After 50 years, Lincoln Center still offers plenty to criticize

June 2009

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By Martin Filler

There’s a grotesque disproportion between the 10 years it can take to execute a major architectural project and the 10 minutes it can take to read a review that demolishes it. But a more cautionary chronological measure is the veritable life sentence imposed upon the public by poorly designed civic architecture too conspicuous to ignore but too costly to replace, like New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, parts of which annoy me more and more as time goes by.

Team of rivals: By the time this photograph was taken of John D. Rockefeller III (front) and the architects of Lincoln Center, everyone was fighting one another.
Photo © Arnold Newman/Getty Images
Team of rivals: By the time this photograph was taken of John D. Rockefeller III (front) and the architects of Lincoln Center, everyone was fighting one another.
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Fifty years ago, President Dwight D. Eisenhower — whose pet grand projet was the interstate highway system and whose musical taste ran to Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians — attended the ground breaking for Lincoln Center. Masterminded by America’s most powerful Republican dynasty, the Rockefellers, this cultural one-stop-shopping center launched a nationwide boom in performing- and visual-arts complexes and exhibited its patrons’ characteristic mix of civic uplift, stealth entrepreneurship, and ruling-class clout.

The Rockefellers’ half-century urban-planning saga — which started with their terrific namesake center in Midtown Manhattan and ended less happily with New York’s World Trade Center and Albany’s Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza — now appears quaintly dated and impossibly ambitious, just as the pharaonic infrastructure initiatives of Robert Moses still evince both awe and loathing. However, the comprehensive vision shared by those mid-20th-century master builders has been conspicuous by its absence amid all the talk about a national public works campaign that might help lift America out of the current economic crisis.

The idea that inspired Lincoln Center began during the Roaring 20s, when John D. Rockefeller, Jr. — pious and penitent son of the rascally robber baron — hoovered up blocks of Midtown Manhattan for a state-of-the-art Metropolitan Opera House. That improvement was intended to make adjacent property values soar and make Rockefeller, Jr., a killing: his ideal of doing well by doing good. Inconveniently, the 1929 Crash forced Mr. Junior (as he was known within the Rockefeller organization) to adopt Plan B, a more commercial version that supplanted grand opera and its Valkyries with Radio City Music Hall and its Rockettes. Against all odds, Rockefeller, Jr., created the city-within-a-city immortalized by Ira Gershwin’s lyric, “They all laughed at Rockefeller Center/ Now they’re fighting to get in.”

Rockefeller Center (begun in 1932 and completed in 1940) was the collaborative product of a multifirm task force originally headed by Raymond Hood. After Hood’s death, in 1934, Wallace K. Harrison (who married a Rockefeller in-law) emerged as the project’s first among equals and cemented his lifetime sinecure as the sponsor’s de-facto court architect. Sadly, the twin secrets of Rockefeller Center’s success — seamless integration into the existing urban fabric and attentiveness to human scale — were lost on Harrison and the family’s rising generation, which included John D. III, who led the Lincoln Center enterprise, and Nelson, elected governor of New York a year before the 1959 ground breaking.

John D. III was determined to realize his father’s dream of a new opera house, but whereas the abandoned Met scheme used cultural prestige to dignify a buy-low-sell-high speculation, the complex his son planned for a rundown chunk of Manhattan’s West 60s was nothing less than a modern acropolis. What stood there before Ike turned his spade can be glimpsed in the opening scenes of the movie of West Side Story (1961), which appropriated the changing neighborhood’s half-demolished tenements as ready-made sets for Jerome Robbins’s silly gangland balletics. Today, that 19th-century housing would be gentrified before you could say Jane Jacobs, but in the 1950s, tabula-rasa development was standard operating procedure.

Lincoln Center’s architectural commissions were divided among an all-star roster that included Harrison; his partner, Max Abramovitz; Pietro Belluschi; Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Philip Johnson; and Eero Saarinen. All were instructed to toe a modernized Classical line and use travertine cladding to bring unity to the ensemble. Not surprisingly, the dream team soon devolved into a nightmare of disgruntled divas, vividly recalled in The Philip Johnson Tapes: Interviews by Robert A.M. Stern (Monacelli, 2008).

In that book, Johnson, reminiscing in 1985, conceded that “… you cannot do a job as big as Lincoln Center, I suppose, without this kind of recrimination and backbiting. So everybody pretty well hated everybody. And you’ve seen that picture with Johnny Rockefeller in the middle of the model with all of us sitting around just blissful? We weren’t speaking by then. We just sat there glaring at the camera.”

He also implied that the project’s leader was in way over his head: “Johnny had to fill up that site that he’d rashly started out to develop. Now that was another whole story that I knew nothing of at the time, the Moses-and-Johnny-Rockefeller-and-whoever-the-heads-of-the-Met-were deal.” And to make matters worse, according to Johnson, “[Nelson] didn’t like Johnny; nobody liked Johnny. Nothing is more disruptive than a family problem.”

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