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Living With Lincoln Center

As it turns 50—and gets a face-lift—this complex chunk of city deserves rethinking. A critic’s-eye view.


The future North Plaza of Lincoln Center promises daylong bustle.
Rendering by Diller Scofidio * Renfro/Courtesy of Lincoln Center  

Lincoln Center comes alive in the half-hour before curtain. As dusk falls on the travertine village levitating just above the street, the great white boxes glimmer, the fountain gets a corona of illuminated spray, and crosscurrents of humanity flow across the plaza. Defiantly rumpled students lope to discounted seats. Retirees stroll the block or two from their new apartments. Women stab the pavement with sharpened heels. Europeans make entrances under the impression that gowns and tuxes are still de rigueur at the opera.

Then, suddenly, it clears out. The liveliness gets sucked indoors. The vast spaces feel harsh and brined in grandeur. On a weekday afternoon, the plaza becomes a desert. The forgotten quadrant of Damrosch Park, in the corner between the opera houses, could practically contain the main branch of the New York Public Library, but the emptiness feeds on itself. Why go there, when nobody ever goes there?

Fifty years after President Eisenhower tossed the first shovelful of dirt, Lincoln Center is a construction site again—as big as the World Trade Center, and nearly as complex. As at ground zero, each duct and column helps settle a long-running debate about the meaning of the site. Unlike at ground zero, the answers have been honest, the solutions smart, and the results visible. The $1.2 billion renovation is still in midstream, but the chrysalis of plywood has fallen away from the plaza, just in time for the jubilee on May 11. Alice Tully Hall has been reborn, and 65th Street is slowly losing its back-of-the-house bleakness.

Through it all, this sixteen-acre factory town keeps churning out culture. More than 12,000 people use its basement rehearsal rooms and dingy offices and Juilliard classrooms. A million live within fifteen minutes, and on a busy Saturday, 30,000 ticket-buyers come and go. I’ve been hanging around Lincoln Center for two of its five decades, and as a critic who writes about music and architecture, I have a complicated relationship with the place. I usually arrive at full tilt, trying to keep my stride unbroken all the way to my seat. I hurry down the cheerless cinderblock tunnel from the subway or take the furtive approach from 65th Street—beneath the overpass, past the yawning garages, up the cracked stairs.

But I feel its lingering magic, too. I haven’t lost my jolt of delight in the way the Met’s showy staircase gives the arriving audience its moment on a stage, or the way the costume-jewelry chandeliers get sucked up into the ceiling of the auditorium. There are few more effective fusions of indoors and out—or of classical and popular arts—than a summertime intermission, when audiences drift out onto the balconies of the various halls and look down on dancers honing their merengue, backed by a live band, at Midsummer Night Swing. What affects me most, though, is the phenomenal aspiration of these grounds. Today it’s hard to imagine clearing so much Manhattan real estate for people to dance and sing.

The scale of Lincoln Center speaks as much of America’s cultural insecurity as of its pride. In the fifties, New York was still getting used to being a world capital of culture, and its leaders were anxious to show the world that the city could value the stuff as much as money or military might. Lincoln Center was, among other things, a move in the Cold War prestige game.

In early drawings, the architect Wallace Harrison dreamed up imperial compounds. One drawing by the magnificent renderer Hugh Ferriss shows a domed Pantheon facing onto a circular, colonnaded piazza reminiscent of St. Peter’s: ancient and papal Rome, fused on Columbus Avenue. Ceremonial aloofness served a pragmatic function, since Robert Moses was trying to use the Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera to flush out the slums—to obliterate the West Side of West Side Story. The “diseased and rapidly deteriorating acres can be rebuilt and made healthy only by condemning land,” he said in 1956. “No plasters, nostrums, and palliatives will save this part of town. It calls for bold and aseptic surgery.”

Imagine relocating the Knickerbocker Club to Mott Haven, and you get an idea of how shocking it was to move the Met from its cramped manse on West 39th Street up to what was then known as San Juan Hill. Harrison and his team of architects used an ancient technique to reassure the bluestockings that they wouldn’t cross paths with the wrong sort of people: An unstormable travertine barrier blocks off the temple mount from the housing project to its west.

Yet the planners were determined to make Lincoln Center a democratic stronghold of the arts. Those were years when culture and mass media reinforced each other’s power, and classical-music record sales were booming. At the old Met, the social register dominated the “golden horseshoe” of private boxes; the new house had more mid-priced seats, and the other theaters did away with private family boxes altogether. Nearly half of Lincoln Center was open to the sky, creating a civic space.

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