September 1, 2012

Lucky 13: Architecture + Information Designs New York’s WNET Studio

New Yorkers may fondly describe WNET as TV’s wise, old grandfather—its channel Thirteen being the most popular in U.S. public broadcasting. What they’d be less likely to call WNET is cutting-edge where design is concerned, and until recently they’d have been right. Before Architecture + Information completed a new studio facility and headquarters, WNET had been operating from premises verging on 15 years old. It also faced funding shortfalls in the wake of the economic downturn, so A+I principals Dag Folger and Brad Zizmor found a way to kill two birds with one stone. “We leveraged new technology to increase efficiency,” Zizmor says, while transforming“the WNET of yesteryear” into a new media powerhouse. 

The first order of business was to move the studios from 10,000 square feet in Midtown, where old-school spotlights alone required a massive auxiliary air-conditioning room, to a 4,900-square-foot, two-story corner at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center on the Upper West Side, where lighting is LED, and the digital connection is fiber-optic. In addition, digitization means that the studios’ robotic cameras can be operated from an offsite control room. Another space-saver is the main staircase, which doubles as a set for pledge drives as it hugs Alice Tully Hall’s curtain wall— a major upside as far as CEO Neal Shapiro is concerned. “His thought was, We’re a ‘public’ broadcasting station. Why are we way up in a building where no one can see us?” Folger recalls. “Before, they could have been shooting anywhere. There was no connection to the city.” Now, Broadway is visible through the glass, and passersby have an unobstructed view in.

WNET again traded space for functionality at the new headquarters, still in Midtown. Tore locate staff from 215,000 square feet to less than half that size—at nearly half the rent—A+I took “open” to the extreme, going from 70 percent private offices to zero. Even Shapiro sits at a workstation. In return, employees get support spaces such as a surround sound 3-D screening room and WiFi-equipped break-out areas. “In the end, what was considered a bad thing, belt tightening, turned out to be the key to unlocking the station’s future,” Zizmor says. Among the few reminders of the old, analog setup are the classic posters hung in the halls.

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