien. Among the project's achievements are the varied opportunities it creates for viewing. Onlookers can watch the action from the terrace above or from several comfortable rinkside perspectives.

On a sunny day in early January, spectators included parents of skating children and park visitors who happened upon the new rinks, all watching a stream of people whirl around the ice. With the wrongs of previous decades erased, the site has become a busy center of activity stitched into the fabric of the park with a deftness worthy of Olmsted and Vaux's masterpiece.

Brooklyn, NY–based Jennifer Krichels writes about architecture and design for various national and international publications.


Video snapshots from Tod Williams Billie Tsien's skating rink and park restoration in Brooklyn.


Owner: City of New York, Department of Parks and Recreation

Client: Prospect Park Alliance

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects
222 Central Park South
New York, NY 10019

Size: 26 acres (park renovation); 75,000 square feet (building project)

Cost: $74 million

Completion date: December 2013

February 2014
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