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Lincoln Center Undergoes a Dramatic Facelift

December 3, 2008

By William Bostwick

Announcing a year’s worth of events to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2009, Lincoln Center president Reynold Levy admitted that the 16-acre arts complex doesn’t give up its treasures easily. “For 50 years,” he said, “visitors to Lincoln Center have been rewarded for traversing eleven lanes of traffic.”

Lincoln Center
Image courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro with Beyer Blinder Belle
Looking northwest, a view of the renovated Josie Robertson Plaza.
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Surrounded by busy streets, and long seen as an isolated—even elitist—cultural compound in New York City, Lincoln Center is finally getting a new look. A renovation by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) with FXFowle, and additional work by Tod Williams Billie Tsien, don’t do away with the vehicular moat. But the architects hope the revamp will mitigate the “fortress” aspect, turning Lincoln Center into the welcoming public space it was meant to be.

Eisenhower broke ground for Lincoln Center in 1959. Avery Fisher Hall, home to the Philharmonic, opened in 1962, with the rest of the buildings following throughout the decade. A child of Moses–era urban renewal, Lincoln Center gathered together the city’s best arts organizations—the Philharmonic, Julliard, and the Metropolitan Opera were the first; now 12 groups are based there—into an outpost of order and refinement. The architects of the day, including Johnson, Saarinen, and Bunshaft, filled the complex with slender columns, flying arches, and open plazas, but quoting the Acropolis didn’t make it one. “Many of the urbanistic mistakes of that era are monumentalized there: the megablock, and with it, feelings of exclusivity and elitism,” says Liz Diller, partner at DS+R.

Lincoln Center seemed to turn its back on the rest of the city. “You could walk up Broadway and have no idea it was there,” says Billie Tsien, AIA, partner at Tod Williams Billie Tsien. Her firm's new visitor center on 62nd Street, between Broadway and Columbus, is the first sign of a different attitude. When it opens in the fall of 2009, vines will climb the space’s 20-foot walls, and 16 skylights will usher in natural light. A café, a removable stage for small performances, and a box office will fill the interior. “It’s a place to go in and get a coffee or a glass of wine and maybe buy tickets to a show, which normally you wouldn’t do if you were just walking by,” Tsien explains.

For the existing structures, work is divided into two major projects: the Promenade and the West 65th Street corridor, both set to finish in February 2009. If the visitor center is a side entrance, Lincoln Center’s front door is the grand staircase on Columbus Avenue. DS+R sunk the bordering service road underground (one less lane of DS+traffic for visitors to dodge) and expanded the stairs along the length of the avenue. The Josie Robertson Plaza will be cleaned up with more seating and better lighting, highlighting Philip Johnson’s patterned pavement around its central fountain.

Meanwhile, West 65th Street is being rechristened the “Street of the Arts,” serving as a theme ride of sorts past the center’s biggest names, including the Chamber Music Society, the School of American Ballet, and Juilliard. All of the buildings along 65th will have new glass facades—transparency replacing travertine—but the star of the show will be Alice Tully Hall. It gets a new 5,000-square-foot, three-story lobby encased in glass, and an updated auditorium featuring a new stage and a state-of-the-art lighting system that glows behind wooden walls.

Despite these flourishes, Diller says she had to respect Lincoln Center’s 50-year history. Elitist or not, it’s an icon. “We can’t be totally different—it’s too monumental already,” Diller admits. “The strongest impact we can make is for people to have a double take. It’s a small revolution.”

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