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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 Materials deteriorate and fail, technology becomes outdated, wear and tear and deferred maintenance take their toll.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


Work in progress on the north plaza of Lincoln Center, as seen through the windows of the Vivian Beaumont Theater. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

Amid the chorus of accolades that have greeted Lincoln Center’s continuing physical transformation — in particular, the new Alice Tully Hall by Diller Scofidio & Renfro — a few discordant voices are raising an alarm with worries that Lincoln Center may be changing too much.

Having lost the battle against transforming the campus’s north plaza in front of the Vivian Beaumont Theater, laid out in 1965 by the celebrated landscape architect Dan Kiley, some preservationists say they fear that the rest of the $1.2 billion redevelopment project could end up compromising the original 1960s composition of Lincoln Center as a whole.

These advocates say they are especially worried about Lincoln Center Theater’s plans to put an experimental theater on the roof of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, a building designed by Gordon Bunschaft, the architect of Lever House and other Modernist classics. They also wonder about the fate of Avery Fisher Hall, designed by Max Abramovitz, where the New York Philharmonic was originally going to limit its plans to create a new auditorium but has yet to commit to a course of action. And they say they have yet to be informed about Lincoln Center’s plans for Damrosch Park, the green space on the south side, also designed by Kiley.

“It feels like they’re just chipping away at pieces of Lincoln Center,” said Nina Rappaport, the chairwoman of Docomomo New York/Tri-State, an organization that works to protect distinctive Modernist buildings. The campus, she said, was designed as a whole, with different architects responding to a scheme.

“Now we’re seeing these bits and pieces that have been developed, and some of that is being lost,” she said. “You never know what chunks they’re going to take out next. In the end, where is the holistic plan for Lincoln Center?”


Robin Pogrebin
New York Times

lincoln center
Lincoln Center, New York

There it was again: another example of a logical fallacy in the way arts institutions think about appealing to new audiences (translation — younger and more diverse audiences). Somewhere along the way, reaching out to new audiences was equated with new works, as if those in a museum, or in a dance company’s or orchestra’s repertoire, couldn’t possibly attract the hip young people that seem to be the holy grail of cultural organizations. In The New York Times Arts & Leisure section this weekend, writing about the 50th anniversary of Lincoln Center, Tony Tommasini exhibited a very mild version of this affliction:

It could also be argued that the complex’s citadel-like feeling has deterred potential audiences. With its institutional appearance, Lincoln Center does not look at first glance like a place for innovative or experimental work.

We saw the same kind of “logic” earlier this year when some critics expressed disappointment that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had chosen Thomas P. Campbell — a tapestries curator, for heaven’s sake — as its new director. What could that possibly forbode, they asked, for displaying contemporary art and luring new audiences to 1000 Fifth Avenue?

To me, this is not only a fallacy…

— who says young, diverse audience always prefer new works over the old ones? — it’s also condescending, as if all work done before their time is inaccessible and/or off-putting to young people.

This is simply lazy thinking. It’s also wrong to assume that today’s young people won’t, as they age, find these “old” works appealing. (To cite one example from a previous generation, me. I remember, in my 20’s, buying tickets to the opera in San Francisco — Don Giovanni, I think it was — and disliking it. I didn’t try again until about eight years later, when I lived in London and a date took me to Salome at Covent Garden. I liked it much more, but did not become a convert until years later. Now I not only go when I can, but listen to opera at home. And I doubt that I am alone on this.)

Before a problem is solved, the issue must be framed properly. Right now, it’s not. Before jumping through hoops to attract more people — and, frequently, dumbing down their offerings as a result — cultural institutions should spend more time thinking through the problem. They’re using a simple equation — new works = new audiences — when, metaphorically, differential calculus is in order.

Judith H. Dobrzynski
Real Clear Arts


Construction fences are coming down from around the dour travertine bulk of the Juilliard School at Lincoln Center, revealing the spacious new lobby of Alice Tully Hall through high walls of glass.

Last year’s crash may have halted a mighty transformation of the New York skyline, though Tully is among the welcome fruits of the boom that New York will enjoy in 2009 and beyond.

