“A Board member said to me, when people come into the space, they feel that they can be better, that it ennobles them, that it is a grounding and inspiring space.”
So explains Arnold Syrop with some pride when talking about the new headquarters he designed at 936 Broadway for the Ackerman Institute for the Family, one of the leading institutes in America specializing in family therapy.
Having been previously based for 53 years at their beloved location, an elegant gentrified brownstone on East 78th Street, a new headquarters had a lot to live up to, in a field that requires great delicacy and a comforting, safe environment.
Luckily for Ackerman, they happened to have on-hand a man who knew intimately the needs of the Institute’s clients, trainees, faculty, and staff, and who could purpose design a truly state-of-the-art location for family therapy, uniquely suited to all its constituencies. This was Arnold Syrop, an architect born and raised in New York, the Principal and creative director of Arnold Syrop Architects, whose wide range of major clients includeHilton Hotels Corporation, Loews Hotels, World Yacht, Marriott International, Renaissance Hotels, Carlson Industries, The Princeton Club of New York, Millenium Hotels, Universal Studios, The University Club and the Waldorf Astoria, as well as hospitality facilities at Rockefeller Center, Grand Central Station and Madison Square Garden.
“Arnold Syrop has been a member of the Board for over 22 years,” notes Lois Braverman, President and CEO of the Ackerman Institute. “As we looked to move the institute, we wanted to have more room to grow and develop new research projects, because we are like a small college, our intellectual capital is really what makes us so distinctive. Arnold had been imagining the new space for many years, and he was very instrumental in creating the idea that he didn’t want people to come in feeling like they were entering an office space.”
“When you think of offices, you think of a certain character,” says Arnold, “Long hallways, low ceilings, a lot of flourescent light. And with the new space, what we’ve really created is a space that has some of the feel of walking into a grand public space, like Grand Central Station, it doesn’t feel like office space. There’s a loftiness to it, and a lyricism – there are no long corridors, which we did by taking the rooms where patients are interviewed, and turning them on a 45 degree angle in relation to the grid of the building, and treating them in the way that reflected how the patients are seated – they are usually clustered in a semi-circle, so we made the walls of the rooms in which the patients are being interviewed reflect that with curved walls. Then on the public side, you see those curves and move around them so there’s a very smooth and lyrical flow of space, very sculptural. And with these sweeping curves, you don’t end up with long hallways.”
The new building at 936 Broadway contains five floors. Ackerman was to occupy the 2nd floor and part of the 3rd floor. Both floors had to be gutted and rebuilt. Upon entering the new space, visitors are immediately struck by its warmth, brightness and spaciousness.
“In the waiting area, we exposed the steel columns of the original Brooks Brothers building,” Arnold explains, “They go all the way up to the top of the space, which adds to the grandness of it, and gives us the use of the brickwork and the brick arches, creating a very nice eclectic quality of bringing in a state-of-the-art modern space with some of the atmosphere of the original building preserved. The warmth of the wood floors and the oriental rugs in the waiting area give it a subtle richness and timelessness.”
The 2nd floor contains therapy offices and four studio spaces, all outfitted with advanced cameras and recording technology for capturing sessions and classroom discussions, digitally onto external hard drives. In addition, the lighting, wall color, and camera placements were carefully chosen in order to create the most professional recordings. The 3rd floor contains two classrooms separated by a dividing wall that can be opened to create a larger space accommodating up to 100 people. Each classroom is equipped with cutting edge projectors and large presentation screens, with overhead speakers throughout the room to improve sound quality. Overall it represents a huge increase in floorspace and facilities for Ackerman.
“What we have now is a state of the art training facility,” Lois Braverman notes, “with the capacity to record our sessions, to use one-way mirror studios, to show video and powerpoints in classrooms, really an ideal space to train more family thearapists. We’ve also created a space that is a very calming environment, a place families can come and feel comfortable.”
Syrop’s further customizations included building walls with extra soundproofing material to prevent conversation or audio leaking, and ensuring each office has plenty of natural light from a large window overlooking either Broadway or 22nd street. “We tried to bring in natural light,” Arnold notes, “Most offices, people put glass in the partitions, so that when you are in the hallways, light comes through. In this case, because privacy is absolutely the first consideration, we couldn’t put glass in the partitions of the private offices. So the way we tried to accommodate that is to put clerestory windows over all the doors, so that even when all the doors are closed, daylight will filter through from those high-ceilinged office spaces, coming through the clerestories into the public space, so there is always a sense of daylight in the space.”
“The previous space was traditional,” Arnold states, “And although some of the rooms had charm – it had a very nice wood-panelled library and a rotunda and a beautiful circular stairway – it was a residential building originally and so there were a lot of really tiny rooms and back hallways, sort of dark spaces, whereas this new space is flooded with light, it really raises your spirits.”
“And not on a huge budget, by the way,” Arnold adds, “We started with a moderate budget. There is no wood-paneling in the space or marble floors, there are virtually no luxury materials. The luxury is in the space, the way it flows and its light, and that really talks to you, so you don’t need the expensive embellishments. There’s a poetry to the space, but it’s very functional, all the decisions were made based on function, the synthesis of that with beauty and aesthetics.”
Lois Braverman notes what this will mean for Ackerman going forward. “It means we have positioned ourselves, as an institute, to have a space to create what Ackerman is known nationally for. This space will be a think-tank that will generate best practices for treating families with a whole host of challenges and issues, for the next half a century.”
“It reflects Lois’ desire that people entering the space would feel tranquility.” Arnold says, “The Ackerman people lecture all over the world, and they’ve told me, they think it’s the most beautiful family therapy institute in the world. I am very proud of what we ended up with there.”