The New Lincoln Center, Act I

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Lincoln Center

Rendering of Diller, Scofidio + Renfro refashioning of Alice Tully Hall/Image: Lincoln Center

In New York earlier this week I got a preview of the nearly complete renovation of Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, which re-opens in February. My guides were Liz Diller and Charles Renfro, two thirds of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the architects remaking large parts of Lincoln Center, the Manhattan performing arts complex that’s home to the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Ballet.

And home to Alice Tully, a 1080-seat auditorium for chamber music and other more intimate kinds of performance. It also happens to be part of a block-long section of Lincoln Center, north of the main fountain plaza, that was an architectural afterthought. This is saying something when you consider that the whole white travertine ensemble that is the Center was, as soon as it opened in 1966, a place that serious Modernists held at arms length. Anybody who didn’t much like haute bourgeoise stone-clad departures from the Alpine purities of glass-and-steel Modernism — and there was quite a bit of that going on in the ’60s — had reservations about what the New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable called the “retardataire fussiness” of the place, ” a gift wrap job of travertine trim and passepartout colonnades applied to basic boxes.”  The New Yorker writer Penelope Gilliatt once said it looked like something that Mussolini ordered over the telephone. Like all good New Yorkers over the years I’ve warmed to the place. (The summer afternoon I spent in that fountain plaza watching the all-city double-dutch jump rope competition certainly helped.) But to this day I never go there without picturing Mussolini, in uniform, on the phone. A white phone, of course.

As for Tully Hall, it’s part of a collection of Lincoln Center facilities that includes the Film Society, the Julliard School and the School of American Ballet, all housed in a very odd, block long structure of Brutalist massing behind a travertine facade. Brutalist buildings of the 1960s and ’70s were almost always executed in rough concrete. But at Lincoln Center the travertine facade was required to blend in with the white stone of the other principle buildings.   Liz Diller calls it Brutalism in drag, which is a good way to put it. Picture Michael Chiklis in Chanel and you’re there.

When it got underway in the early 1960s, Lincoln Center was imagined as an island of culture isolated from the workaday city. (It was actually an urban renewal project — the Upper West Side neighborhood it overtook and transformed was the one where the film version of West Side Story was shot.) One reason that Diller and her husband Ric Scofidio were chosen for the Lincoln Center restoration project — which will eventually also include a redesign of the plaza around the Vivian Beaumont Theater and of the entire Broadway approach to the Center — was that they’re deeply interested in ways that buildings interact with their surroundings.  That’s been the strength of their Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.

So what did they do with Alice Tully?  We’ll hold that for the next post.