The Design Observer Group

Posted 07.26.10

Alexandra Lange & Mark Lamster

Lunch with the Critics: The New Lincoln Center

The new Lincoln Center fountain, by WET. Lange: “A judicious touch of flash”

Herewith we introduce a new feature on Design Observer, "Lunch with the Critics," in which Alexandra Lange and Mark Lamster will visit a noteworthy design project (a building, an exhibition, a what-have-you) and discuss its merits over a light meal.

The series begins with the major renovation work at Lincoln Center undertaken by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DSR). Their remodel of Alice Tully Hall (original design from 1969 by Pietro Belluschi with Eduardo Catalano and Westermann & Miller) opened in 2009 and included a renovation of the auditorium, new lobby and exterior spaces, and replacement of several stories of the front facade with a cable-net glass facade. They also eliminated a bridge over 65th Street that connected the main campus of Lincoln Center to Alice Tully and the Juilliard School. Their reworking of the central and north plazas opened in May, and included a new “electronic grand staircase,” the replacement of the central fountain (designed by WET), and a floating lawn in front of the Vivian Beaumont Theater. They toured the changes, and then sat down for a sandwich.

Mark Lamster:
So, here we are, dining in the splendor that is the lobby of the Starr Theater, aka Alice Tully Hall. There is wood paneling. There are modern-style trucker chairs. There is a rude waitress. There is no music, except the sounds of our typing and the low hum of some fifty retirees dining on overpriced panini. But let's talk about The Design. We've come here to assess Lincoln Center, and this seems as good a place as any to begin. So let's have your first impressions, starting with the Teotihuacan of 65th Street, i.e. the Credit Suisse Information Grandstand, and the sunken concrete garden that is the entry to this refurbished music hall, courtesy our friends at DSR.

Alexandra Lange:
First impression: awkward. Did you not just almost come to blows with the waitress because the lobby lacks hierarchy and a clear sense of circulation? Same problem with the ditch outside. You thought it was smart to put the box office off to the north side of the lobby, but that means, all day every day people will be going down the steps and into the big revolving doors (which usually mean “enter here”) and then have to brush by the grandmas and go up some other steps to buy tickets. The northern entrance is hidden behind a big glass wall. They’ve made the lobby mostly restaurant, which is lively, but failed to make it a nice one.

Here’s where I have to rant about chairs. There are so many out there, wonderful, beautiful colorful chairs. Surely Lincoln Center could have picked different ones than the MoMA’s Cafe 2. A choice with personality would give this space a little identity. So beige.

Even more awkward than the lobby is that ditch, a triangular depression that runs along Broadway between sidewalk and lobby. Why do we go down? If the point of hiring DSR was to open everything up, why not have it open out on the sidewalk? There, I saved them a million dollars.

Sunken plaza of Alice Tully Hall, facing the Credit Suisse Information Grandstand

About chairs, I think we can say the form has pretty much been perfected, so everyone can just move along (hold your angry comments). As for my issues with Tully, it seems to me what they’ve done is tried to make it a Glamorous Place, but Tully, which is really for chamber music, serves more of a corduroy jacket and New York Review of Books kind of crowd. The old Tully had a personality. Maybe all those people spilling out onto the street before performances was less than ideal from an aesthetic viewpoint, but the density created a kind of community and charm, that’s now gone. But the bottom line is, how does this place handle music? I’m not an acoustician and with my tin ear, I can’t really answer.

However, it’s not without its architectural merits, those nostalgic for Belluschi and Catalano’s original La Tourette-in-Manhattan design (the rain-spouts have a beautiful rhythm) still have the more-or-less intact 66th Street facade. Otherwise, I do like the way the ballet studio projects out over the street, but I know you have different feelings about that.

If I had approached the ditch from uptown, I would have to ask: What ballet studio? From the corner of 66th it just looks like a temporary space they forgot to remove when the construction was done. Why no uptown window? Even in the approved view (and I feel like most of DSR’s work, works best from some specific point on the sidewalk and not in the round) it looks a little dim. Maybe it works at night, with tiny dancers fluttering? I’ll have to try to see that. But today I just see some stacked chairs in the middle of a BIG FRAMELESS GLASS WINDOW (the cliché of the late 2000s).

