The architecture and planning of the 1960s certainly has its detractors, but Liz Diller is not one of them: “Perhaps I have an affection for ugly things, but Lincoln Center is a real part of New York City iconography,” she said. “It is the kind of place that architects love to hate, but we wanted to give it a second chance.” In their renovation of Alice Tully Hall, Diller and her partners Ricardo Scofidio and Charles Renfro, along with Sylvia Smith of FXFowle Architects, have gone one better and given Lincoln Center another life. Their renovation and expansion of Pietro Belluschi’s 1969 design reverses some of its bunker-like attitudes towards its patrons and the surrounding city.
The project’s scope was two-fold: The Juilliard School, which occupies the building’s top three stories, needed another 45,000 square feet, and the auditorium’s interiors and public spaces needed to be more welcoming. Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) and FXFowle accomplished both by extruding the upper floors out to the sidewalk, covering a rarely-used plaza, and then slicing off one corner to create a lobby and café. A dance studio punches through the one-way cable-net glass curtain wall, and the entry feels like an extension of the sidewalk.
If the goal with the lobby was to bring the city inside, the hall itself must keep it out, especially the rumble of the subway. According to acoustician Mark Holden of the firm JaffeHolden, his team measured every surface of the old hall to determine which were re-radiating the subway’s noise, and found that the stage and seating floors were big contributors, as were vertical panels on the proscenium stage. To mitigate the problem, the new floors sit on a floating concrete slab with a rubber pad, and the spin walls are mounted on giant rubber isolators.
Even with the trains banished to their lair under Broadway, DS+R still faced some real constraints. “We sometimes call it an architecture of 18 inches,” said Diller, “because we couldn’t change the bones at all—we were only contouring the cavity.” After a back-and-forth process with Holden to develop a form that would foster a brighter, more evenly distributed sound, DS+R decided to incorporate everything into the skin—aesthetics, acoustics, and lighting—in order to eliminate visual clutter and fulfill their brief of creating an inviting space.
The auditorium skin consists almost entirely of translucent wood veneer-and-resin panels that DS+R developed specifically for the project with 3form. Panels peel out to form gill-like acoustic baffles along side walls, form a compound curve around the base of the stage, or become pivoting pyramid shapes that bounce sound. At the rear of the stage, a pattern that looks decorative turns out to be a mechanism for diffusing high-frequency sound. Most strikingly, sections of the balcony and side walls give off a soft pinkish light as LEDs hidden behind them turn on. Concertgoers have burst into applause as the theater lights dim and the walls begin to glow.
Concert halls are ultimately judged by the way they sound, but this spontaneous enthusiasm suggests that the architects succeeded in creating the warm and intimate space the client hoped for. And paired with the lobby’s airy bustle and embrace of street theater, the building is the best argument for second chances that New York has seen in some time.