Kennedy Center and others should take note of Lincoln Center redesign

Lincoln Center has a new look, part of a $1.2 billion transformation that began in 2006.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 29, 2010; 10:15 PM

NEW YORK - The vast majority of the redesign and rebuilding of New York's Lincoln Center is now finished. And even on a blustery winter day, the 16-acre arts center, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2009, is looking livelier, smarter, hipper and more inviting - it is a change that should be studied closely not just by the Kennedy Center and Washington's public art institutions, but by anyone who cares about the peculiar freedoms of urban life.

A lane of traffic that once ran in front of the arts center, a product of 1960s car-centric, slum-clearing redevelopment, has been shifted underground. A bridge across West 65th Street that connected the main venues of the marble plaza to their northern neighbors has been removed, creating a viable new streetscape where there was once a dark and dispiriting tunnel. A new fountain has been installed, plus new lighting, new signage and video monitors that don't just advertise the evening's offerings, but give a glimpse backstage. A bizarre but thrilling new restaurant building with a tilted plane of grass for a roof has been added, creating not just a place to eat and be seen, but an impromptu hangout zone.

The Lincoln Center redesign, by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the same firm that is slated to create a new, bubblelike temporary event space next fall at Washington's Hirshhorn Museum, is an exercise in surgical and scattered intervention. In many ways it is remarkably modest given the scope of the problem - a monumental, out-of-date campus, clad in marble, that has always felt detached and a little barren.

A decade ago, the center floated a redesign scheme that would have enclosed the plaza with a giant dome, designed by Frank Gehry. That went nowhere, a false start attributed to the scale and impracticality of Gehry's idea (Beverly Sills, then chairman of Lincoln Center, worried about who would "clean the pigeon poop" off of it). The truculent opposition of important players among the center's sometimes competitive tenant organizations also doomed the Gehry idea.

But if in the end, the center got a less flashy makeover, it also got a more substantial one. The architects have lightened and enlivened the space, opened it up to the city and added touches of humor and eccentricity that suggest both a subtle aesthetic and a playful one. Some version of what they have accomplished in New York needs to be tried at the Kennedy Center, which shares many of the same architectural and design problems as Lincoln Center.

But even more, what has been done at Lincoln Center manifests an urban philosophy in stark contrast with the central organizing urban idea in Washington, which is now about security, closure, fortification and containment. The redesign of Lincoln Center isn't just about remaking 1960s monumentalism for a new era; it offers a compelling alternative to cities that place fear above dynamism.

The pieces of the Lincoln Center redesign have come together over the past four years. Two years ago, a remake of the building that holds the elite Juilliard School and Alice Tully Hall opened with a startling, new, window-clad, prowlike face on Broadway, one of two major thoroughfares that converge on the plaza. It was as if someone had taken a clean, diagonal cut through the building, extending the liveliness of the street into a new glass atrium. It was an early but dramatic gesture that respected the basic lines of Pietro Belluschi's original white-box design, while symbolically anticipating the basic thrust of what was to come: careful but sweeping interventions made in favor of public space, public access and public intelligibility of the sometimes forbidding architecture.

Major changes to the streetscape and public access soon followed. Lincoln Center, very much a product of Robert Moses's suburban-oriented urbanism, was built on a large base or, as architect Liz Diller calls it, a "plinth." The plinth contained parking, but it also raised the center both physically and metaphorically above the city, creating a huge, monolithic blank wall on Amsterdam Avenue, the center's back side. Worse, access to the plaza favored the automobile, including a taxi lane that brought traffic directly to the plaza level, bisecting a pedestrian zone.

The taxi ramp is now subterranean, the plaza extends out to the street, and cleanly designed walkways with glass canopies offer some protection from the elements and offer a symbolic welcome. The width of West 65th Street has also been narrowed and new attractions now front it, including access to the center's new restaurant and a movie theater. It doesn't yet have the gritty patina of a real urban street, but it feels reborn, claimed from underneath the hulking pedestrian bridge that once shadowed it.

These are all basic examples of smart urbanism, and similar thinking could radically improve the experience of the Kennedy Center, which also rises above the city and stands apart from it. But it was an easier task, in New York, to reconnect existing streets and minimize traffic into the center's walking zones. The Kennedy Center's design took car-centric, isolationist grandeur to an extreme that won't be easy to fix. According to a Kennedy Center spokeswoman, plans for a plaza across the I-66 feeder lanes remain on hold, dependent on substantial amounts of federal highway funding.

But the spirit of the Lincoln Center redesign could be applied to the Kennedy Center, even without a new plaza to connect it to Foggy Bottom. That spirit is best seen in the new restaurant, Lincoln, which was constructed on the plaza north of the Metropolitan Opera, next to a reflecting pool with a giant Henry Moore sculpture. Lincoln sits under a dramatically tilted roof that seems to have risen, tectonically, from the horizontal plane of the plaza; the angle and sharp edges of the structure echo the "slice" that defines the Juilliard and Alice Tully Hall building.

On top of the restaurant, a grass roof offers passersby a gently inclined hillock on which to sit, stretch out, daydream and cruise. It is a surreal space, a grassy patch of park thrusting out of the rigid geometry of the plaza. It offers views of the city that seem as if they were invented on Photoshop, and it creates a play zone in the middle of a plaza that often feels windswept and barren. It is an eccentric vision, an invitation to spontaneity and informality and the gentle chaos of urban life. Somehow the lawyers never got at this idea, never sank it with fears of imaginary dangers. It feels fresh and accidental, adolescent and fun.


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