The best angle on the studio is from what you are calling the Teotihuacan of 65th Street, which may be the most awkward part of the whole angular composition. The southeast corner of the ditch steps up into stadium seating, a favorite DSR move. Why am I up here? What am I looking at? I can’t look downtown because there’s a big spotlight in the way. Looking uptown I see... shoppers. My eye strays down to 65th Street. I see there’s a lawn over there that looks like it might be more comfortable.

Ah, yes, the Illumination Lawn. Or as I've taken to calling it, the WOG. As in, Wedge of Grass, a sad Pringle of turf adjacent to the Beaumont Theater. It is, let's admit, a failure. How does one get to the WOG? It's hard. The single access point, about the width of a MET diva, is hidden away in a back corner, behind the moat that is the Paul Milstein pool. (An aside: everything here, to the point of absurdity, has some donor's name attached to it — gone are the days of the anonymous benefactor.) The narrow entry point means the grass at the front is chewed up from excess traffic. From there, the WOG continues to disappoint. The rake is too steep for comfort (you could hardly put a drink down and expect it to stand up.) And the fencing at the edges: I thought, from a distance, it was temporary construction fencing, but no. Let’s hope it’s sturdy.

The Illumination Lawn or “WOG.” Lamster: “A sad Pringle of turf”

I have to agree it looks like temporary fencing, sagging slightly under its own weight. The whole lawn looks saggy, as well as soggy, particularly next to that pool. The architectural language of Lincoln Center, particularly in this back corner, was incredibly taut: the smooth surface of the pool, the slightly looming Vivian Beaumont, the disappeared grove of trees in planters by Dan Kiley. Introducing a Pringle seems willfully destructive, and when people are loitering outside the restaurant (opening September), it is only going to seem more cramped.

I think the WOG fails on DSR’s own terms, not just Lincoln Center’s. It’s another folded plane, but it fails to connect to anything. At their ICA in Boston, the stadium seating really feels like an extension of the public boardwalk, an easy detour. It would have been so much better if the lawn rolled up from the pool, making it possible to enter at any point along its length. That could have been magical.

You have no patience for this argument, but I also think lawns are over. High maintenance, riddled with pesticides, an emblem of the suburbia we are now trying to remake. I knew the grass would die a quick death. We need landscape architects to come up with new sitable surfaces, either plants or man-made, so we can stop trying to make grass grow like a rug.

I guess I’m not ready for the future where we forsake grass, but in any event let me assure any worried readers that, yes, there are actually parts of the new Lincoln Center that we admire, so please stick around. But before we get to that place, alas, we would be remiss not to mention yet another unfortunate aspect of this renovation, that being the pointless removal of Dan Kiley’s wonderful gridded garden of trees for the trough that is the (cringe) Barclays Capital Grove. This would-be Parisian garden is fine once you trudge your way into it, but, again, the access is botched, with entry points only on the ends, and the sides blocked by concrete benches (more of those DSR “folded planes”) that act unwittingly as jersey barriers.

What makes it extra terrible is that they have tried to recreate a Kiley mood, with trees in a grid and Bertoia chairs. But it is not as good as what they took out, or even as good as the gorgeous grove of Japanese maples on the south side of the Met designed by Kiley. Wonder how long that will remain? There are plans for Damrosch Park.

You are right that we are being huge downers. Let’s walk over to the new fountain which, to me, best embodies what the renovations should have done: take the old Lincoln Center idea and make it lighter and more beautiful. Add a judicious touch of flash. Even the water looks like it has been touched up a bit to make it sparkle.

Can’t we linger for just a few more moments back in the gardens out by Damrosch? Kiley’s old stand of Japanese maples is lovely, but let’s also give credit to DSR for what’s happened back here, because I think they’ve done some touching up. It remains a lovely place to be; the grids work for circulation and for idling; the plantings are lovely. Okay, I already feel better.

