So what can I tell you about the Diller, Scofidio + Renfro refashioning of Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center? It’s still a construction site — the official re-opening isn’t until February — but I previewed some substantially completed portions last week with Liz Diller and Charles Renfro.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, from the day it opened Lincoln Center needed to knit itself better into the streetscape of Manhattan. It was in effect designed not to. It was conceived as an “island of culture”, a Beaux Art notion of city planning — arts buildings on a platform isolated from the grimy realities around them, like the great museums surrounded by rolling lawns in Cleveland or Kansas City, or the Philadelphia Museum on its Acropolis at the end of Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Lincoln Center was also being built in what was then a pretty rough neighborhood, the place where West Side Story was filmed. It’s a miracle they didn’t have a drawbridge and a moat.
This is why the larger Lincoln Center renovation scheme that Diller, Scofidio + Renfro are carrying out, which won’t be complete until 2009/10, involves redesigning the approach to the Center’s main fountain plaza to put a vehicular road below street level and make access from the Broadway side easier for mere pedestrians…
… and reconfiguring the plaza around the Vivian Beaumont Theater to make it more active….
…partly by adding a restaurant accessible from the street below. (Though what I fear may be lost here is the quiet character that the reflecting pool area in front of Eero Saarinen’s theater now often has. All renderings, by the way, courtesy of Lincoln Center and Diller, Scofidio + Renfro)
But meanwhile Liz, her husband Ric Scofidio and their partner Charles Renfro have already applied ideas about access and transparency — major buzzwords of architectural practice for years now — to their rethinking of Alice Tully Hall, the chamber music venue at the north end of the Center. So to open the interior to the street they’ve sliced a multi-story, upward-tilting wall where the Alice Tully lobby meets the corner of Broadway and 65th St. and walled the enlarged and re-designed lobby beneath it in glass. Diller talks about having tried to strike “a balance between the monumental and the dematerialized.”
Inside the lobby they also designed — eat your heart out Zaha Hadid — a long, aerodynamic bar. (It’s in the lower right corner of the photo below and the in foreground of the photo up top.) To make the whole space more of a social destination the lobby café/bar will be open not only to ticket holders but to anybody between 8 AM and 11 PM. Diller says the idea was “to make good on the ‘public-ness’ of the public space.”
Grandstand-style seating walls are a feature that Diller/Scofidio/Renfro have used in number of projects. There’s a big one on the waterfront side of their Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, and as I recall there’s one or more in their scheme for the High Line Park that’s opening next year in a long strip of abandoned elevated train track in lower Manhattan.
So on the sidewalk outside Alice Tully they’ve added a triangular grandstand seating area that faces toward the lobby glass wall, so that people on either side of the glass become a kind of scene for each another.
Inside the performing space itself there was one particularly nice touch. In addition to the customary house lights from above, an LED lighting system is embedded in resin panels just behind the wood veneer walls. It allows the walls to glow very gently from within. Before every performance those embedded lights will rise and then dim, a wrap-around equivalent of the raising of the chandelier to mark the start of a performance at the Metropolitan Opera. The auditorium is plainly going to be a much warmer place than it was before the renovation. In conversation Diller likes to use a lot of anatomical and biological analogies to explain her firm’s work — nipples, skin. And there’s something about the experience of this warm, dim enclosure that’s, well, fetal — though I’m working from fairly dim memories here of my own time in the womb.
I can’t tell you anything about the acoustics. For that we’ll have to wait for the opening week of performances that are scheduled to start Feb. 22.