Geffen Hall Redesign Team Is Chosen

 
December 10, 2015
They didn't choose a starchitect.

In making the long-awaited decision as to who would reimagine its home, the New York Philharmonic — together with Lincoln Center — has made a surprising choice, selecting the London firm Heatherwick Studio and Diamond Schmitt Architects of Toronto to redesign the interior of David Geffen Hall.

"It seems like a real dream team," said Jed Bernstein, Lincoln Center's president, in a telephone interview.

Thomas Heatherwick, 45, is a British designer of sculpture, furniture and architecture who is best known for fanciful, often experimental projects including the British pavilion for Shanghai's 2010 World Expo; a flaming caldron for the 2012 Olympic Games; and the new hybrid double-decker bus for London. But he has limited experience in major public buildings.

He will essentially be replacing the British heavyweight Norman Foster, the Pritzker-winning architect who a decade ago was commissioned to redesign what was then known as Avery Fisher Hall.

Mr. Heatherwick will be designing the last part of a campus that was recently transformed — to considerable success — by Diller Scofidio & Renfro, a prestigious firm passed over for this commission.

Mr. Heatherwick comes with some baggage, having generated controversy with his "garden bridge" in London, a project criticized for what some consider its exorbitant cost.

But Mr. Heatherwick is also arguably the man of the moment, having been chosen by the media mogul Barry Diller to design Pier 55, his planned park and performance space off the Hudson River shoreline.

In June, Mr. Heatherwick opened his first major American exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, on view through Jan. 3.

And he has designed a sculptural installation for Hudson Yards on the Far West Side of Manhattan that is expected to dwarf the adjacent Culture Shed, an arts center designed by Diller Scofidio & Renfro.

"The New York Philharmonic creates some of the most incredible music in the world," Mr. Heatherwick said in a statement, "so it deserves a world-class concert hall." (The designer was not available for further comment.)

The concert hall, originally designed by Max Abramovitz, is not coming down; the project calls for a gut renovation that will reconfigure the auditorium and update the common areas. "We made it a requirement that, whatever design thoughts they had had to respect the layout of the campus," Mr. Bernstein said.

Trained in art and design, Mr. Heatherwick has become known for his fantastical, futuristic creations — be they handbags, a newsstand made of paper or Mr. Diller's verdant pier.

Though Mr. Geffen is friends with Mr. Diller, he said the two had no communications about Mr. Heatherwick. While Mr. Geffen said that he had "no involvement whatsoever" in choosing the designer, whom he called "very talented."

Heatherwick Studio's projects include a university building in Singapore, a master plan for the new Google campus in Silicon Valley (with BIG) and Zeitz MOCAA, an art museum in Cape Town, South Africa.

Among Diamond Schmitt's projects are the New Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, the Four Seasons Center for the Performing Arts in Toronto and the Maison Symphonique de Montréal.

Lincoln Center and the Philharmonic said they chose two firms because they complement each other's strengths — Mr. Heatherwick is a "visionary guy," said Matthew VanBesien, president of the Philharmonic. Diamond Schmitt has designed more than 40 performing arts spaces.

"The intersection of those firms is something we found incredibly compelling," Mr. VanBesien said. "I think these guys really get this."

Mr. Heatherwick's "Garden Bridge" has generated protest for seeking to add a $272 million Thames River crossing to a crowded part of central London. His Google project, which features interior gardens illuminated by domed greenhouse roofs, has been criticized as too cushy.

But Mr. Bernstein said he was not concerned. "They're clearly in the vanguard of innovative design," he said of the two firms chosen for the project. "We've got great confidence in both of them."

The project is on track to start in 2019 and take about 30 months, with a projected cost of about $500 million, one-fifth of which was pledged by Mr. Geffen in winning the naming rights. A design is expected to be released next summer.

During construction the orchestra plans to play at locations around the city, including possibly Hunter College.

Leadership of the Philharmonic is also in flux; the orchestra has yet to name a successor to music director Alan Gilbert, who steps down in 2017.

But the selection of a design team represents a significant step for a project that has long been stalled. The hall's renovation was supposed to be part of Lincoln Center's $1.2 billion redevelopment, but Philharmonic officials were not prepared to move forward.

While its board voted in 2005 to proceed with a design by Mr. Foster, the orchestra and Lincoln Center ultimately decided to change course, starting an architectural competition two years ago that evaluated more than 100 firms.

Already enlisted for the project is the acoustic design firm Akustiks and the theater design firm Fisher Dachs.

Still unclear is whether the redesigned auditorium will feature a thrust stage, an experiment the orchestra tried with some success in 2004. "We want a concert hall that looks forward," Mr. VanBesien said, "not backward."

The New York Times
By Robin Pogrebin
Photo by Brian Harkin