The frontispiece of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, which moved from Bryant Park to Lincoln Center, is a broad, flat, monolithic structure that has set up temporary residence in the interstitial space that separates the David H. Koch Theater from the Metropolitan Opera House and that opens up to the Damrosch Park, where the shows are being held. As temporary structures go, this is an impressive looking thing, its dense and pale façade seeming — visually — to be joined at a single, perilously insufficient point to an all too flimsy base. The most striking element of its design, however, is the abundance of travertine stone that you see covering its façade. There is so much of it that you might imagine that to build it they had to deplete the quarries of Tivoli, near Rome, where the use of the stone originated in antiquity.
You have to get up very close before the illusion dissipates and it becomes clear that the façade is actually covered in a plasticene tarp that is an astoundingly good simulacrum of the stone in question.
As it happens, travertine, a form of porous limestone, is such an appealing material that even in this ersatz form it looks wonderful. And that beauty was so fully appreciated half a century ago by Philip Johnson and the other designers of Lincoln Center that it has come to symbolize and give unity to the entire complex — which is surely why it was chosen, even in this fake form, to define the central entrance to Fashion Week.
The logical and formal conceit of Lincoln Center depends upon the centrality of what is now known as the Josie Robertson Plaza, with its famous fountain — beautifully reconceived by Diller Scofidio + Renfro — flanked by Avery Fisher Hall and the David H. Koch Theater, with the Metropolitan Opera House at the back. In the heyday of glass and steel modernism half a century ago, this was a bold and brilliant configuration self-consciously imitating the Capitoline Hill in Rome, designed by Michelangelo and fully tricked out in travertine.
But there is a cruel irony to its dramatic appearance at Lincoln Center this year. The whole area has been fundamentally transformed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, much of it for the better. But one of their most ill-advised maneuvers was to repave almost the entire complex, especially here in the center and in the adjoining Hearst Plaza, with a dull, ruddy stone that decisively changes the feeling of the entire place and that crudely dispels that mirage of enchantment of being in Rome, that was so effectively maintained in the complex’s earlier form.
Whatever Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s successes, there has always been something self-serving about their activities, a need to draw clamorous attention to their own creativity. In their desire to leave their mark, they have unnecessarily altered a key component of the Lincoln Center complex, and so it is sadly ironic that that element should have been singled out in one of the center’s most public, albeit temporary, facades.
James Gardner, formerly the architecture critic of the New York Sun, writes on the visual arts for several publications.