First We Take Manhattan

 
April 3, 2009
Diller Scofidio + Renfro are rebels with a cause and they have brought that to their first mainstream project, the transformation of the Lincoln Center

'We did apply to be considered for the new United States embassy in London,' says Ricardo Scofidio lugubriously, 'but we just weren't corporate enough. I think we scared them off. You have to behave in a certain way to get those kinds of jobs, and we won't. We won't change.'

We are having brunch at Le Parker Meridien on West 56th street, courtesy of the great performing arts fortress of Lincoln Center. I'm here for the opening of the first big chunk of its giant makeover, masterplanned and designed by the practice of Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with FXFowle Architects. They have started with the smaller of the two concert halls on campus, Alice Tully Hall, which has the celebrated Juilliard school of music, dance and drama in the same Brutalist 1969 building by Pietro Belluschi. The original hermetic building now much modified and extended was set back from Broadway and separated by a road and a big step down from the original Lincoln Center plinth grouping. Wallace Harrison's Metropolitan Opera, Philip Johnson's David H Koch Theater, Eero Saarinen's Vivian Beaumont Theater, Max Abramovitz's Avery Fisher Hall, and Gordon Bunshaft's Performing Arts library and museum all added up to a whole somehow less than the sum of its parts. Architectural individualism was kept under firm control and a unifying surface treatment of Travertine marble applied to all the buildings. Moreover it was planned entirely around the motor car, separated from the surrounding city by multiple lanes of traffic. This was a rough area in the late 1950s, so Lincoln Center also determinedly turned its back on its hinterland. But it brought gentrification in its wake, and today DS+R are chiselling away at the fortress, opening it up to good effect.

Only a few years ago, the practice was known primarily for its theoretical, art-installation or temporary architecture, most famously for its 2002 'Blur' building built in Lake Neuchatel for the Swiss Expo. Other projects proved very influential on other architects but remained doggedly unbuilt. Then in 2006 came the completion of their first big, permanent cultural building: the waterfront Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Although an Ivy League commission, it still didn't explain the scope and complexity of work they are carrying out at Lincoln Center. How did it come about?

When we first got involved, it was quite small as a project,' says Scofidio. 'We were really just dealing with the public open spaces of Lincoln Center. But you can't tackle external space without thinking about lobbies, so it slowly expanded. And then we got invited to do more and more, so it kind of grew.'

Other architects are involved in the greater Lincoln Center project Foster + Partners has a long-standing scheme for Avery Fisher Hall, for instance, which may happen one day, and David Rockwell will be doing the interiors of the Film Theatre, while the Met remains grandly aloof but in the meantime DS+R are colonising the place from the outside in, the opposite of what architects normally do. And at Alice Tully Hall, they have got right into the guts.

'This is something of a post-modern moment,' observes Liz Diller, the following day. She's not referring to the architecture. It's to the fact that we are standing in the remade 1100-seat auditorium of the concert hall she and her colleagues have designed, yet she is explaining it by pointing us to images on her laptop. Why? Because the tight veneered skin of the auditorium around us performs all kinds of functions you just can't see. 'Here's the hard part. We had to keep the bones of the hall, and we had to keep 1100 seats. So the hall refit was done within a depth of 18 inches, half a metre.'
Technically, it is a tour de force: acoustically and in terms of services provision. DS+R for the first time made use of Gehry Technologies both to model the surface geometries and the underlying systems, to avoid conflicts. The headline-grabber is the fact that in sections of the auditorium the timber walls themselves glow: fibre-optic light sources are placed in a translucent resin backing to the veneer which also performs as an acoustic medium. On the opening night concert the house lights were dimmed to show the walls glowing. This won a round of spontaneous applause from the audience. 'There were a couple of metaphors rattling around inside our brains as we designed this,' says Diller. 'One was to do with intimacy to clothe the hall from the inside, like a tailored suit, with a high-performance skin. The other was to do with the fact that it illuminates from within, like a marine organism. Why can't wood have lighting properties?'

The other big move (literally) was to extend the whole building forward to Broadway, so providing the concert hall with a public face and generous lobbies, and giving four levels of extra space to Juilliard above including a black-box theatre and a dance studio on full view, projecting into the public realm. On the upper travertine flank wall, a previously solid ground-level facade is replaced with glazing, revealing the auditorium foyer in what Diller calls 'architectural striptease'.

The work now in hand on the rest of Lincoln Center involves the erosion of the edges to give better access, sinking of two access car lanes, a big programme of electronic signage, and the creation of a hyperbolic paraboloid restaurant in the North Plaza up on the plinth opposite. 'The hard thing here was that there was very little real estate across the street, and there was a need for a campus green. So we made a green roof with a touchdown point at the south-west corner. From here there'll be a sense of an urban bucolic atmosphere,' says Diller.

Across town, the abandoned elevated railroad of the High Line, running down the West Side, is being turned into a linear urban park and DS+R is doing the architectural elements. I walked along it, still a construction site, but its structure and planting now apparent. It's difficult but rewarding work, with the opportunity for real architectural interventions at access points and street intersections. It is remarkably good, and it has already stimulated a lot of development in this previously neglected industrial area of town.

So, I asked Scofidio, what kind of outfit do they think they are, these busy days, with 45 people? 'It's more of an atelier than a corporate office. What's critical for the practice is that the three partners are involved in all the work that goes on in the studio. We don't divide up projects. It's exhausting, but we and all the people who work in the studio participate in every project. We kind of beat each other up. A good idea will become part of the project regardless of who puts it on the table.'

As for the type of work the practice takes on, Scofidio knows they will not abandon their alt.architecture roots the landscape-with-revolving-trees piece at the Liverpool Biennale, for instance. 'The vital thing for us is that we continue what we call money-losing projects. It's essential for the way we think that we keep doing these small installations. It's critical.'


First We Take Manhattan
by Hugh Pearman - RIBA Journal