At Jazz at Lincoln Center, a Lobby and Venue in Sync

December 13, 2015
When Jazz at Lincoln Center opened 11 years ago at the Time Warner Center, it was hailed as an architectural success, with one exception: its oddly configured lobby areas. So the center has taken it from the top, with an $18.5 million redesign to make it a bit jazzier.

The result, the Mica and Ahmet Ertegun Atrium, will be inaugurated on Thursday night at a homecoming holiday concert featuring the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, which has been playing in exile since the hall was closed for renovations in July.

The redesign opens more of the common space to the large glass windows overlooking Central Park and the city skyline, and it adds a small raised stage for concerts and events, a glass staircase and a 26-foot-wide video wall. Officials hope that the redone spaces will be more attractive to both jazz audiences and to the many outside groups that rent the facility each year for private events, including business conferences and film premieres.

Such rentals are an important source of income for Jazz at Lincoln Center, as they increasingly are for many cultural institutions: In 2013 they accounted for a quarter of the group's revenue, according to the organization's annual report. (A little more than a third of the revenue came from contributions and grants that year, and 29 percent from concerts and touring.)

Ennead Architects redesigned the space by adding curving walls of red oak, revamping the hall-of-fame area and tearing down walls to open sightlines. Ms. Ertegun, a designer, provided input and the lead gift for the project, which honors her husband, Ahmet, who founded Atlantic Records and was an original board member of Jazz at Lincoln Center. He died in 2006.

The goal of the redesign was to correct one of the few false notes detected when the complex, designed by Rafael Viñoly, opened in 2004. The space presented challenges: It sits above an urban shopping mall at Columbus Circle, on the fifth and sixth floors of a glass skyscraper that also contains offices, apartments and a hotel. If the idea of the "sky lobby" has caught on in some modern office buildings and hotels, it is still a rarity for theaters.

And when the center was built, the lobby areas were considered something of an afterthought, with most of the attention, and money, lavished on the performance spaces: the Rose Theater, Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola and what is now called the Appel Room.

In an architecture review in The New York Times that praised the overall design of the complex, Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote that "the lobby areas, which feel as if they have been carved out of the mall's leftover spaces, would be at home in a neighborhood cineplex."

This time, organizers hope, the lobby areas will feel more at home in a space that they like to call the House of Swing.

The New York Times
By Michael Cooper
Photo by Bryan Thomas