Nothing in Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s overhaul of the Lincoln Center campus has stirred more debate or more raw emotion than its redesign of the iconic fountain that stands at the center of the Josie Robertson Plaza. Framed by Philip Johnson’s David H. Koch Theater, Max Abramowitz’s Avery Fisher Hall, and Wallace K. Harrison’s Metropolitan Opera, it has been a meeting point for cultured New Yorkers for nearly half a century and has figured prominently in movies like “The Producers,” “Moonlighting” and “Ghostbusters.”
New Yorkers can find some solace then, in the knowledge that however the rest of the campus turns out, the fountain has been altered for the better. Though the entirety of the Josie Robertson Plaza, which Philip Johnson designed in imitation of the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome, is a triumph of urban planning, the central fountain, which he also designed, was always a bit clumsy. Johnson was so impressed with himself for using the classicizing material of granite that it never occurred to him to use it with subtlety. Instead, he conceived the fountain as a thick slab clumsily supported by a stolid drum.
In reinventing the fountain, DSR has conceived it as the thinnest of wafers. Despite its actual sturdiness, it seems to float above the basin from which its waters shoot forth. Originally, this architectural team had wanted to deconstruct the plaza by moving the fountain off center, which would have been a disaster. But cooler heads prevailed and the fountain looks lovely where it always was. Especially laudable are the waterworks themselves, which have been designed by WET Design, the estimable firm that has given us the wonderful fountain in front of the Brooklyn Museum as well as the new waterworks in Columbus Circle, not to mention those of the Bellagio in Las Vegas.
Whatever affection New Yorkers felt for the old fountain, no one ever paid too much attention to the water itself: it shot up and then it fell down. But the new version, with its 353 computerized nozzles and 272 lights, offers a sequence of watery pyrotechnics that compel the attention of even the most jaded New Yorkers, who stand marveling at its rhythmic arabesques for minutes at a time.
The only problem I foresee with the fountain — and it is a big one — is that its waters tend to splash onto the granite ring, and thus are almost certain to douse those many New Yorkers who will not be able to resist the temptation to sit there.
James Gardner, formerly the architecture critic of the New York Sun, writes on the visual arts for several publications.