Getting the Overhang of It

Posted inID Mag

By: Thomas de Monchaux | April 8, 2009

Lincoln Center’s renovation kicks off with a forward-looking homage.

ALICE TULLY HALL AT LINCOLN CENTER New York City Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Almost everything you need to know about the ongoing renovation of New York’s Lincoln Center happens at the corner of 65th Street and Broadway, where a 30-foot-tall, razor-thin blade of travertine stone hangs high above the sidewalk. It’s the visible edge of a veneer coating the southern facade of the new cantilevered addition to Alice Tully Hall and the Juilliard School, the first in a series of projects by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), along with FXFowle, intended to refresh the 50-year-old performing-arts complex.

The original building, the last and best of the mid-century development, was a 1968 exercise in Brutalism by Pietro Belluschi. An underrated contemporary of Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, Belluschi produced a broodingly sculptural building with an ingenious puzzle-box cross-section accommodating a music-school campus above and an eleven-hundred-seat chamber-music hall below. Like most big-time modernist architecture of its day, it should have been a concrete bunker. But in deference to the quasi-classical style of the rest of Lincoln Center, it was dressed in marble.

DS+R have done something very interesting with this fact. Extending Belluschi’s box toward Broadway with a two-story triangular overhang above a bright new entrance and lobby, they have continued the detailing, geometry, and material of the existing southern facade. One gets the impression that the original building has not been extended, but instead cleanly sliced away by Broadway and sealed behind glass. The thin edge of travertine, thus revealed, sends a startling apprehension of lightness back across the entire block-long building. A vast, heavy structure now feels like origami paper folded around air: Without being touched at all, it’s been entirely changed.

This strategy of paradoxically reinforcing and undermining, celebrating and tweaking the existing architecture, extends to the interior. The concert hall, a hexagonal cocoon, has been resurfaced with a paper-thin veneer of honey-colored African Moabi wood (reportedly all from a single log) attached to inch-thick panels of wood composite or translucent 3form resin. Embedded in the walls, an LED system by Philips Color Kinetics produces a diffuse glow. No shadows, and no subway sounds either: A vibration-dampening box-in-box structural system, layers of felt insulation, and a wraparound ceiling-wall geometry (recalling, depending on your proclivities, orchids or jet-engine nacelles) has resulted in a rich new acoustic intimacy that one Juilliard pianist—no easy customer—described to The New York Times as “heaven.” The edges of the hall’s entrance doors recall in miniature the stone and glass cutaway-reveal of the 65th Street corner, illustrating the many laminated layers of material behind the building’s solidity. We see both the magic and the trick.

For Lincoln Center, an architecturally insipid complex stranded behind blank walls and traffic, any process of opening and extending is welcome. Future DS+R improvements, such as a hyperbolic roof garden and an enhanced version of the beloved center-court fountain, suggest the same respectful radicalism. But more than reliably providing such clever and competent work, Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio, along with Charles Renfro, have long enacted an idea of the architect as artist and public intellectual: winning a MacArthur genius grant, participating in high-octane scholarship (including, disclosure, a class attended by this correspondent in 1999), and engaging with installation and performance art that would be eschewed by many of their peers. Applied to historic preservation, their tendency to inspect and dissect suggests an audaciously subtle way out of exhausted debates between dutiful contextualism and the alleged shock of the new.

In the span of three large-scale projects—2007’s Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, 2008’s unbuilt Eyebeam gallery for New York, and the current Lincoln Center renovation—DS+R have rapidly developed a mature vocabulary: wraparound floors that swoop into walls and ceilings, balconies and prodigious cantilevers that poke through same, bands of wood and metal that twist and laminate in surprising ways, hovering panels of resin or plasma-screen, and the occasional casual column that props it all up, acknowledging the heavy lifting behind its lightness. DS+R may, in their late work, increasingly come to resemble modern architects like Mackintosh, Murcutt, Scarpa, Asplund, and, indeed, Belluschi himself, who developed a rich but narrowly self-referential architectural language. But one hopes instead that their attention to context will result in eclectic and chameleon-like buildings, much like those of the original architectural planner of Lincoln Center, Philip Johnson—and that, like him, they always keep their sharp edge. Thomas de Monchaux, a New York writer and architect, is at work on Food Money Sex Style Art Stone Glass, a book about the building at 2 Columbus Circle.