Diller Scofidio + Renfro in association with Beyer Blinder Bell

This is a big year for golden anniversaries. Lincoln Center is marking its first half-century with a year-long celebration and an ambitious rebuilding program, and the Guggenheim Museum is honoring its 50th with a huge show that pays homage to its famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, who died in 1959, the same year the building was completed. Miles Davis recorded “Kind of Blue” that year, and in case you hadn’t noticed that 50 years have passed, consider the fact that the Harvard Business School now uses that jazz classic as a case history of how innovation is generated and why such acts of genius have a competitive advantage.

None of this is as disconnected as it seems. The ’50s and ’60s were an extraordinarily creative and optimistic time in all of the arts. Performing arts centers multiplied across the country, and what they lacked in content was made up in ambitious plans. The museum building boom that started then has never stopped, reaching a crescendo of high architectural drama 50 years later. No one dreamed that 50 years would make much of this construction obsolete.

With buildings, obsolescence is inevitable. Materials deteriorate and fail, technology becomes outdated, wear and tear and deferred maintenance take their toll. Uses change, requiring major revisions that deform the original design and intent. The downhill process starts the day of completion and seems to reach its peak when the portentous anniversary looms.

And more than construction becomes obsolete. Time also reveals how transient and vulnerable both ideas and their monuments are, and how deeply and insidiously styles of thought and building can shape the way we experience art and life.

Lincoln Center is the product of a lot of obsolete ideas. Its considerable success and staying power is not due to some brilliant, time-proof formula. This was a moment when the destructive misjudgments of urban renewal, the antiurbanism of a car-centric culture and a deadening kind of modernist monumentality came together in a disastrous environmental triple play. But half a century has given Lincoln Center legitimacy; it is an essential, accepted and even admired part of New York. On a summer evening, with swing dancing in the plaza, or on a gala night with all the buildings alive, it is, to borrow Robert Venturi’s famous quote about Main Street America, almost all right.

Like many performing arts centers of the time, this one began as an urban renewal site. It was one of Robert Moses’s later New York undertakings, when he had moved from great perimeter parks and beaches and the roads that reached them to the kind of inner-city expressways and slum-clearance projects that ripped out the hearts of cities in the 1950s and ’60s. Cultural centers were supposed to heal the wound.

By design, Lincoln Center was isolated from its surroundings. In accordance with one of the more faulty modernist practices of the day, it was built on a platform, or “podium” (a favorite buzz word), separating it from the city streets and dedicating it to access by car. Pedestrians have always had to dodge two barrier lanes of traffic to reach the entrance plaza. Architecturally, it is the product of a consortium, a mashup of moderate talents working at cross-purposes in an impossibly competitive and conflicted situation to house a dozen of the city’s very different cultural and educational institutions.

There are no great buildings. It is fashionable today to characterize Lincoln Center’s ersatz-classical/pseudomodernist aesthetic as a precursor of postmodernism, but that gives misplaced credit to those who had no such thing in mind. Rather than moving architecture into new territory, they were retreating into a bowdlerized soft modernism to please conservative constituents who were looking for something acceptably up to date but not too disturbingly avant garde, while secretly lusting after colonnades. In the 1960s, modernists were wedded to the in-your-face raw concrete monumentality of Brutalism, arguably one of the less people-friendly and more offputting styles of all time. That was simply never going to make it in this company. The buildings miss true monumentality by a mile.


Ada Louise Huxtable
Wall Street Journal