Kennedy Center and others should take note of Lincoln Center redesign

By Philip Kennicott
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 In many ways it is remarkably modest given the scope of the problem - a monumental, out-of-date campus, clad in marble, that has always felt detached and a little barren.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.

That kind of eccentricity could happily be applied to the Kennedy Center, which is surrounded by sterile, empty plazas and access roads. It also stands in sharp contrast to Washington thinking, where public space is viewed as a problem - how does one police it? - not an invitation. Security fears have led to major incursions on public space, loss of beloved vistas such as the West Terrace of the Capitol, and the decommissioning of ceremonial stairways and front entrances (as at the Supreme Court).

Public land, which might be left to the public to define and animate, is taken away for unnecessary symbolic purposes, such as the loss of playing fields and open grass that will result if the ill-advised Vietnam Veterans Memorial visitor center goes forward. Even where spaces remain open, bollards send a symbolic disinvitation, and rude security guards have become pervasive and endemic.

The arts, throughout America, remain blissfully unsecured. The bag check at Washington museums is perhaps the most perfunctory of any program to secure public buildings in the city. At the Kennedy Center it is nonexistent most nights of the year. In a larger sense, the arts, like the architects at Lincoln Center, stress a set of values that are the opposite of the security mindset. The arts are about access, exposure, serendipity and commingling.

Transparency and flow are the architectural ideal for most arts institutions: The most striking features of the new Arena Stage facility on the Southwest waterfront are its giant walls of glass and its flowing atrium that ideally should allow visitors to pass straight through the building. Even one thing criticized about the Lincoln Center redesign - changes to the landscaping of the north plaza by famed landscape architect Dan Kiley - all serve to make it a better public space. It offers more places to sit, better shade - and the Henry Moore sculpture, which sits in a somewhat shrunken version of the old reflecting pool, now feels closer and more accessible.

It has been a remarkable evolution. The arts, according to outdated stereotypes, are rule-bound and hierarchical, enamored of imposing facades of cold stone, and closed off from the rabble and hoi polloi. The striking thing about the changes that Diller Scofidio + Renfro have made at Lincoln Center is that they coexist with an architectural style - the giant columns of Philip Johnson's New York State Theater, the colossal arches of Wallace Harrison's Metropolitan Opera - that defined those old and worn cliches.

Rather than subvert or sabotage or demolish the old monumentality, the architects have simply added to it, a few wry gestures, a wink, a gentle touch on the shoulder. And suddenly the stone campus isn't just friendlier, it seems to embody an ideal the very opposite of the worst and most debilitating tendencies of the other great architectural engine today: the relentless drive to secure public space.

It's not just the Kennedy Center that should take a lesson. The whole of Washington, with its fear peddlers, rule givers, bag checkers, body scanners and barking security guards, needs to take note.

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