Reconceived Harmony Atrium — appealing but not coherent

By James Gardner | March 04, 2010 05:08PM

Does Lincoln Center aspire to eat the entire Upper West Side?

As part of the ongoing, billion dollar expansion and restoration of its campus, Lincoln Center has extended its tentacular reach to include public spaces that are not properly part of that campus at all. The most famous of these is the multi-venued Jazz at Lincoln Center in the Time Warner Building. But just recently, it has taken over the Harmony Atrium and reconceived it as the David Rubenstein Atrium, the gateway, according to press releases, of the entirety of Lincoln Center.

The new David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center, whose dimensions are identical to those of the older space, represents one of the more successful examples of the roughly 500 privately-owned public spaces, or POPS, that have arisen around Manhattan and, to a far lesser degree, the other boroughs over the past half century. Most of these spaces, created and kept up by developers in exchange for permission to build taller residential and office high-rises, are a cynical blight upon the urban landscape, the ugly, uninviting barest minimum that defies the spirit and often the letter of the 1961 law that created POPS in the first place.

The Harmony Atrium, at 61 West 62nd Street on the west side of Broadway between 62nd and 63rd Street, was always an exception. For one thing, people actually wanted to be there, even when they could be somewhere else. It had a rock climbing facility, a cafe, artwork and other amenities.

Now, as reconceived by the husband and wife team of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, the 7000-square-foot Rubenstein Atrium is even more inviting. Pod-like light fixtures, called oculi, descend from the double height ceiling, and a living wall of plant life, not the first in the city, but always welcome, adorns much of the northern wall as you enter from the Broadway side (there is a second entrance on Amsterdam Avenue.)

Other amenities include seating and a ‘wichcraft food concession area, managed by Tom Colicchio, as well as an information booth and the Donald and Barbara Zucker Box Office, which sell day-of discount tickets.

Along the walls is a 97-foot felt wall art installation whose 114 panels were designed by the Dutch textile artist, Claudy Jongstra.

The reconceived auditorium promises free weekly concerts and free WiFi access for all.

The resulting space is a hybrid that contains a number of inviting elements that do not necessarily coalesce into a coherent design, but that certainly enhance the quality of life on the Upper West Side.

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