A Talk With: Elizabeth Diller

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Alice Tully Hall during re-construction/photo: Iwan Baan — Lincoln Center

Alice Tully Hall/photo: Iwan Baan, courtesy Lincoln Center

This weekend Lincoln Center — which the New York Philharmonic, the New York City Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera all call home — will debut the wonderfully reconfigured building that houses its chamber music auditorium, Alice Tully Hall, plus the Julliard School of Music and the American School of Ballet. That premiere is the first stage of a redesign of substantial parts of the Center’s 16-acre campus by the firm of Diller, Scofidio + Renfro. So last week I stopped by their Manhattan offices to talk with Liz Diller about the project. Other than a much needed and beautifully achieved rehab of the Alice Tully interior, its larger purpose is to integrate Lincoln Center more tightly into the streetscape of its surrounding neighborhood, to make it less of a physically isolated culture-pod. (That picture up above, by the way, shows Alice Tully a few weeks ago, when it was still under construction.)

A couple of the other performing arts centers that were built in the 1960s and early ’70s — the Music Center in downtown L.A., where Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall was added a few years ago, and the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington — have been thinking about ways to connect better to their surroundings. But Lincoln Center, which will roll out its redesign in stages over the next few years, is the first to actually do it. And so far, to get it right.

LACAYO: When you were invited into this project, was it everybody’s idea right from the start to knit Lincoln Center physically back into the fabric of the surrounding streets?

DILLER: It was. When we came in the whole framework was already the question: “What can we do to make Lincoln Center more a part of the city?” The notion of democratizing that campus — “Let’s bring Lincoln Center to the streets” — was on the table from the very beginning.

LACAYO: So what was the first problem you were faced with?

DILLER: Our first idea was to erode the edges of the “plinth”. [She’s referring here to the raised mega-block that the whole of Lincoln Center stands on, which on its western and northern sides is in some places a platform 24-feet above street level.] We wanted to make more access points.
We also wanted to make good on the “public-ness” of the outdoor public spaces, so they could be programmed with outdoor events. It was part of the aesthetic of the ’60s to have these desolate open plazas, which over the years became more and more desolate. The lack of lighting, the lack of shade — there were just so many lacks. Just by adding something, small gestures, mostly landscape, we’ll be able to bring the north plaza to life.

LACAYO: The original Alice Tully/Julliard building had a strange split-level existence. There was this little street-level entrance for the concert hall, and the entry door for the school was hidden away on an upper level, and then there was a huge pedestrian bridge from that level that ran across the street to the rest of the raised Lincoln Center campus. One of the main things you did was to put everything back at sidewalk level, get rid of the bridge, greatly enlarge the Alice Tully lobby and wrap everything in glass.

DILLER: The notion was to make Alice Tully more of a visible presence on the street. Now all the pedestrian movement comes back down to the city street. That bridge wreaked such havoc with the street that we felt very comfortable moving it.

LACAYO: The other big thing you did visually was cut a huge angular slice through the corner of the building, so there’s a triangular canopy now that’s like a giant wave.

DILLER: At Lincoln Center small gestures don’t work.

LACAYO: You’re also changing the whole way that lobby will be used. It’s now going to be a cafe/bar open to the public, not just to ticket holders, from early morning into the night.

DILLER: Exactly. Yesterday our lighting designer was saying we should have three different “looks” in the lobby. One should be pre-theater, one should be intermission and one should be after the event. But then we realized that was wrong. The cafe bar is not about the theater or what’s going on in there on any given night. It’s the other way around, it’s a public place, for people coming in from the neighborhood, and the audience on any night will just spill out into that public place.