Lincoln Center's New Come-Hither Design

February 19, 2009
When Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts was first proposed, in the mid-1950s, it was imagined as a sort of island of culture in the midst of Manhattan - a symphony hall, an opera house, a theater and a stage for ballet, all standing back a bit in their travertine glory from a neighborhood on the Upper West Side that still had some very rough edges.

As the place opened in stages from 1962 to 1969, Lincoln Center turned out to be not just an island but an acropolis. At its northern and western boundaries, it sat on a platform 24 ft. (7.3 m) above the surrounding streets, as though it would just as soon not touch down with the locals. Those streets, after all, were so authentically funky that some of them had served as locations for the film version of West Side Story. When you consider that the Jets and the Sharks used to flash their switchblades not far from where the Metropolitan Opera now stands, it's amazing that the island of culture didn't come with a moat and a drawbridge. (See 10 Things to Do in 24 Hours in New York City.)

But shiny and aloof was how they did performing-arts complexes back then, with lots of bright lights, white stone and dancing waters but not much connection to the neighborhood. In 1964 the Music Center of Los Angeles County was deposited into the nowheresville of downtown L.A., a part of the city where very few people actually lived. It wasn't just that the place didn't reach out to the neighborhood. There was no neighborhood to reach out to.

Seven years later, Washington celebrated the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center, a white marble extravaganza designed by Edward Durrell Stone, the era's go-to guy for Establishment swank. Within a single vast building, it held three theaters and a grand foyer that's one of the biggest rooms in the world. But it was also cut off from the city behind a rat's nest of roads and highways.

All three centers have been thinking in recent years about ways to weave themselves back into the cities they serve. But it's no easy thing. Following on the excitement created by Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall, which was added to the L.A. Music Center in 2003, Los Angeles endorsed the $3 billion Grand Avenue Project. That's a developer's proposal for Gehry-designed condos, shops, restaurants and a hotel, plus a 16-acre (6.5 hectare) park, all in the general vicinity of the center. But ground-breaking is on hold until the developer, Related Urban, can secure the necessary loans. And these days, that could take a while. (See 10 Things to Do in 24 Hours in Los Angeles.)

As for the Kennedy Center, six years ago it announced plans to completely reinvent its setting. The $650 million redesign, by the prominent architect Rafael Vińoly, envisioned a four-square-block fountain plaza built over that tangle of roadways, two sizable low-rise buildings that would face the center from across the new plaza, and a long boulevard of reflecting pools. The idea was to make the place more like part of an ensemble of pavilions, less like the lonely white palazzo that it remains — and will remain for some time. Two years after the expansion plan was unveiled, it was postponed indefinitely when Congress cut its share of the funding.

But with enough determination and inspiration — and reliable financing — transformation can happen. The proof is that this month, in the first part of a $1.2 billion, multistage redesign of its 16 acre (6.5 hectare) campus, Lincoln Center will reopen Alice Tully Hall, its chamber-music auditorium, in a building ingeniously reconfigured to announce to anybody passing by, Come in, we're here, make yourself at home!

Alice Tully Hall, which shares space with the Lincoln Center Film Society, the Juilliard School of Music and the School of American Ballet, spent the past 40 years locked inside a squat stretch of travertine that would have been perfect for an FBI fingerprint lab. Completed in 1969 in the design idiom called Brutalism, it ran more than half the length of a city block with hardly a grace note or welcoming gesture. To make matters worse, a heavy pedestrian bridge that connected it to the main Lincoln Center campus, across 65th Street, cast a broad swath of that street into permanent shadow.

The people who have busted open that box are the architectural firm Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, working with the firm FXFowle. The husband-and-wife team of Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio — they added Charles Renfro's name to the firm five years ago — were better known for years as thinkers, conceptual artists and seriously funny provocateurs. (One of their projects, the Blur Building, on a Swiss lake, was a "pavilion" that was mostly a fog of water vapor.) But over the past few years, they've proved that unconventional ideas can have solid, satisfying consequences. In 2006 they completed their first building, the ingenious Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Later this year, their highly original High Line Park will open along an abandoned elevated-railway line in lower Manhattan, a park that's a path.

To open up the Alice Tully-Juilliard building, Diller and her partners more or less exploded it. At one triangular corner they greatly extended the lobby, wrapped it in glass and stacked a glass-walled dance-rehearsal space just above. That transparent box cantilevers over the street to offer free performances for whoever walks by — like a JumboTron but with real people dancing inside it. "We were trying to strike a balance," says Diller, "between the monumental and the dematerialized." Then they sliced the new space with a multistory diagonal plane. It creates a giant triangular canopy that launches itself toward Broadway like a tsunami. "At Lincoln Center," Diller says, "small gestures don't work."

Inside, they repurposed the lobby as a local hangout. Now fitted with a long, aerodynamic limestone bar, it will be open to the public all day and into the night as a café, meaning you don't have to be a ticket holder to be there. (Though a lot of people will want to be, now that the Alice Tully concert hall has been voluptuously refashioned in a warm African wood.) And you don't even have to go inside to lounge on a pyramid of sidewalk bleacher seats that face into the glass-walled lobby so that the café scene becomes a show in itself. Try not to make a spectacle of yourself on either side of the window. But come to think of it, that's the point.

Lincoln Center's New Come-Hither Design
By Richard Lacayo - Time Magazine