Reflections on Lincoln Center's Redevelopment

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Fifty years in one's life represents most of what we are and become. For an arts institution, its first half-century is just the beginning. There are theaters in the world that have been in use for 500 years. The performers and styles may change, but they all contribute to the heritage and patina of the place. Renovating them so that the best of the past is preserved while the modern is embraced is a very delicate procedure requiring creativity, sensitivity and openness.

And so it is with Lincoln Center, an institution now greater than the sum of its parts but whose major constituent companies are older than the complex itself. The New York Philharmonic was founded in 1842; the Metropolitan Opera company was formed in 1883. All of the companies of Lincoln Center have histories that influence their decisions and their limitations. They are constrained by current realities (of money, infrastructure, audience preferences) and by a future they can plan for but cannot control. This is what makes arts management such a daunting and frustrating endeavor.

Some readers thought, with the piece I wrote last week about Lincoln Center, that I was beating a nostalgic retreat from current harsh realities. That is incorrect. The article was not a saunter down memory lane but a context-setting piece to reflect on what Lincoln Center is today, as it reaches the final stages of a $1.2 billion redevelopment project. It also implicitly asks you to focus on what has become of the older Lincoln Center in recent times and what that means for the future direction of the place as a whole and all of its constituent companies. In the next article, we will go inside the two halls that have been completed and then will think about the future of the other buildings, especially the most controversial one—Avery Fisher Hall.

Considering the Past and Future

First, a word of explanation. Much journalism today exists as the first draft of history, very important but also sometimes not reflective of the complexity of that which is being covered. Then there is the kind of journalism that introduces to the subject a perspective that can only come with experience. In the trade it is called “a think piece.” Both types of writing can be found in cyberspace but, as often as not, what we read online might be the visceral but unexplored feelings of the writer rather than actual reporting. I have discovered through the civil yet passionate correspondence with readers that some have a hard time—more on the screen than on the page—discerning what is breaking news, what is reasoned reflection and what is the spilling of guts. 

As you know, Lincoln Center is very dear to me. And because I love it I feel free, in "think-piece" rather than gut-spilling form, to express my concerns about some recent developments there that might be doing more harm than good. The key point in my previous article concerned "The Reclining Figure" sculpture by Henry Moore that sits in a reflecting pond on the North Plaza that has been greatly reduced in size.

The pool as it is now is confined and constricted and the sculpture (two separate pieces intended to be perceived as one whole) seems like an elephant in a pond at low tide. We do not experience the sculpture fully because its context—the pool and the air in which it resides—have been diminished. This was done to accommodate the addition of an ugly building that houses Lincoln Restaurant above and the excellent new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center below. Lincoln Restaurant sits there like a dark ruined fortress, one that blocks clear views of the important buildings that surround it. New Yorkers as a people are accustomed to broad vistas—this is how we think. This building is an obstruction that limits our vision. 

A major restaurant at Lincoln Center was long overdue. It should be a place where people who work at the center and those who attend its theaters can gather morning, afternoon, before during and after performances. Food there should range from tasty and affordable to grand and pricy. Instead, the prices at Lincoln are astronomical (probably to cover the cost of the real estate) and the cooking is a pretentious take on Italian food, the world’s best when its laws of balance and proportion are followed. And the restaurant is not open as many hours as such a place should be. As one server haughtily told me, “We are at Lincoln Center but we are not of Lincoln Center.” 

The aesthetic message of this building is a troublesome one we see repeated in urban and suburban settings and threatens nature as well. The economics driving contemporary design seem to require that as much available space should be used as possible, more for the purposes of increasing revenue than anything else. City centers are being more densely built. Suburban sprawl is just an infinite multiplication of the same chain stores and restaurants, offering nothing more than additional opportunities to buy the same mediocre things. And if national parks or protected waters are found to have natural resources, the ruination caused by their extraction is “collateral damage.” 

I am also concerned about collateral damage to the spirit. The metaphorical transparency of 1960s Lincoln Center design has evolved to the literal transparency of seeing inside a restaurant kitchen or seeing how the water gushes out of the refashioned fountain on the main plaza. When everything is revealed, then fantasy, wonder and mystery are quashed.

The fountain used to be one of the great gathering places of New York City. You could sit anywhere on the cool marble circle anchored at the center of the plaza and gaze into the great theaters, to the adjacent plazas or to the city traffic thrumming just beyond the complex. Now the round marble is thinner and no longer reaches the ground. We see the pipes—the guts of the fountain—and, because of the overweening ambition now to make the water shoot higher, there is constant flooding from beneath and occasionally from above whenever there is a breeze. So the fountain is no longer beguiling in sight or sound, but has become something that must often be tentatively approached.

The main access to the center, 50 years ago, was a ramp in which vehicles drove up to discharge or collect passengers directly on to the plaza. It was visually invasive and not congruent with the rest of aesthetic. So it was a good idea, in the renovation, to get rid of that driveway and create steps above and a porte-cochère below for vehicles to stop at the underground concourse level. This would also make all the buildings accessible without steps for persons with disabilities. But the signage at the entry is difficult to see. I have had taxi drivers refuse to go there on cold rainy nights because they did not know if they could then exit. And the concourse corridors have dark mood lighting like the Washington Metro rather than the bright illumination that such as place requires. Only the part leading to the downtown subway is properly lit.

The new steps above the porte-cochère connect Columbus Avenue with the main plaza. I hear audience members complain all the time how slippery and poorly graded the steps are (many people fell when they were new) and no New Yorker I have spoken with likes the flashing lights that say welcome in many languages. The sentiment is a good one, but the medium is visual bling. Is this philosophy in the best interest of Lincoln Center as its renovation program continues?

Please weigh in with your comments about the renovation work done thus far at Lincoln Center.

Photos: Lincoln Restaurant at Lincoln Center; Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Lawn featuring Barclays Capital Grove and Paul Milstein Pool and Terrace (Mark Bussell)