The Real Deal New York

James Gardner – Bringing light into a fortress at Alice Tully Hall

Renovation surpasses expectations

March 31, 2009
By James Gardner

The renovation of Alice Tully Hall, the first installment in Lincoln Center’s vast, multi-year makeover, is finally complete, and the results are astounding. As someone who in the past has doubted the abilities of the much-hyped firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, I am delighted to report that in this one project, it has belied my fears and surpassed my expectations.

Granted, anything would be better than what was there before: a Brutalist pile designed by Pietro Belluschi that for 40 years has housed the Juilliard School and Alice Tully Hall at 1941 Broadway.

Lincoln Center as a whole has always been more than the sum of its parts. A few of its buildings are good, like the Performing Arts Library, directly across from Juilliard on 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam. Others, like the Metropolitan Opera, Avery Fisher Hall and the State Theater, are merely mediocre when considered in isolation. But Belluschi’s building was downright bad, easily the worst of the entire complex. The other architects of Lincoln Center aspired to a certain grace, a flicker of Contextualism and Classicism that seemed heretical back in Modernism’s glory days in the ’60s. Belluschi, by contrast, confected a truculently windowless monolith that did daily battle with the urban logic of Upper Broadway.

If truth be told, most of his building survives more or less intact. And yet it in no way diminishes the achievement of the new architects to say their changes are largely, but not entirely, cosmetic. Like much of Lincoln Center, the functionality of Belluschi’s building was inseparable from the formal statement it embodied. And now that statement has been fundamentally revised. In place of the aggressive Brutalism and the bullying, fortress-like opacity of Belluschi’s largely windowless building, DSR has created a wall of glass that unfurls across the entire western length of the avenue, from 65th to 66th streets. In the process, the architects have opened up the building to the outer world, as it finally admits the avenue deep into its studio spaces.

More stunning still, they have done this at a sharp slant that conforms to the shape of Upper Broadway, instead of repudiating the avenue, as the older building did. Several years back, a similar and equally beneficent transformation occurred a few blocks south at the Time Warner Building, whose concave façade now embraces the curve of Columbus Circle in a way that contrasts dramatically with the tasteless, stubborn rectilinearity of the unmourned-for Coliseum, which occupied the site before.

The overall look of the new Broadway façade is thrillingly coherent: Every part of it comes together in a lucid assertion of style, transparency and ceaseless movement. The effect is enhanced by a small, box-like space that cantilevers out from the façade over the completely reconceived plaza in front. The new openness of Alice Tully Hall is perfectly embodied in the charming Italian eatery that now occupies much of the lobby and which is reached directly from the street.

And yet, despite that coherence, the aesthetic that defines this project, and the work of DSR in general, is the Deconstructivist style. In a general way, this style is supposed to be about fracturing and incoherence, rather than about consoling regularity. Such aesthetic convictions explain the sharply angled façade of Alice Tully Hall, whose form and spirit are visually echoed in the plaza itself by a sequence of steps that lead nowhere. These steps rise up out of that submerged space and terminate in a sharp point, as though they would puncture the sky itself. Meanwhile, across the street in the plaza that DSR is designing in front of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, a similarly angled earthwork has begun to rise, and already it forms a calculated visual rhyme with the new façade of Alice Tully Hall.

In obedience to its somewhat eccentric reading of Deconstructivism, DSR has depressed and slanted the plaza of Alice Tully Hall and accessed it by steep steps. That tactic expresses a recurring preoccupation of the firm. Strange to say, it has embraced the notion of impediment and spatial challenge as one of the terms of its art. Where architects throughout history have tried to engineer the most convenient means of access into and out of the spaces they designed, often DSR has tried to impede that access. Why it might want to do this is open to conjecture, but one imagines that it has to do with drawing attention to the architectural act, as well as expressing a “critical,” even “dialectical” worldview. To date, the most emphatic statement of this preoccupation is the ramp that spills people, much to their confusion, directly into the center of the main dining room at the Brasserie, a restaurant that DSR recently remodeled at 100 East 53rd Street in the Seagram Building.

In truth, Alice Tully Hall’s plaza is not so inconvenient, after all. But the same cannot be said for other aspects of the building’s redesign. It is unlikely that there are many stairways in the city as steep and punishing as the one that leads up into the Juilliard School from the side of the building on 65th Street. But then, the work on this part of the building is generally less successful than on the Broadway façade.

If the latter is, formally considered, a spectacular example of the neo-Modernist idiom, the work on the 65th Street side embodies a neo-Mod, ad hoc style that is found far more frequently in DSR’s portfolio. The collision of that Mod style and the dominant language of Belluschi’s design is more tactless and clumsy than dissonant. DSR deserves credit for opening up and glazing 65th Street, much as it did the Broadway façade. And access both to Juilliard and the contiguous Peter Jay Sharp Theater seems far more legible as a result. But the off-white metal accents with which DSR has accomplished that transformation are drably incompatible with the noble travertine stone that defines Belluschi’s building and Lincoln Center in general. And some new details, like the metal-framed windows it has cut into the sides of the building, seem merely fussy and pointless.

On balance, even with those missteps, it is probable that West 65th Street is now a far more pleasant place than it was a few years ago, especially after the merciful removal of a vast overhang that supported the Milstein Plaza and which, in the process, condemned the street beneath it to dwell in never-ending night. As regards the Broadway façade, however, there can be no doubt whatsoever that it has now become one of the most admirable stretches of Manhattan.

James Gardner, formerly the architecture critic of the New York Sun, writes on the visual arts for several publications.

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