Lincoln Center began as a massive Robert Moses-driven slum clearance project, wiping out San Juan Hill. Ironically, this lost neighborhood was the setting for scenes in “West Side Story,” the work of New York Philharmonic director Leonard Bernstein.
Just like the master planner behind it, Lincoln Center has always been controversial as a piece of architecture, decried as cold and barren — a travertine-clad mishmash of Classical revival styles. But the complex is also seen as an iconic example of mid-century modernism, and as central to New York’s identity as the Empire State Building.
So thankfully, the architecture firm Diller, Scofidio + Renfro was chosen to freshen up the complex. They have done the impossible: Strip Lincoln Center of some of its air of impenetrable fortress without messing with its essential DNA. (Imagine a glass canopy over the plaza and water fountain: Frank Gehry did.)
Today, it’s still recognizably Lincoln Center — just better, but still far from perfect. We recently toured the complex with Manhattan-based architect Alice Blank as part of our monthly architectural reviews.
“There’s a subtle but contemporary feel to it. There’s an elegance and respect for the architects who were at work earlier,” Blank said. “Anybody else [would have been] blowing out these buildings.”
1.) The David Rubenstein Atrium
Perhaps the worst thing you could say about The David Rubenstein Atrium is that it’s easy to miss. If you find it, however, you’ll enjoy a worthy addition -- call it even a gateway -- to Lincoln Center.
It’s a soothing space, lit with sunlight that streams from oculi, and adorned with a thriving well-tended vertical garden and a remarkable textile wall art work. There are smart subtleties -- a green bench that plays off the garden wall; a two-story stream fountain, with water drizzling imperceptibly into a small pool.
Before Tod Williams Billie Tsien transformed it, the old Harmony Atrium could be dank, even scary. Now, as Lincoln Center’s information and ticket-buying outpost, it enjoys a noble use. “This really is doing it [a public space] for the highest common denominator. Everyone rises to the occasion of this space.”
2.) The iconic plaza
The essential Lincoln Center architectural experience lies here. And in its postcard essence, the complex is largely the same, even if Blank is not a fan of the original buildings.
Ironically, it’s never had a great “sense of music,” though plaza tweaks tried to inject that. She touts the virtue of addition by subtraction -- a taxi-access road was sunken below grade, decluttering the approach to the center and enhancing its elegance.
The stairs, lit at night with the names of performances, are delightful. But then there are curiosities and missed opportunities. Two canopies -- she dismisses them as “rain guards” -- now jut out to the sidewalk from either side of the plaza steps.
Sleek garbage cans placed around the plaza attract more attention than they should. The water fountain was controversially replaced with a new design, with the seating ring around it regularly getting doused with water from Las Vegas-style water eruptions, a curious attempt to add sizzle to the hopelessly staid plaza. (Still no place to sit!)
Before as now, the plaza still works best at night. It remains inhospitable for lingering during the day. An opportunity, Blank suggests, was missed to correct that.
3.) Hearst Plaza
This area originally designed in the 1960s by noted landscape architect Dan Kiley was controversially overhauled. The result retains some of the DNA of Kiley’s design, but it’s a very different place. A raised park offers Harry Bertoia seating under tree cover, the reflecting pool has been redesigned -- the Henry Moore sculpture still in place -- but the big moment is the new titling green roof lawn. It’s a bold statement, and underneath lies Lincoln Ristorante.
Blank likes the lawn as an idea, but as a practical matter she’s frustrated. The lawn itself is not the easiest climb for some folks, and again, seating is scarce. It’s not exactly a place where you can sit and relax before the show -- without getting smudges, that is. But it does offer, Blank indicates, an unusual view of the city around you, somewhat akin to the perspective offered by the High Line, and that makes it worth the price of admission.
4.) 65th Street and Alice Tully
Here is perhaps the biggest gift the architects have given the city, Blank said. West 65th Street has now been opened up, easily accessible from the main campus. There’s more bustle on the street, and across the way, at Alice Tully Hall, one of the original buildings has been breathtakingly re-imagined. Just off the main campus, the 1960s box was reconceived, an eruption of glass replacing more of that travertine bulk. It works, Blank says, especially the appealing cafe inside, a new public space that makes for an uplifting place to meet a friend or grab a bite. The sunken plaza with bench seating, notorious urban planning failures, succeeds, too.
“If you’re coming to meet people at Lincoln Center ... you need a place to go to and you need an open public forum. That’s what these architects have given us,” Blank said.