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Light Fantastic

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Lincoln Center learns a new Broadway vernacular.  

If BAM, the Harvey, and now the Brooklyn Museum are all fresh and alluring, Manhattan institutions risk growing predictable, not to say stale. MoMA, stuck in its own magnificent rut of monographic shows on modern masters, knew it was losing the next generation, and linked with P.S. 1 in Queens to attract new blood. Like MoMA, Lincoln Center urgently needed a jolt of Viagra, and hired Diller Scofidio + Renfro, arguably downtown’s hippest architectural boîte, to bring back the thrill.

Each of the center’s companies is encased in a modernist monument; through friendly alterations, the designers are using architecture to crack open the treasure houses so that the energy of the city flows inside through glassy portals, and intimations of the spectacles inside reach the street. A glass prow floating above Broadway, for example, allows passersby to watch Juilliard dancers rehearsing. Interior and exterior charge each other. Dismantling the fortress in favor of urban charisma benefits the immediate neighborhood; at the same time, it represents an open invitation to festivity.

Like Polshek and company, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, working with Fox & Fowle Architects, also show great deference to quasi-historic buildings. Removing the wide, oppressive bridge over West 65th Street and eliminating intrusive driveways, the architects transform this ominous service corridor by reestablishing its “streetness” with storefronts, lobbies, and marquees. They propose a theater lobby along 65th for Eero Saarinen’s elegantly refined Vivian Beaumont, next to a juice bar, all under a restaurant with a potato-chip-shaped roof whose top doubles as a parabolic lawn for Juilliard students and visitors alike.

And just as Polshek formed the Brooklyn Museum entrance as an environmental field rather than as a focused object, the Lincoln Center team distributes additions like barnacles throughout the north campus in an abstract language of diagonal lines and oblique and warped planes. The effect is as if Lincoln Center had eloped with Brasília in a mad moment. The dynamic cuts in the opaque walls are like incisions opening the interior anatomy for public viewing. At Alice Tully Hall, the architects extend and deform the existing Euclidean box and destabilize the building visually, investing the regular structure with a strange and even uncanny beauty. In an illusionistic tour de force, the architects slant the north plaza around the reflecting pool so that water appears to slope downhill.

Poets of a postmodern sensibility, Diller Scofidio + Renfro weave virtuality into the design, creating a luminous electronic space at 65th and Broadway, its curved organic walls, like an orange peel, inset with monitors scrolling programs. Digital ticker tapes mixed within new staircases splice the virtual world into the physical. The sum total of the digital gadgetry promises to expand the cityscape with views of the happenings inside, bringing shows to the street, affirming the architectural gestures that already open the various theaters. Making many working parts of the complex visible, the architects act as conductors, orchestrating the whole complex into an outdoor urban performance.

In both the Lincoln Center and Brooklyn Museum projects, the architects graft additions that grow from the original concepts into unexpected hybrids. But they are not just making formal alterations to give the institutions an image makeover; the additions are helping to update the culture of the institutions themselves, broadening their programs, democratizing their identities, renewing their very missions. Architecture is the can opener for these closed containers, creating a more porous and interactive relationship between the city at large and institutions that ultimately prosper in the open.


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