Can Crisis Save Lincoln Center From Disaster?

Lost in the soap-opera story line of New York Philharmonic’s near-divorce from Lincoln Center-its announcement earlier this year that it would decamp for Carnegie Hall, and its subsequent prodigal-son return earlier this month-was news of the center’s first major donation to its rebuilding efforts, a $16 million grant from the Alice Tully Foundation. The money will go toward the estimated $56 million renovation of Alice Tully Hall, itself part of Lincoln Center’s $800 million overhaul.

The Tully grant isn’t large enough to constitute a turning point for Lincoln Center’s efforts at self-reclamation. But it came on like a propitious gale, buffeting the whole project out onto calmer waters, and it coincides with a number of other positive turns in the renovation saga. The center’s various companies have blown off all their steam and accepted the idea of major changes on their home turf. And though the budget is tight, that could be just the thing to discipline the unruly ambitions of the many factions and force a greater focus on what matters. Improving the center’s public spaces-which, far from being merely a sop to civic groups, is constitutionally important to the institution’s survival-and gutting Avery Fisher are now at the top of the list.

At the same time, Lincoln Center has corralled both the avant-garde studio Diller and Scofidio and Britain’s Foster and Partners to lead the renovations. These top-notch firms bring with them a proven ability to rethink old problems, and, increasingly, Lincoln Center’s problems seem like the kind they can fix. At a place like Lincoln Center, where an unlikely group of troubled institutions once scattered throughout Manhattan came together to share in a Robert Moses brainchild-a boon that was largely a matter of architecture and real estate-the crumbling campus is still the ligature that holds the institution together; and so architecture may yet save the day.

Four years ago, when the center embarked on the planning phase of its massive renovation project, it could hardly have foreseen the backstabbings and budget cuts that soon afterward made it a regular laughingstock in the newspapers.

“The infighting at Lincoln Center resembles the kind of insidious arguments that sometimes tear families apart,” The New York Times editorialized in 2001.

The story of Lincoln Center has always been focused on what went wrong. Practically from the moment Dwight D. Eisenhower presided over the center’s groundbreaking ceremony in 1959, critics were calling it an elitist temple to high art, isolated architecturally and economically from the rest of the city.

Robert Moses, the city’s construction czar for much of the mid-century, at first conceived of Lincoln Center as way to boost property values around Columbus Circle. The planning phase involved some of the biggest names in New York history: The Kennedys provided some of the land (and got a sweet profit off the sale); the Rockefellers provided a big chunk of the funding; and Wallace Harrison, who led the architectural efforts at Rockefeller Center and the U.N. headquarters, oversaw a design dream team of Philip Johnson, Eero Saarinen and Max Abramovitz, among others.

But while Lincoln Center jump-started gentrification around Columbus Circle, this case study in superblock architecture also provided city planners with a definitive lesson in how not to design cultural institutions. Nor has the center exactly stood the test of time-with 10 million visitors annually, the place is in need of major repair, plagued as it is by pesky plumbing and crumbling floors.

In 1998, long-neglected maintenance problems across the campus and chronic acoustic problems in Avery Fisher and Alice Tully halls forced the Lincoln Center Committee on the 21st Century to commission a renovation study from the architectural firm Beyer, Blinder and Belle. The study was presented in two versions: a $1.5 billion “wish list,” which tried to satisfy all the complaints of the center’s various artistic companies, and a scaled-back, $800 million budget that presented a more realistic approach to the center’s renovation.

But it often seemed that it was precisely the idea of spending $1.5 billion-more, even in adjusted dollars, than the cost of the original construction-that drove the ensuing infighting. With big plans in the making, the monstrous egos that inhabit the center hurried to define their turf. When the center floated a plan for a new home for the City Opera on Damrosch Park, for example, the Metropolitan Opera threatened to withdraw from the renovations, throwing the entire project in doubt.

But as the center’s ambitions have deflated, so too have the passions. The Met has more or less fallen into line, and with the Philharmonic slinking back to Avery Fisher Hall, hat in hand, from its short-lived deal with Carnegie Hall, the center’s management is finally in control of the renovation process.

Architecturally, the site benefits from a reduced budget as well. One of the leading ideas trotted out under the wish-list budget was an enormous, Frank Gehry–designed glass dome; it would be hard to think of a better way to isolate the center further from its surroundings.

Other wish-list ideas included demolishing Avery Fisher and perhaps other halls as well, under the idea that the only way to save Lincoln Center was to destroy it. But that’s the same outmoded tabula rasa thinking that drove Robert Moses to tear down the entire San Juan Hill neighborhood to build Lincoln Center in the first place. And there is much to like about the buildings, designed as they were by a dream team of International-style modernists.

“The buildings are very much of their time,” said Martin Pedersen, editor of Metropolis magazine, “and in that way they are sort of lovable. Anything that’s large enough and stays around becomes loved. They’re a part of the cultural fabric of New York.”

With less money, those sorts of grand, disastrous gestures are off the table. Instead, the center has focused on approaching the project in manageable chunks, and earlier this year hired the architectural firm Diller and Scofidio to tackle the largest of those, the renovation of its public spaces. “It’s a curious choice, an interesting choice,” said Mr. Pedersen, because the firm is better known for its theoretical work than its few realized projects.

