A Citadel of Culture Shows a Friendlier Face
Published: December 31, 2010
While trudging up a snowy Broadway sidewalk Tuesday night en route to a concert by the New York Philharmonic, I ducked into the new David Rubenstein Atrium just north of 62nd Street and was surprised to find the place hopping.
Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times
Béatrice de Géa for The New York Times
The atrium is intended as an entry point for Lincoln Center. There is an information desk where you can buy discount tickets; restrooms; vertical wall gardens; and a ’Wichcraft cafe, where you can get some of the tastiest sandwiches in the city. Also, along with the entire 16-acre campus of the renovated Lincoln Center, the atrium has free Wi-Fi access.
On this wintry night, with much of the city still being dug out, there were people in the atrium just gathered there, working on laptops, having a snack and chatting. On Thursday nights there is free live music and dance. Family concerts take place the first Saturday of every month, also free. Whatever Lincoln Center was before the recent, and continuing, redevelopment of its campus and facilities, it was no one’s idea of an inviting place to hang out.
This $1.2 billion renovation project is about 90 percent complete, according to Lincoln Center officials. The reviews from urban planners and architecture critics are in, including that of my colleague Nicolai Ouroussoff, The New York Times’s architecture critic, who had a very positive assessment of the striking renovation of Alice Tully Hall and the Juilliard School from boxy to bold, and strongly mixed reactions to the overall remaking of the plaza and the campus south of 65th Street. I gladly defer to those who know more than I about things architectural.
But as someone who grew up going to Lincoln Center in its early years (if I remember, my first Philharmonic concert at what was then Philharmonic Hall was in 1964), I am delighted and surprised that the center has been able to make itself so much more inviting, to blend into the neighborhood.
Lincoln Center used to look and feel like a citadel of culture, with imposing concert halls and opera houses buttressed by travertine walls and columns. In 2009, reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking ceremony for the center, I argued that the whole idea of a cultural complex was out of date, that today performing institutions cultivate strong individual identities and prefer to have their own urban turf.
Of course there are potential advantages to the all-in-it-together concept of a cultural center, but only if the physical place encourages dynamic interaction. There used to be something oppressive about Lincoln Center. For me that is no longer so.
It was a terrific idea to claim some of Columbus Avenue at the entrance to the plaza and sink a car drop-off lane below ground, with direct access to the basement concourse. Now the main stairs to the plaza slope gently down to the Columbus Avenue sidewalk, creating an entrance to the center that practically shouts, “Step right up.”
To emphasize the point, strips of LED messages scroll across the stairs, announcing the night’s performances and welcoming visitors in what seems like every living language. Some have found this a tacky, silly gimmick. But I like the touch of flash, which counters the grandeur of the plaza.
People seem to love the tilting grass roof that covers Lincoln Ristorante, the new two-story dining place that recently opened by the reflecting pool. My colleague Sam Sifton, the Times restaurant critic, reports that Lincoln has some fine dishes at very expensive prices. Well, the center must also cater to people of means. And there are alternatives, like ’Wichcraft, where things are more affordable.
And, as I reported when the renovated Alice Tully Hall opened in February 2009, the radical transformation of that lobby is a triumph. What used to look like a bunker hidden under a pointless pedestrian bridge has become an airy, spacious gathering space with tall windowed walls.
As you approach the hall from across the street, you can look through the glass wall above the entrance and see student dancers practicing in a studio at the Juilliard School, oblivious to the concert taking place below, which is rather inspiring. The work of art goes on all the time.
But what matters most to someone like me who spends a lot of time at Lincoln Center hearing concerts and going to operas, is the quality of the halls and houses. The renovated auditorium of Alice Tully Hall now feels warm and commodious, and I find the acoustics lively and faithful, though not everyone agrees. George Steel, the general manager and artistic director of New York City Opera, is understandably excited by the results of the extensive renovation that turned the acoustically dull New York State Theater into the livelier David H. Koch Theater. Mr. Steel has been calling the place “the best theater in New York.” Though having a booster like Mr. Steel at its helm is good for City Opera, few people would go that far. Still, the house is a much-improved place for opera. And, ding dong, the wicked sound system is dead. And gone. Good riddance.
In a recent phone interview Reynold Levy, the president of Lincoln Center, said that even a major renovation project like this one could not address all the needs of the 12 individual constituents. Moreover, he added, different institutions have their own timetables for capital projects. A major renovation of the Metropolitan Opera was never part of the overall concept, though last summer the stage was fortified with steel girders to support the 45-ton set for Robert Lepage’s new “Ring” production.
Yet, since it opened in 1966, the Met has basically been happy in its home, which it owns. Peter Gelb, the general manager, probably has a wish list of improvements he would like to see. But he has more immediate priorities, like bringing opera to a worldwide public through ever-expanding media resources.
The major question that still hovers over Lincoln Center is what to do about Avery Fisher Hall. The Philharmonic, which opened Lincoln Center with a concert in 1962 , has long been dissatisfied with it. On any given night, when the Philharmonic is inspired, the orchestra can sound terrific in that space. Still, the acoustics are nothing special, the hall looks dingy, and the backstage facilities are insufficient.
The $1.2 billion price tag for the center’s renovation did not include any major work on Avery Fisher Hall. And before anything happens, agreement must be reached about what is needed. The hall seats more than 2,700. The Philharmonic would like to make the auditorium more intimate, with 2,400 or fewer seats. There seems to be consensus that the experiment tried out for the last few Mostly Mozart Festivals, which involved extending the stage on a platform into the hall, has been very promising. Some such configuration is probably the way to go.
But the Philharmonic is a tenant in the hall, which is rented to touring ensembles and even used for graduations and conventions. For those purposes, the more seats the better. It will probably take years for the Philharmonic and Lincoln Center to come to a consensus about the extent of the renovation, which could range from a fix-up job to a redesign that would involve gutting the place. Hundreds of millions would have to be raised. And what would happen to the Philharmonic during that period, perhaps two full seasons?
Meanwhile, on their way to Avery Fisher, the Philharmonic’s audiences pass through a Lincoln Center Plaza that is more pleasant than ever. Indeed, by concert time on Tuesday, the plaza had been plowed clean, with snow piled into a mini-mountain near the fountain. You could not say the same about some of the side streets in the neighborhood that night.