New Film Society of Lincoln Center project fails in the details

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In the coming weeks, the Film Society of Lincoln Center will inaugurate its new premises. With two new auditoriums, an amphitheatre and a café, the new space will augment the facilities of the Walter Reade Theater, where the Society has held its famous festival each autumn for much of the past half-century.

The new premises make up the back side, along 65th Street, of the boomerang-shaped building that houses the recently opened Lincoln restaurant and is covered by a daringly slanted grassy roof.

Let it be said yet again that the overall changes that the architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro have wrought on the campus of Lincoln Center Have Made The Place consistently more pleasant to inhabit and more practical to use. They have destroyed some things of beauty — the travertine paving in the central plaza and the conceptual integrity of the North Plaza, with its Henry Moore sculptures — and they have created beauty, along Broadway, in the central fountain, the renovations to Juilliard and the entirely new structure that houses the Lincoln restaurant and, soon, the Film Society.

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The firm’s skill, even brilliance, consists in grand gestures while the failures reside in the small details.

The new Film Center, judged only by the exterior, is a case in point. With its pellucid curtain-walls, the building in which it is housed is an homage to Eero Saarinen’s Trans World Airlines Terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport and one of the best new structures in Manhattan in some years. But the details along 65th Street display an improvised, arbitrary quality that has long plagued the firm’s work and ultimately derives from the neo-Mod aesthetic that it favors. I cannot imagine what possessed Diller Scofidio + Renfro to cover the entranceway in a hue somewhere between pumpkin and tapioca and then to frame it in an irregular canopy whose sharp angles pick up those of Julliard’s new Broadway façade, not to mention the prominent roof of the building in which the Film Society itself is housed. Then, right next door is the huge, newly cantilevered canopy of the Lincoln Center Theater, whose glass cladding, strange to say, gives a direct view into the entrance of a massive garage.

Together with the modifications to the north side of 65th Street, those that I have just mentioned seem clamorous and incoherent. But if they are ugly they are no more so than what they replaced Especially When The Milstein Plaza covered this area in night for over 40 years– and this entire part of 65th Street is starting to live in ways that most of us could not have imagined possible 10 years ago.

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