Twilight at New York City's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts is a glittering, high modernist affair. Light spills onto the main plaza from behind the iconic arched façade of the Metropolitan Opera House and the portico of Philip Johnson's David H. Koch Theater just as ticket holders feed into the lobbies where chandeliers are aglow. Lincoln Center was developed at a time when urban renewal was painted in broad, block-clearing strokes. As such, the '60s-era complex, which is composed of some 12 cultural institutions, covers a swath of Manhattan's Upper West Side between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, from West 60th Street to West 66th Street. Architect Wallace Harrison's master plan for the main plaza envisioned the space as a theatrical interplay between architecture and performance, while satellite structures got short shrift. For 40 years, the Cinderella-like Alice Tully Hall, located at the corner of West 65th Street and Broadway, never got to go to the ball.
But all that changed in 2002 when Alice Tully Hall was granted a fairy godmother—New York architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), who were engaged along with collaborators FXFowle to redevelop the entire Lincoln Center site. The hall, which opened in February, is the first step in this redevelopment, with the rest of the campus makeover—a series of discrete projects—set to be completed in early 2011.
Understanding DS+R's tactical approach to the site requires a bit of historical context. Lincoln Center broke ground in 1959, and while construction stretched across the 1960s, its architecture represents haute culture, not flower power. Alice Tully Hall opened in 1969 and the blocky building designed by architect Pietro Belluschi, which houses the Starr Theater concert hall and the Juilliard School, turned a cold shoulder to Broadway, and offered up a gloomy lobby off a gusty, sidewalk-level patio. Poised at the break between decades, generations, and ideologies, it more or less hunkered down, even as the programming inside grew more and more daring. (Last Tango in Paris, the controversial film, premiered there in 1970.)
DS+R has literally sliced open the hall to reveal what's inside. In a bold and dynamic move, the architects sheared off the existing building's corner, eliminating the clunky relationship the original structure had to the immediate surrounds and its urban context. In the evening, the tip of the wedge-shaped cut (the underside of the Juilliard School and the lobby ceiling) is brightly illuminated by a single high-powered metal halide floodlight. This new Alice Tully Hall is no shrinking violet.
DS+R architects Liz Diller and Ricardo Scofidio have a penchant for avant-garde theatricality. Their scheme not only retrofits the auditorium but also expands the lobby from 707 square feet to a whopping 6,161 square feet, adding a café and a small outdoor grandstand in the process. A three-story glass curtain wall greets visitors, and the transparency is welcoming. Although sunken, the amphitheater leading to the entrance seems a better concept than practice. (Then again, Juilliard students eager to perform might use it for spontaneous performances.) Still, by strengthening the connection between inside and outside, DS+R's design chips away at the formality associated with Lincoln Center. The café serves up espresso and snacks all day. At concert time, ticket holders mill about the grand foyer or casually linger at the bar. Lighting designer Hervé Descottes, founder and principal of New York–based lighting design firm L'Observatoire International, used a channel of cove-mounted PAR30 fixtures to wash the rich brown of the tongue-and-groove muirapiranga wood wall that wraps the exterior walls of the auditorium. As a result, there is no glare on the glass façade and the view from the street penetrates deep into the lobby. “We wanted to create a seamlessness between the outside and the inside of the lobby; by lighting the vertical surface, we emphasized the transparency,” explains Descottes.
From street to seat, the spaces transform and, in doing so, they prepare the ticket holder for the start of the performance. Descottes followed the lead set by DS+R. “Their architecture was very clear, so we reinforced the scheme with our [lighting] language,” he says. The grandness of the foyer gives way to the more compressed inner lobby outside the theater doors, which are tucked under the mezzanine-level patron salon. The lighting at this inner lobby is straightforward, but with careful details: A pattern of recessed downlights is tucked seamlessly into the ceiling and another hidden line of cove-mounted fixtures warm the wood panels.
Everything then changes as the visitor enters the stairwells leading to the theater. Clad in sound-dampening felt, with fixed-position halogen downlights, the spaces are, according to the architects, designed to be sensory deprivation chambers. The result goes beyond hush. The urban drama of the lobby and entry sequence simply drops away.
The need to dampen the senses comes from an inherent duality in the project. While the new design is concerned with making the lobby a public event, Alice Tully Hall is best known for hosting chamber music, which requires an intimate setting. The renovated Starr Theater embraces its audience. Custom-molded moabi veneer and resin panels wrap the walls and ceiling. The wood is warm-toned, like a cello, and the effect is like sitting in a resonating string instrument.
Adding to the warm embrace is the rosy LED house lighting that L'Observatoire and DS+R installed between the auditorium's veneer walls and the existing structure. Prior to show time, the LEDs glow pink behind the translucent veneer. The diodes are linked to the dimmer boards, so the stage manager can increase or decrease the LED's blush as the performance begins. “The intent was to convey that this is not a static place. It is a theater, not a museum. It changes,” Descottes notes.
Offering something akin to a sophisticated lava lamp appeal, the lighting scheme brings the theater not back to the summer of love, but into the contemporary era. Ultimately, the entire lighting scheme is as much cutting edge as it is familiar. “When you go to the Met, the chandeliers go up and the lights go on at the same time,” Descottes says, drawing connections with Lincoln Center's grande dame. “It is the same with the LEDs at Alice Tully Hall. It is about setting the mood—you are in your seat and waiting for the show to start—you are part of the change of atmosphere.”