Playhouse Square Placemaking and Digital Experience

Taking the Stage

Dramatic placemaking and digital technology combine to shine new light on Cleveland, Ohio’s, historic theater district. You'll see this project and other innovative digital experiences at Xlab 2014!

Cleveland’s Playhouse Square theater district has been a major part of the city’s heritage since its Vaudeville houses and movie palaces first thrilled theatergoers in the early 1920s. The theaters went dark in the 1960s, but the district was resurrected in the 1970s, revitalizing downtown Cleveland and ushering in a national revival of historic theaters. A new $16 million streetscape and signage program is its latest incarnation—a dazzling, color-saturated experience dominated by a 20-ft.-tall outdoor chandelier that has become an instant icon for the district and the city.

Designed by The Barnycz Group (Baltimore) with signage and graphic elements fabricated by Design Communications Ltd. (Boston) and displays by Barco, the retro-vibed streetscape also includes digital kiosks, gateway arches framing the district, and marquee “spectaculars” reminiscent of Times Square.

The largest performing arts center in the United States behind Lincoln Center in New York, the district attracts more than a million visitors a year. But the Playhouse Square Foundation wanted the excitement and energy happening inside the theaters to spill out onto the streets, especially Euclid Avenue, the city’s once-and-future Main Street. A parking garage built behind the theaters in the 1980s allows most theater-goers to come and go from the buildings via a covered walkway, effectively discouraging them from stepping outside onto the streets.

“The job was to create a unique theatre district, and after touring the historic theaters, the big idea became clear to me: We needed to bring the inside out,” says Danny Barnycz. “All of the theatres were gorgeously restored to a high level and I wanted to recreate this feeling on the outside.”

In addition to some dramatic placemaking, Barnycz knew the project also called for a rich multimedia network to tie it all together. “I wanted to tell Playhouse Square’s rich story and let people know about all of the ongoing spectacular programming.” 

Inspired by the theaters’ ornate plasterwork and beautifully restored interiors, Barnycz transposed details of griffins and other architectural elements to the placemaking and signage.

The 20-ft.-tall chandelier, sponsored by GE, is the most dramatic case in point. Officially listed with Guinness as the world’s largest chandelier, it is suspended 44 feet above the intersection of Euclid Avenue and East 14th Street on steel-and-aluminum arms that Design Communications Ltd. engineered to support its 8,500-pound weight. It is surreal and grand, honoring the aesthetic traditions of the old theaters with a superscaled, pop-art twist. It has also become an instant photo opp and social media sensation, looking especially dramatic against the night sky. Strung with 4,200 crystals of light-catching acrylic resin and incorporating 68 GE lighting fixtures, the giant, gem-like icon is an antidote to Cleveland’s dark and punishing winter weather and seems to beckon with the subliminal message that “There is something exciting happening here. Come and see for yourself.”

Four golden gateway arches define and create entrances to Playhouse Square and retro signage, including a 44-ft-wide mini “spectacular” sign that is a throwback to the 1920s sign atop the district’s historic Keith building, add to the sense of place.

The multi-media element of the project adds a contemporary flair and functionality, but still stays in character. Barnycz knew that media would be important, and he wanted to add pedestrian-scale digital displays that would engage people in the district’s programming. So he designed seven 8-ft.-high sidewalk kiosks that hold double-sided, 72-in., high-brightness Barco LCD displays that communicate performance times and other promotions. Their “gilded” frames echo curlicue ornamentation from inside the theaters and their tops are adorned with griffins found in many of the theaters as well.

“This new 72-in. LCD street screen is the kind of display that someone can literally be three feet away from and it still looks gorgeous in direct sunlight,” he says. For large-scale screens, he chose the Barco C-8 LED display.  

The park plaza is punctuated by a 30-ft.-tall Stylon video screen covering 548 sq. ft., It displays advertising and event promotions, and can also be used as a live digital artist’s canvas. Four large marquee screens are also included in the district, as well as a ticker-style screen on the TBS building.

“Given the multitude of ever-changing programming that occurs within the various theatres, a digital platform was the ideal solution,” Barnycz notes. “And every screen at Playhouse Square is interactive, so that during the big events people can get involved. The whole thing feels alive, letting people be part of the experience.”

PLAYHOUSE SQUARE

Client:  Playhouse Square Foundation

Location:  Cleveland, Ohio

Design:  The Barnycz Group

Fabrication:  Design Communication Ltd.

Hardware:  Barco

Photos:  Courtesy The Barnycz Group

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