Lincoln Center’s ‘striptease’: It’s the architecture!

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Rendering of Lincoln Center redesign by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. ()
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"Richard Meier, Norman Foster ..." Charles Renfro paused, trying to remember the name of the third architect his firm, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, had beaten in a 2002 competition to rethink the 65th Street corridor of Lincoln Center. "And someone else," he finally said.

"How soon we forget," said Sylvia Smith, who supervised the project with Renfro. (It was Santiago Calatrava.)

Well, the losers of an architectural competition are fairly unimportant, since to the victors go the spoils, in this case a lucrative project that—unusually for a big, contentious job—ended up growing in scope to encompass the rethinking of all of Lincoln Center's public spaces.

During a tour for some fellow architects sponsored by the Center for Architecture, Renfro and Smith spoke of the project's engineering difficulties—the unprecedented cementitious ceiling, the corner of the building where stone, glass, and cement all meet—and its massive scope.

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Even with that scope, the project is essentially respectful, even conservative, matching Lincoln Center's desire to keep the shells of all the buildings intact. It was an expensive desire; the most drastic intervention—on the building housing Alice Tully Hall and the Juilliard School—reportedly cost $360 million, and Renfro said the sum was "probably double" what it would have taken simply to raze the original structure and build a new one.

But despite the expense—the result, Renfro said, of the difficulty of negotiating existing structural elements during the renovation—their proposal was likely selected, eight years ago, for its good-natured modesty. Smith said that Beverly Sills (then Lincoln Center's president) was almost shocked that Diller Scofidio + Renfro's plan accepted—liked, even!—the space it would be retooling, rather than criticizing it.

"Our team," Smith said, "was the only one that said there's really beautiful things about Lincoln Center."

Even the new Alice Tully Hall/Juilliard shows love for Pietro Belluschi's 1969 building, showing an evolution from, not just a reaction to, its brutalist style. The renovation sliced off, at a sharp angle, much of the original building, replacing it with walls of glass and adding a vastly expanded lobby and studios for Juilliard overlooking Broadway.

For Lincoln Center, which had long been an island of culture closed off to its surroundings, the renovation to Alice Tully Hull exposed the building to the street so that, as Renfro said, "going to the theater becomes theater."

The vocabulary that both architects kept using replaced Belluschi's muscularity with a more feminine warmth and transparency—"an architectural striptease," as Renfro put it.

After looking at the building from a few outdoor angles, the group moved into the hall itself, which was also completely renovated. There was a newly installed organ. The old theater, another architect said, "focused mediocrely on every function that it had." The goal was to add more intimacy to the space, so the architects eliminated subway and air-conditioning noise, reduced clutter, and warmed the room by backlighting paper-thin wood veneer wall panels with LED lights.

A staircase, past an odd and unflattering portrait of a heavily braceleted Alice Tully with her dog at her feet, led up to the new patron lounge. In the old hall, the lounge was a cramped room in the back of the building. Now, it is a huge space with expansive views towards Lincoln Center's main campus. There is even a balcony overlooking the lobby, so that the nobility can watch the commoners arrive.

Looking out the windows, the "Illumination Lawn," atop a building that will house theaters and a restaurant, swept up from the center's North Plaza, which was completely renovated. Sylvia Smith, pointing across, did summon some critical words about the pre-renovation condition of that plaza, below which are many of the center's offices. "It leaked," she said with a rueful smile, "from the day Philip Johnson put it together."

The leaking, she added proudly, had ended.