A New Face for Lincoln Center
April 13, 2004
By HERBERT MUSCHAMP
After a few false starts and some loud internal grumbling, the Lincoln Center Redevelopment Project has found itself a fine, mellow groove. What we've got here is the inverse of the Wow Factor: a new plan for the center's public spaces so understated as to seem almost uncanny. It looks just like Lincoln Center, only smarter, more self-aware and amazingly confident in its sense of direction.
Prepared by the New York office of Diller Scofidio & Renfro in association with Fox & Fowle Architects, also of New York, the 65th Street plan is the first in a series of construction initiatives that will be undertaken at Lincoln Center in the next decade.
The plan is evolutionary. It tweaks, here and there, the existing architecture of Lincoln Center, but the overall effect is to enhance the original rather than to negate or override it. It's respectful. This seems to me an invaluable civic lesson at this intemperate moment in our national life.
The plan focuses on the center's north side flanking West 65th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue. The street itself and open areas to either side of it are to be extensively remodeled, but with a refreshing sensitivity to Lincoln Center's original design.
The street, now a dim vehicular corridor dominated by a 210-foot-wide overhead bridge, will be revamped to become the center's main circulation axis. It will be narrowed from four lanes to three, and sidewalks will be widened accordingly. The clunky bridge (technically known as Milstein Plaza, as if it were a public space, you understand) will be replaced by a slender footbridge of translucent glass.
Glass will be the dominant note along the new axis. Etched-glass "light mats" will be set into the sidewalk paving. Transparent facades will replace opaque walls at the ground-floor level of Juilliard. Animated signs on plasma and L.E.D. screens will enliven the street spectacle, and a stand of bleachers will offer a great vantage from which to observe it. Rising from the northwest corner of Broadway and 65th Street, a triangular bank of seats will face the remodeled facade of Alice Tully Hall and the Juilliard building that houses it.
The design punches through the dualistic thinking that often plagues urban planners. Preservation or demolition? Neither. Rather, a sensitive remodeling of Juilliard, Pietro Belluschi's 1968 Brutalist composition formally dressed in travertine. I like the building, and the remodeling will improve it. Its corner will be stretched with a triangular protrusion of the upper stories, cantilevered out over the existing pavement. A glazed box will pop down from the underside, offering views of the rehearsal studio within.
The lobby of Alice Tully, now entered through a front door that belongs in the back, will soar magnificently within a fully glazed enclosure. On the Broadway facade of Juilliard's upper stories, a taut glass surface will replace the stone. The precision with which the architects balance the original and the new addition should instruct young dancers in poise.
On the south side of 65th Street the architects have eroded the boundary between the street and the plaza level above it. With the bridge removed, a broad double staircase will rise from the sidewalk just west of Avery Fisher Hall. This, too, will provide a sunny place to sit where gloom now gathers.
Do you like a nice platform? The new design is tantamount to gaining a new one. The north plaza, stretching between Avery Fisher and the Vivian Beaumont Theater, has long been problematic. It's a hideous illustration of George Balanchine's contention that Lincoln Center's companies have nothing in common but the central heating. Nobody wants to do his share of tidying up.
The reflecting pool is garbage central. Eero Saarinen's design for the Beaumont is elegant, perhaps the best building of Lincoln Center's mediocre lot. (But entering it is like falling into an empty swimming pool.) The side elevations of Avery Fisher and, especially, the Metropolitan Opera House (those fins that look like travertine air intakes), though, do not presently make a handsome outdoor room.
If only every barren windswept plaza could get the Diller Scofidio & Renfro treatment! The Municipal Art Society could stop moaning that things aren't what they used to be.
Simple program, restrained design: that's the winning combination here. The plaza will now be the setting for a jewel of a restaurant. It will occupy the glass pedestal of an arresting sculptural form: a grassy hollow, seemingly levitated to form the restaurant's roof.
Here we can see that these architects are great form makers as well as conceptual designers. A plane anchored diagonally at two corners, lined with wood underneath, the roof evokes Saarinen designs for Yale and M.I.T. (Saarinen, though, was seldom sensitive to context.) Here the contoured horizontal shape plays off the strict straight lines and planes of the surrounding surfaces. With the exposed wood paneling, the roof nearly resembles a musical instrument, tempered to New York sound.
On the southern edge of the plaza a rectangular grove of trees offers vertical counterpoint and partly screens the Met's uninviting wall. The reflecting pool has been rethought, too. The pool's edges will be shaped to make it look as if the water were doing weird antigravitational things. They are a pleasingly off-balance ensemble, the roof, the pool, the grove: three characters in search of waltzing in the rain.
Two factors account for the uncanny quality of the 65th Street plan. The first is that it allows Lincoln Center to look familiar but changed. The second is the subtle recurrence of distinctive forms and materials. Triangles. Glass planes. Foliage. Wood. Without appearing in any sense modular this repetitive vocabulary creates a more organic cohesion than was ever attained simply by covering every surface with travertine. The design is "para-planning," an approach that reveals latent qualities within imperfect spaces.
Once again the city is indebted to Rebecca Robertson, executive director of the redevelopment project. Ms. Robertson, the key figure in preventing 42nd Street from becoming a sterile corporate canyon, has shown even greater vision in enlisting these brilliant architects to undertake a major civic project. The architects also credit Bruce Kovner, Juilliard's chairman, for the miracle of consensus-building among Lincoln Center's constituents.
It's important to recognize that the philosophy embodied by this project could transform prevailing ideas about public space. Many of us have been waiting for a plan that can move New York's thinking about planning beyond the strenuously pointless debate over traditional street grid vs. modern superblock. Diller Scofidio & Renfro have given us that plan.
If you insist on looking at urbanism in terms of interior decoration, street grids and plazas are equally modern and traditional. Ancient Romans had their ways with both. But in terms of civic, as opposed to military, application, the grid form is of more modern vintage.
Reflexive modernity is what cities are looking for now. Feedback has entered the picture. Instead of tossing out entire categories of urban space in the name of ideology or for marketing purposes, architects are better off learning from concrete examples of performance. Goodbye, catastrophic planning. Welcome to the urbanism of lilt and swoon.