The architecture team of Diller, Scofidio & Renfro have done the impossible. They have made the overbearing culture palaces at New York’s Lincoln Center seem engaging, almost hip.
The latest phase in a years-long, $1.2 billion overhaul opens May 21, showcasing, most brilliantly, the new fountain, endowed as part of a $4 million gift by the Revson Foundation. Three-hundred-fifty-three nozzles propel water from a thin, dark-granite disk poised on tapering legs.
Like the clunkier original, which gushed at the center of the plaza for 45 years, it lets you sit on the edge, but its frothing crescendos and pulsing jets have a visceral presence. Passersby seem to find the fountain totally irresistible.
Elizabeth Diller, Ricardo Scofidio and Charles Renfro have conjured similarly magical yet subtle alterations throughout the complex.
A cab-clogged driveway and hideous concrete highway barriers topped by boxes of limp pansies have been banished from the entrance. The driveway now slips underneath a new, gentler stair with little LED zipper signs set into the risers. They illuminate the events inside the acres of travertine.
Another token of welcome: Long planes of glass that extend from the arcades of the buildings to either side of the plaza. Pairs of knock-kneed columns support these elegant canopies, which bring rain protection some 50 feet out to the street edge. The glass roofs glow in the afternoon sun or at night when bathed by floodlights.
Philip Johnson, the plaza’s original architect, plagiarized Rome’s 16th-century Campidoglio to good effect. It has always come to life when patrons swarm the fountain or gaze down from the balconies fronting the New York State Theater (now the David H. Koch Theater), the Metropolitan Opera and Avery Fisher Hall.
Cumulatively, the changes have transformed the tired bombast of the architectural ensemble. None of the three theaters can be mistaken for great architecture, but now they seem to stand tall and throw their shoulders back.
The most controversial alteration is the batwinged roof over a new restaurant on the North Plaza (renamed Hearst Plaza). The restaurant (did we really need another place to stuff ourselves?) threatened to ruin the one oasis of serene dignity: Henry Moore’s “Reclining Figure” set perfectly within an expansive fountain pool.
The architects reduced the pool on one side to wedge in the restaurant. Then they squeezed it on the other side by planting three rows of trees.
I’ll take the tradeoff: A welcome intimacy, which lets the Moore retain its dignity in the smaller pool. The grass roof humanizes the plaza by replacing a high, off-putting stone wall.
Nice to Visit
Helmed by Jonathan Benno, formerly chef de cuisine at Thomas Keller’s Per Se, the yet-to-be-named restaurant will open in the fall, along with screening rooms tucked underneath on 65th Street for the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The Mitzi Newhouse Theater gains a new entrance and marquee.
South of the campus, you can buy discount and day-of-show tickets at the handsome Rubenstein Atrium, a long, tall shortcut from Broadway. It’s also a cafe and performance space with lush plantings sprouting from the walls.
Lincoln Center at last rewards casual visitors.
(James S. Russell is the architecture critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)