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Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times

New Yorkers have been understandably impatient about the slow pace of Lincoln Center’s renovation plans.

While musical institutions from Los Angeles to Copenhagen whipped out dazzling new concert halls, New York’s vast cultural complex seemed mired in indecision. An ill-conceived proposal by Frank Gehry to cover Lincoln Center’s central plaza with a gigantic glass canopy stirred such outrage among constituents that it was shelved in 2001.

A design by the French architect Christian de Portzamparc for a flashy new home for New York City Opera on Amsterdam Avenue came and went with barely a yawn five years later.

So Sunday’s opening of a remade Alice Tully Hall, the first phase of an overhaul of Lincoln Center scheduled for completion in 2010, is a revelation. Designed by Diller Scofidio & Renfro, the womblike performance space, its surfaces flush with new life, makes it hard to remember the dreariness of the 1969 original.

The freshness springs from the architects’ willingness to break with worn-out urban design strategies. They aren’t scornful of the building’s history; nor do they treat it with undue reverence. With the precision of surgeons, they cut out ugly tumors and open up clogged arteries. In doing so, they suggest a way forward for a city in which preservation is all too often a form of embalmment.

Lincoln Center has never had the best karma. Conceived as part of a 1950s-era slum-clearance program, the immense superblock required the demolition of an entire neighborhood of dilapidated tenements and brownstones. When it was completed, the watered-down classicism of its travertine buildings seemed to capture all the anxieties of the cold war period, its confused stylistic references camouflaging a kind of emptiness.

The building that houses Alice Tully Hall and the Juilliard School, the last of the center’s structures to be completed, had a particularly brutal relationship to the street. Designed by Pietro Belluschi and Eduardo Catalano, its boxy white form was the modern equivalent of a medieval convent. The main facade was hidden behind a staircase leading to a small, ugly plaza, making the entry virtually impossible to find. From there a narrow walkway ran along the side of the building on West 65th Street, connecting to a meager bridge and another barren plaza at the rear of Avery Fisher Hall. If you were looking for a model of how to suck life out of city streets, this was it.

Rather than demolish Tully Hall or conceal it behind a new facade, Diller Scofidio & Renfro gleefully carve it up. They begin by tearing off the old staircase and elevated plaza. The upper floors are stretched out toward the edge of Broadway, creating more room for dance studios inside and a forceful presence along the avenue. A new incision between the building’s first and second floors rises up at its southeast corner to expose the lobby to the street, suggesting the building has been sliced open with a can opener.

This step-by-step approach has sometimes given the work of these architects a diagrammatic quality, like a couple following numbers on a dance floor. But here they use it to their advantage, artfully sidestepping the tiresome old dichotomy between preservation and the wrecking ball. It’s a subtle knock at those who define good and bad in terms of a period or style rather than through a direct emotional engagement with an individual work. Think something is ugly? Look closer. There may be moments of unexpected beauty inside.

This sensitivity to history is coupled with a blunt social mission. Only a delicate glass wall separates the lobby from an outdoor sunken plaza, so that the interior seems to bleed out onto the sidewalk. An unusual concrete seating area anchors the corner of Broadway and 65th Street, giving both the lobby and the plaza the feel of an outdoor meeting space. It’s a clear-cut defense of the public realm, something we could use more of in this age of corporate privatization.

There’s room for a bit of escapism here too. Inside, a sleek limestone bar snakes along the back of the lobby. Big concrete pillars lean out at precarious angles to support the cantilevered floors above. The contrast between the weighty beams and the fragile glass brings to mind the work of the Japanese architect Kazuo Shinohara, whose life’s work, it often seemed, was to create a protective frame for a small, private utopia. Yet here the contrast suggests how much energy is needed to preserve a quality of openness in the city.

The performance hall, on the other hand, looks as though it could have been designed by Apple technicians. The original proportions have not changed, but its smooth surfaces have been clad in a superthin veneer of moabi, a rich African hardwood. A balcony wraps around the back of the hall tapering toward the stage like fins at either end.

Diller Scofidio & Renfro has embedded LED lights behind the wood that can be subtly adjusted so patches of the wood’s surface begin to glow, shifting from pale orange to smoldering red. (Elizabeth Diller, a firm founder, said she wanted to make the room “blush.”) It is a wonderful sight, adding warmth to what is otherwise a modest, understated room.

Ultimately, however, what’s most exciting about the design is how these pieces fit into the bigger picture. Next the architects plan to sink Lincoln Center’s taxi drop-off on Columbus Avenue below ground, extending the plaza outward and creating a grander, more formal entry to the complex.

In the final phase a new restaurant and reflecting pool will grace the elevated plaza in front of the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Like the new entrance to Tully Hall, the restaurant will break down a fortresslike barrier that separates that plaza from 65th Street. The restaurant’s warping, winglike roof will be a lively contrast to Eero Saarinen’s theater.

Taken as a whole these interventions should create a lively tension between two very different philosophical approaches to the city. They may also silence some of those who think that being heartily engaged in the present rules out an appreciation for architectural history. In an enlightened society there is room for both.

Nicolai Ouroussoff
New York Times

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