Brian Tolle (American, b. 1964) is fascinated by the imaginative resonances of built space and interested in overlaps between fictional and factual histories—perhaps reflecting the fact that, before earning a BFA at Parsons School of Design and an MFA at Yale University, the New York native received a BA in Political Science from the University of Albany. Tolle embarked on his commission for The New School soon after completing Irish Hunger Memorial (2002) in lower Manhattan’s Battery Park City. For this public art installation on the Hudson River waterfront, the artist transported and reconstructed a stone cottage from County Mayo, Ireland, creating a theatrical environment that memorializes the potato famine of the 1840s—a disaster during in which an estimated one million people died and more than two million emigrated, many of them to New York. 

Assistant to Brian Tolle at work on Threshold, 2006. Courtesy Brian Tolle Studio, photographer unknown. © Brian Tolle, courtesy of the artist.

In 2004, Tolle was invited to produce a site-specific work for the Dorothy H. Hirshon Suite, a trustee boardroom on the second floor of Arnhold Hall that has since been redesignated as a seminar room and special events reception space.1 The idea for Threshold grew out of Tolle’s Eureka project in Ghent, Belgium (2000). In this installation, the facade of a seventeenth-century canal house was overlaid with a digitally modeled ten-panel surface registering a “reflection” of the building, rippled as if by boats cruising the canal, that seemed to physically deform the architecture. As Tolle explains, “I wanted to express something that technology enabled me to bring into real time, real space, and integrate it into a landscape rather than onto a picture plane.”2

In Threshold, the “landscape” into which technology imports its ripples is a modest institutional interior. The work consists of two fiberglass panels set into the upper portion of the Hirshon Suite’s west wall. Using a blueprint of the room’s structural supports and the most advanced digital-mapping software available at the time, Tolle simulated not the movement of wavelets on an urban waterway but that of HVAC systems and indoor drafts; Threshold models the passage of air currents across deceptively solid scrim-like panels. Appearing white on white at first glance but gradually revealing a faint blush of pink, the paired reliefs model the building’s studs, ventilation system, and interstitial spaces, seeming to offer a glimpse beyond the finished skin of the room—yet literally revealing only another, more complex surface.

  1. Dorothy Hart Hirshon (1908–1998) was a New School trustee as well as a trustee of Carnegie Hall, a board member at Lincoln Center, and a member of the New York City Human Rights Commission. She was a member of the glittering Algonquin Hotel set in the 1920s; Matisse made her portrait, as did Cecil Beaton and Horst P. Horst. Like Vera List and J.M. Kaplan, Hirshon was a philanthropist whose engagements helped shape the cultural fabric of contemporary New York.
  2. “Brian Tolle by William R. Kaizen,” BOMB 76 (summer 2001), (accessed June 4, 2018).
Brian Tolle