Philharmonic Board Has to Man Up, Pick an Architect

Avery Fisher Hall
Avery Fisher Hall. Lincoln Center and the resident New York Philharmonic may overhaul the 2,700-seat concert hall built in 1962 to remedy an overcrowded lobby, variable acoustics and other faults. Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

Every few years, Avery Fisher Hall’s board remembers the place is really an ugly failure and stirs itself into inaction.

In 2003, the orchestra tried relocating to Carnegie Hall, in a poorly thought-out move that went nowhere. Before that, Philip Johnson’s 1976 gut job added some aesthetically hopeless zigzags that, like so many earlier and later attempts, did not fix the troubled acoustics.

Hopes rose when the Norman Foster firm was hired to overhaul the 2,700-seat hall on the north side of New York’s Lincoln Center. That was in 2005, and nothing came of it.

Is there a future for the jinxed hall? Perhaps. The success of Lincoln Center’s $1.2 billion remodeling -- from the jauntily tilting lawn and the space-age fountain, to the electronic come-ons that zip across the outside stairs -- can only be inspirational.

The new Lincoln Center is a place where architecture and performance spectacularly collaborate.

And it seems that the board and Lincoln Center are in sync on a project that could build attendance and raise the New York Philharmonic’s profile along with that of music director Alan Gilbert.

Think of the glitter of Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in that dazzling Frank Gehry Walt Disney Hall. Glitter is the last adjective that comes to mind entering Avery Fisher Hall’s bus station.

Get Started

It would cost a lot, maybe $600 million (my back-of-napkin estimate). Betsy Vorce, a Lincoln Center spokesman, says no commitment to a plan has been finalized, and no acoustician or new architect has been selected. Even if a deal is soon signed, construction couldn’t begin before 2017.

It’s time to get on with it, starting with the architect. Here’s my list of candidates.

Diller Scofidio & Renfro: The architects responsible for most of the renovations at Lincoln Center now have a track record and a close relationship with Lincoln Center and the New York Philharmonic’s leadership. The architects’ renovation of Lincoln Center’s main plaza makes the awkward architecture of Avery Fisher, by the mediocre Max Abramowitz, look better than it has any right to.

Frank Gehry: Walt Disney Hall is simply the most exciting concert hall built in the U.S. in decades. It’s not just the lusciously curved walls and the organ pipes that look like electro-shocked spaghetti. It has mated gorgeously with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Scandinavian cool and Dudamel’s rock-star energy.

‘Vineyard’ Seating

Tokyo acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota worked with Gehry to successfully produce a “vineyard” seating plan at Disney -- wedges of seats that surround the stage. It’s a layout audiences love because it immerses them in the action onstage.

Avery Fisher is a traditional “shoebox” shape, emulating the beloved Boston Symphony Hall. But the formality of the shoebox, and ant-sized musicians sawing away at a vast distance, are not in sync with today’s audience tastes.

Snohetta AS: The young firm based in Oslo and New York made the Oslo Opera house a huge hit with its folded-plane roof tipping into the sea. People love to scramble around on it.

Jean Nouvel: The Paris architect knows how to conjure idiosyncratic spectacle that’s true to the performing experience. The Darth Vader exterior of his concert hall in Lucerne (with the acoustical firm Artec Consultants Inc.) opens to a plush, welcoming interior. He has designed a lusciously curvy hall for the Paris Philharmonic.

Seat Count

The Philharmonic may want to shrink the seat count, as several new halls have, for instance, Moshe Safdie’s intimate new 1,600-seat Helzberg Hall in Kansas City, Missouri. That’s too small for an orchestra as costly to operate as the Philharmonic, but a new Avery Fisher might seat 2,200 or fewer.

So why not Foster & Partners? The firm built the ruby-red-clad Winspear Opera House in Dallas and the Sage Gateshead in England. But the refined chill of the firm’s machined surfaces may not be a good fit for an institution that needs to be appealing, not aloof.

The possibilities are bracing. It’s worth dreaming big.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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