Indeed, Diller and Scofidio has its work cut out for it. The irony of Lincoln Center has always been that its architecture and planning, designed to showcase the art within, ended up imprisoning it. The main entrance, on the campus’ eastern side, fronts the busy Broadway and Columbus intersection, while 65th Street, which cuts between the main campus and the Juilliard School, is a dark, cavernous passage with only a small staircase linking it to the center.

Diller and Scofidio plans to renovate Lincoln Center’s public space in several phases, starting with 65th Street and working south to Josie Robertson Plaza and Damrosch Park. While the firm hasn’t released definitive plans yet, a basic outline is emerging.

“One of the first things we’re doing is to re-establish 65th Street as a major entrance,” said Robert Donnelly, the firm’s project leader for the site. “We’re proposing to narrow the street and widen the sidewalk, so [people won't] feel so pushed up against buildings.”

But 65th Street isn’t just forbidding; it’s also inconvenient. None of the major theaters open onto it-Avery Fisher, set to be the newly renovated center’s crown jewel, has its back completely turned on the street.

“It’s true that Avery Fisher backs onto [65th Street],” said Mr. Donnelly, “and we’re sort of waiting to see what Foster and Partners proposes with its gutting.”

But short of tearing down the hall and rebuilding at 180 degrees, it’s hard to imagine how to mitigate this flaw. Demolition is virtually out of the question, given a lack of funds and the staunch opposition of the Fisher family, which means that the center will emerge post-renovation with a split visage-the anchor theaters will still open onto Columbus Avenue, and a second grand entrance will run perpendicular along 65th Street.

All of which means that some serious creative thinking is in order. Fortunately, that’s what makes Diller and Scofidio such an inspired choice for the project. While the firm may not have as much actual building experience as its counterparts, its recent show at the Whitney proves its ability to find original ways of mediating and strengthening the relationship between people and architecture. One of the central elements in its phase-one plan, for example, is a variety of electronic marquees along 65th Street that will both provide information to patrons and bring a sense of activity to what could otherwise remain a side street.

The center’s other major project, at least this early in the process, is the Foster and Partners renovation of Avery Fisher Hall. Lord Norman Foster, the firm’s head, is widely recognized as one of the world’s best architects; but more importantly, his 500-person firm has extensive experience with the sort of complex, specialized engineering issues that Avery Fisher demands.

Lord Foster’s challenge is twofold. While the firm has yet to release plans for the project, he is constrained by funding and politics from tearing down the hall completely. As a result, he has to figure out a way to ameliorate the hall’s uninviting lobby and clarify the access paths to the reception area on the second floor, all while keeping in mind the center’s overall aesthetic.

It’s a challenge that reminds one immediately of the extraordinary success Lord Foster had in renovating the Reichstag in Berlin. There, as at Lincoln Center, Lord Foster was charged with re-imagining the space while keeping the building’s exterior intact. His solution was to top the 19th-century structure with a sleek glass dome, fitted inside with a double-helixed ramp from which visitors could peer down into the Bundestag hall itself. If Lord Foster can bring even some of that creativity to Lincoln Center, then his Avery Fisher project will be a success.

Lord Foster’s second challenge is to settle once and for all Avery Fisher’s infamous acoustic deficiencies. This means going beyond the complete gutting and refitting that the hall received in 1976. Fortunately, this is another reason why Lord Foster is an excellent choice for the renovation. Not only can he do the bulk of the engineering work in-house, but he has a great track record of working with specialty firms on matters beyond his ken.

“If anyone can figure it out, he can,” said Mr. Pedersen. “He’ll probably find someone to work with him; he’ll hook up with [Yasuhisa] Toyota or one of the other great acousticians.”

Of course, none of this will happen without funding, and even the estimated $800 million needed to complete the project isn’t guaranteed. In January 2001, the city promised to contribute $240 million, but with the economic downturn it has only been able to deliver $24 million. And until recently, only a trickle of private funds has fallen into the center’s coffers.

Nevertheless, there are some good signs that the funding picture will improve. There’s the Alice Tully money, which fund-raisers hope will spur more donations before the end of the year. And in February, the center hired Rosemarie Garipoli to lead the Campaign for Lincoln Center, its fund-raising arm. Ms. Garipoli is an excellent choice, having led successful fund-raising efforts at the Guggenheim and the New York Botanical Garden.

In recent years, critics have used Lincoln Center’s renovation quagmire as an opportunity to attack it for what they see as an elitist, anachronistic artistic program. But the center’s problem has always been in its architecture, not its art, and with 10 million visitors a year, it’s hardly the case that people don’t go in for classical music anymore. (And besides, there’s a place for everything. No one chastises the Bowery Ballroom for the lack of chamber groups on its schedule.)

Lincoln Center’s challenge is not to make its program more amenable to the whims of current public taste, but to influence taste by making the classical arts more amenable to the public. And the first and most important step toward that goal is improving its facilities, making them both more inviting and more integrated into the surrounding community. After years of setbacks, Lincoln Center appears ready to do just that.

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