Pundits already have scribbled their obituaries for the past era’s architectural excesses. The Museum of Modern Art’s $858 million expansion in 2004 is usually deemed Exhibit A, though the Tokyo architect Yoshio Taniguchi serenely united its many moving parts without empty grandiosity. Underlying the criticism is a yearning for a more intimate MoMA and, by extension, for a less intimidating city. The museum’s vastly greater size and the millions who throng its halls are signs of success and dynamism we may soon deeply miss.

MoMA will age more gracefully than the decades-long remake of the Metropolitan Museum, overseen by Philippe de Montebello, who departed in 2008. The Greek and Roman galleries, reopened in 2007, are among the very few spaces that invitingly display the huge collections. I’m hoping this appeal extends to the renovated American Wing, which reopens this spring.

Most of New York’s most extravagant architectural ideas never got beyond breathtaking computer renderings. Thomas Krens exited the Guggenheim last year, having largely failed to extend the museum’s brand beyond the fronds of titanium and glass waving in Bilbao, Spain.

Instead we were treated to a tiresome debate about what color to paint Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral on Fifth Avenue. Such small-bore battles too often consume this city, which is noisy with activists fearing the new. And, regrettably, the new too often deserves the hostility.

The city needs to fix a landmarks process that favors defacement, though the economic bust may save us from the pendulum swing to historic-preservation absolutism.

The Roaring Twenties left behind a soaring, stair-stepping skyline, decried at the time as vulgar. This boom decade leaves us with timid boxes skinned in murky gray glass: The Trump SoHo (by Handel Architects with the Rockwell Group), Slazer Enterprises’ 50-story One Madison Park and Extell Development’s Ariel East on the Upper West Side. (Condo design factory Cetra/Ruddy cranked out the latter two.) The art was in their cynical manipulation of the zoning code.

After Tully Hall, Lincoln Center will open an expanded and renovated Juilliard School and finish overhauling its 65th Street frontages and iconic plazas. It’s all the work of Diller Scofidio & Renfro, architects whose talents include navigating the center’s snake pit of competing egos and agendas.

Too bad Lincoln Center hasn’t been able to work similar miracles with the acoustically challenged Avery Fisher Hall. The New York State Theater, in the midst of technical and cosmetic fixes, will likely remain a hostile place to view performances by the struggling City Opera.

The Friends of the High Line, also with Diller Scofidio & Renfro, have steered an unloved 1.5 mile railroad roadbed into a lushly meadowed park that’s now almost complete — to amazingly little controversy.

Metal and glass condo towers muscled their way skyward in the traditional gold-coast districts, though they also popped up in numbing metal-and-glass uniformity in Long Island City and the Dumbo and Williamsburg sections of Brooklyn — neighborhoods once defined by aluminum-sided row houses and artist-ready industrial lofts.

Many city neighborhoods will benefit for years from long- overdue investments, both private and public. Broken-windowed yet sturdy brick apartment buildings in the Bronx found new life. Square miles of Brooklyn’s East New York, long left for dead, see kids playing in the streets again.

The most confident designs came late in the boom, and the length and depth of this downturn will determine their fate, like the shimmying silhouette of Herzog & de Meuron’s skyscraping Tribeca condo at 56 Leonard St. The same architects gave us street-scaled sensuality in the Coke-bottle-green glass columns of 40 Bond St.

Even if the real-estate market rapidly stabilizes, the crash may at last deep-six the notion that private development can finance costly public infrastructure. The $14 billion Penn Station fiasco has not been heard from since the Spitzer meltdown. Let’s administer the last rites and then begin begging President Obama for some of those economic-recovery billions to help build a proper train station — period.

Bury the Hudson Yards horror and forget about the tower design furtively unveiled last month to crown the Port Authority Bus Terminal. None of these will generate the touted infrastructure-subsidizing dollars, while making construction infinitely more complex.

These boondoggles, along with staggering ineptness at the Ground Zero site, were the boom era’s biggest failures.

New York has a storied history of erecting great public works when times were hard — from the Triboro Bridge to Riverside Park. Now we should prove we can still do it.

James S. Russell