Moving onto the plaza: Though I was concerned because I so admired Philip Johnson's old fountain, the new one by WET is a dancing wonder. The same can't be said of what's been done to the interior of Johnson's David Koch Theater — formerly the New York State Theater, and don't get me started about this renaming — where several broad aisles have been driven through the orchestra, in a single stroke removing many of the best seats in the house while destroying its aesthetic unity. Those familiar with the old theater will remember its "Continental" seating; that is, each row was an unbroken arc of seats. If this was admittedly a bit of a pain, it was done quite consciously to create a sense of community in the audience, and it did that, brilliantly. But let me point out that DSR had absolutely nothing to do with this.

The new grand staircase, with LED risers. Lamster: “I’m an unabashed fan”

I am embarrassed to admit, I’ve never been past the lobby of the Koch Theater: I don’t like ballet, and saw most of my opera when I wrote the classical music listings for New York Magazine. The Met gave me more free tickets. But I was riveted by Johnson’s crazy exterior lighting, the round ones that look just like Lincoln Center patrons’ clip-on earrings. There's the touch of bad taste I associate with Lincoln Center, and which seems so absent from DSR’s interventions — except for the new LED lighting on the grand staircase. I wish the LEDs would just sparkle, and not wish me “Bienvenue,” but I know that’s fussy. I am charmed by these two School of American Ballet students who are trying to pose by the title of their next performance. It keeps zipping by.

So uncultured. You should really get yourself to the ballet, if not for the leggy wonders of Maria Kowroski and Tiler Peck, at least for the theater itself, one of New York's great public spaces. As for DSR's new stairs to the complex, I'm an unabashed fan. They get immense credit for sinking the old limo/cab access road. The LEDs work. I wonder that there aren't more such informational interventions. Back when they were just Diller & Scofidio, in the Flesh years, their work always seemed to creatively toy with technology and surveillance. The subversive aspects of their work are, necessarily, suppressed with a public project like Lincoln Center. But this is part of the problem with moving from the academy to real-world practice. I feel like they're still wrestling with that, learning how to be builders. And this is why sometimes the architecture seems unfinished or even ham-fisted.

Maybe they are wrestling, but I feel like they might descend into self-cliché at any moment. When they design the Berkeley Museum (and perhaps more on the West Coast), I hope it won’t have a pop-down performance space, angled-up bleachers, or one of those folded planes. At least not all three. They have to team up with a better contractor. Their architecture is meant to flow, and it feels chopped up here by seams and handrails and ugly joints. I rarely get the sense of illusion I think they desire.

I just hate the entrance canopies. The staircase is low-key, but they are bombastic, three sheets of laminated glass, huge cantilever, split steel column. They are trying to out-muscle Johnson, Harrison and Abramovitz. Something lightweight and simple could have done the job of sheltering people who arrive in taxis from the rain. I didn’t object to the renovations on preservationist grounds — though I see DOCOMOMO's point, particularly about the public plazas — but I do feel as if the powers that be at Lincoln Center don’t understand what was good about it, and now they’ve got two architectures fighting each other.

Sloppy detailing at joints. Lange: “I rarely get the sense of illusion I think they desire”

I love that we're standing here in this Philip Johnson landscape castigating an architectural firm for stylistic consistency. But it's true, DSR is headed toward self-parody with the obsessive folded planes, which are so very Rem Koolhaas circa 1997, and were a dubious conceit even when he was doing them back then. Did I mention how much I dislike their benches that do this? Reviewing their High Line design on this site, Michael Bierut suggested that aspects of their work would date fairly quickly, and I think he's proven to be correct. And of course there's no excuse for so many shoddy details, everywhere. This complex was built by Rockefellers for our most elite institutions! It should be pristine.

Finally, a brief word about the David Rubenstein Atrium, which sits across Ninth Avenue, design by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. It's a nice place to sit with a coffee and a sandwich, because what would a public space in New York be without some branded dining component? It's only a matter of time before there's a White Castle plopped down on the Irving T. Feldbaum Sheep's Meadow. But I know how you feel about grass (and sliders?), so maybe it's okay. New York is all about change.