Lincoln Center Transformed
An exciting, collaged look at the dramatic architectural and design improvements recently made on Lincoln Center's campus, accompanied by a jazzy riff on Schubert's Impromptu in G-flat, Op. 90 No. 3 by the Ted Rosenthal Trio. Video by Mark Bussell, editing by Anne Cronin.
THE STEPS AT Lincoln Center welcome visitors. Literally; in the redesigned and rebuilt plaza there are LED lights embedded in the steps that spell out words in more than a dozen languages. They say “welcome,” they list events, they describe the great variety of music and performances the Center offers: classical, jazz, world, ballet, theater, film.
Lincoln Center is redesigned, and many of the changes are quite dramatic, like the glass-walled corner of Alice Tully Hall, the spiffy renovation of the David Rubenstein Atrium, the centerpiece Revson Fountain that is now choreographed by WET, the same firm that designed the charming and lovely water ballet for the enormous fountain in front of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. There are striking new additions, like the Charles B. Benenson Grove, 3,500 square feet of precisely laid out trees and fine gravel, a restful oasis in the manner of a Parisian park, and the Illumination Lawn, a patch of public green that undulates like a fun house mirror, and has the kind of disorienting effect that helps the adults who clamber up it feel like kids who want to roll down a hill, like human barrels. It’s the steps that matter the most, though.
The main entrance to the Center is off Columbus Avenue, at a busy intersection with Broadway and cross-streets from 62nd to 66th street. It’s a complex and difficult area for pedestrians to navigate; going from the front of Alice Tully to the opposite corner means crossing the two lanes of Broadway and Columbus in a tedious, staggered pattern. Actually getting into the Josie Robertson Plaza required maneuvering through four lanes of often speeding, heedless traffic and then a broad road dedicated to even more cars dropping off and picking up passengers. The result was to set the Center apart from and at odds with the very city to which it belongs, making it the kind of place that people with access to cars could make a destination, but that would deter the flaneur. Lincoln Center stood for decades, for better or worse, as the national symbol of “uptown” culture and all it’s socio-economic associations of class, mindless tradition and audiences who flocked to opening nights at the opera, ballet and symphony and then mostly slept through the performances.
Now, the only thing intervening between the sidewalk of the avenue and the plaza itself is the steps, the welcoming steps (and sheltered ramps for those with disabilities). People are now drawn in, not only because they have tickets to one of the theaters or because they are headed to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, one of the great public resources of its kind anywhere in the world, but because they just want to stop, look around, enjoy the expansive space, the fountain, indulge the pleasure of a quasi-somnolent rest in the shade of the Grove. The Center has become a place for the feet, not the tire. This is by design, the redevelopment project was meant to make the area more physically open and transparent from the time it began in 1999, and the current president, Reynold Levy, encouraged that both architecturally and aesthetically. As reported in the New York Times while the work was in progress in 2006, Levy thought of the “campus as a place where people should feel comfortable stopping by for a sandwich.” He added the Atrium to the Center complex, instituted the 10:30pm shows in the Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, and installed WiFi.
It’s all made a great city better. The greatness of a city, how livable it is, is in direct proportion to how walkable it is. And beyond the newish idea of a “Walk Score,” where neighborhoods are rated by the amenities within walking distance, cities are places for both visitors and natives to wander through. And now Lincoln Center is the kind place that one can easily, and gladly, wander into, for that sandwich, and more.
That’s a metaphor for exploring life, but it’s also a physical action with meaning. Wander into this space, that somehow seems bigger, brighter, softer, warmer, that is just steps away but that, once inside, seems to belong to an entirely different world than that of the dense high rise apartments literally across the street. In contrast to the purposeful bustle of Manhattan, you’re implicitly invited to do nothing. And in the course of doing nothing, someone who has never been into Avery Fisher Hall, the Metropolitan Opera House, the David H. Koch Theater (formerly the New York State Theater) and it’s vastly improved acoustics and seats that are the most comfortable of any house in the city, someone who has never gotten a brochure or flyer from Lincoln Center in the mail, someone who might have only set foot in the Center to hear 400 guitars play Rhys Chatham’s The Crimson Grail in the summer of 2009, that person might see a performance listed on a poster and, feeling welcomed, might be invited to come back and head inside. And a patron heading to or out of one of the performances might want to slow down and linger, enjoy the sight and atmosphere of a public space that works, and come back again for no reason at all, or to see what’s happening for free on warm summer nights.
The place is for everybody now, and that’s how it should be. It’s a public space built with public money that for too long only welcomed a small section of the public. The theaters flanking the plaza seemed at times like bunkers, forbidding and designed to turn away the vaguely curious. Now, with all sorts of people filling the expanse, they seem alive with activity, interesting and accessible. The artificial distinction between “downtown” and “uptown” is mainly ignored. There’s the actual fact of the New York City Opera presenting quintessential “downtown” musician John Zorn’s La Machine de L’être this Friday, but even more exemplary is that among the lively crowd at the closing night of the Tully Scope festival at Alice Tully, a concert of dramatic, contemporary music by Heiner Goebbels, there was Zorn himself. And there were Lou Reed, and Laurie Anderson. And they all looked like they had just wandered in from off the street, both surprised and satisfied to find themselves in this renewed Lincoln Center space, milling about in a crowd with young nerds and aging hipsters, excited to hear something new.