Bully for Tully

Photo: Iwan Baan/Courtesy of Lincoln Center

In the old days, attending a concert in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center required a certain determination. The sign was easy to miss, but you could recognize the place by the clutch of smokers perched on the planters out front—nobody else would linger in such a hostile, amorphous plaza. To enter, you slunk beneath a forbidding slab, inched past a tiny box-office anteroom, and descended a short flight of stairs into a long and loveless lobby, where daylight trickled in through grudging slits. Another level down, in the buried auditorium, noise from an ancient ventilation system masked the sound of passing subway trains, and deadened the music. The procession suggested a highbrow speakeasy, as if there were something furtive about all that chamber music going on inside.

The freshly renovated Tully announces its presence with a sharp prow that steers toward Broadway, riding a spray of light. A building that once girded itself in concrete now slips easily between outside and in. The ceiling becomes a canopy that shelters a sidewalk grandstand, which in turn offers a view of the great indoors. The hall has shed its armor, and a wraparound glass wall proudly makes lingering in the lobby a spectator sport—a free activity, since tickets get collected farther inside. A wall paneled in Brazilian bloodwood undulates alluringly, and in a space that once barely tolerated a coffee stand, a huge, aerodynamic limestone bar appears poised for takeoff.

Mindful that Lincoln Center is a performer’s habitat, the architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro (in collaboration with FXFowle) have given the hall’s public face a fresh sense of spectacle. Donors survey the lobby scene from a see-through loft, a lookout doubling as a display case. Another glass-fronted box hangs from the canopy on the façade; it’s a mirrored studio offering passersby a glimpse of dancers at work. This renovation triumphs because at every juncture, it avoids architectural wowmanship and directs attention to the artistic labor going on inside.

The auditorium has retained its shell. There was no flexibility to reshape the space or move the awkward side entrances to the back, though a new stage does flow out into the hall, bringing musicians and listeners closer together. Working around the edges provided just enough leeway to fashion a completely new experience. The designers have dubbed the feat “architecture in eighteen inches,” because that is the distance between the hall’s old bones and its new skin. Subtle lighting hides behind the wood veneer, so that when the house goes dark, the walls emit a reddish glow. Swooping balconies, wavy panels, and the stage’s shapely lip make the room feel soft and inviting.

A string quartet played Schubert and Beethoven on the day I wandered around the empty hall. The acoustic experience was hardly pure—construction continued just beyond the double doors, and the space lacked a sound-absorbing audience—but still the music rang out bright and warm, especially in the balcony. Complicated contrapuntal passages sounded clear, pianissimos had an unforced vibrancy, and when the music stopped I heard the balm of genuine silence. It will take some time and many concerts to be sure, but I suspect that Alice Tully Hall has become what it should have been all along: the finest home for chamber music in New York.

The hall occupies a corner in the Juilliard School, designed in 1969 by Pietro Belluschi, with Eduardo Catalano and Helge Westermann, in a style that might be called tutu brutalism, all ironbound concrete dressed in delicate travertine. The building’s inward-looking severity makes a certain sense: After all, a student bassoonist dwells mostly in a soundproofed cell with nothing but a chair and a music stand. Belluschi’s austerely regular façade hides an intricate warren of interiors, and Diller Scofidio + Renfro have ingeniously carved out more useful acreage, even as they have hacked away sections of its carapace. Peek through the new glass wall on 65th Street, for example, and you can spy the sunken concrete barrel of the building’s other auditorium, Juilliard’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater, in its original state, a diorama of burly sixties architecture.

The renovation completes the first act in the overhaul of Lincoln Center, a project that began several business cycles ago and will continue well into the future. Diller Scofidio + Renfro won the job because they were among the few competitors who professed affection for Lincoln Center’s classicizing modernism and didn’t itch to raze the whole thing and start over. Instead, they are performing what they call “architectural striptease,” peeling the buildings back to their essence. It should really be called architectural therapy, since the goal is to improve the complex’s personality more than its appearance. The first intervention was to excise the Milstein Bridge, a depressing overpass that had been thrown across 65th Street from the main campus to Juilliard’s second-story door. Eventually it will be replaced by a simpler bridge, but for now the school stands proudly free, its entrance where it should be, down on the soon-to-be-rejuvenated cross street.

The new incarnation simultaneously honors and reinvents the original. Forcing together old and new has resulted inevitably in some funky corners and sloping floors, but there is not a thoughtless move on view. Even as the wedge-shaped addition undoes the proportions of Belluschi’s implacable rectangle, it finally brings the building into harmony with Broadway. Along 65th Street, the transition from old to new is executed with impeccable class. The architects returned to the section of the Italian quarry that produced the original travertine—virtually dormant for 40 years—so the extension is clothed in the very same stone. But continuity does not gloss over change. The regular march of windows begins to fragment at the seam, like a digital image dissolving into squares. By the time you turn the corner, a double flight of red steel stairs slashes across the glass façade. Look up from the street and you may notice some students banging out a metallic tune by hopping from step to sounding step. A building so sensitively designed for music can literally sing.

Alice Tully Hall
At Lincoln Center.
Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

Bully for Tully