Avery Fisher Hall's Extreme Makeover

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Avery Fisher Hall Avery Fisher Hall (Flickr/feil)

When the news emerged last week that Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center is to finally go under the knife in 2017, reaction was swift and vocal. "Tear the place down!" wrote more than one commenter on a recent WQXR.org blog post. "The dimensions are all wrong," said another.

Some familiar complaints about hall were heard — concerning its acoustics, uncomfortable seats, dated restrooms and even the lack of a pipe organ. Others argued that a facelift should respect the integrity of the 1962 building while using the latest technology or acoustic principals.

A concert hall renovation is an exceedingly long, complex and costly project involving numerous constituents — patrons, musicians, staff, boards — and Avery Fisher is home not only to the New York Philharmonic but many other presenters.

So just what does Avery Fisher Hall need? How can it become more welcoming to new audiences? And what risks confront Lincoln Center and the New York Philharmonic as they embark on the process? (Over 80 percent of concert hall renovations experience significant cost overruns.) In this podcast, guest host Jeff Spurgeon puts these and other questions to three experts:

  • Justin Davidson, classical music & architecture critic at New York magazine
  • Carroll Joynes, a senior research fellow at the Cultural Policy Center of the University of Chicago
  • Pete Matthews, editor, of the blog Feast of Music

Please share your own thoughts on Avery Fisher Hall's planned renovation below.


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Comments [12]

DWLindeman from NYC area

Addendum to my previous post: "Mr. Russell" is architecture critic at Bloomberg.com, where AFH is discussed. As a concertgoer, and architectural historian myself, I certainly have a bias about the fate of the hall. I hope that Lincoln Center can avoid the "starchitect syndrome" (an ephemeral media event, wherein flamboyant "shock designs" are usually the result), and nonetheless select a well-known architect who has proven design skills. Below are some additional comments I posted at Bloomberg:

I would like to see an outcome that would be restrained, almost classicizing in its conception, characterized by well thought-out elegance and detail. That is, less emphasis on Expressionist "swoop", and more on lots of splendid wood detailing and muted colors, etc. (we're not in Los Angeles after all). Sometimes understatement, especially in a venue where music is the main focus, works best. The design need not be boring--any first-rate architect can render an exquisite room and avoid that.

Dec. 17 2012 12:34 PM
DWLindeman from NYC area

Dear Mr. Russell: Avery Fisher Hall's interior may not be perfect as of now, but it is certainly more than a "bus station" as you have put it. Actually, the hall's lobby is one of its finer features, full of 1960s glamour and verve--it is quite cosmopolitan, and this part of the hall really needs to be preserved.

It has always been my impression that the concert hall is simply too long, too stretched-out, not unlike a giant shoe box. Seating could be retained by either enlarging the balcony sections, or even making the hall a bit taller. Bringing the back wall of the auditorium closer to the stage, I reckon, could do wonders for the acoustics (along with other adjustments, of course, by a professional firm).

Of the architects on your list who might qualify as candidates for renovation of AFH, I think that Diller Scofidio & Renfro, or Jean Nouvel, could definitely do a fine job. I'm skeptical that either Gehry or Safdie would provide what New York needs (both are Mannerists of a sort, and Safdie's work is so uneven that clients can never predict what they'll get). David Chipperfield or Renzo Piano (the latter of whom has designed a fine concert hall in Rome), would be a good choice. And, if he were amenable to the project, Peter Zumthor might be the best choice of all. I think Zumthor is capable of giving New York one of its finest interior spaces ever.

Dec. 17 2012 12:11 PM
David from Flushing

Symphony Hall in Boston is an unusual case as it was likely the first hall to be designed on a scientific basis. McKim, Mead, and White were the architects, but they engaged Professor Sabine (1868-1919) of Harvard as a consultant. He is credited as being the father of scientific acoustics. Sabine took the Leipzig Gewandhaus as model and enlarged it for Boston with changes in design to compensate for the augmentation.

The same architectural firm also designed a lecture room for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the style of a Greek theater covered by a half dome. The echo here was so disruptive that the room was abandoned shortly after construction. Sabine saved the day here by suggesting sound absorbing fabric be placed on the walls. The lecture room then gave satisfactory service until the museum replaced it with the present auditorium.

Dec. 09 2012 03:30 PM
Ed Robbins

As a native Bostonian, old enough to have seen Koussevitsky and certainly Munch et al in Symphony Hall, I can barely refrain from schadenfreude when AF Hall and Verizon are discussed. A lot of people were taken for a tremendous ride. I heard Bruckner in A.F. Hall--before it was A.F.Hall--
during its first year of "life". The sound was the equivalent of the Miami Beach bad taste interior of the hall. The current hall is better, but not that much better. Delighted that it is going to be renovated or rebuilt.

It seems to me just arrogant to have disregarded the physics that made Symphony Hall and the Grossemusikvereinsaal what they are, and of course the Concertgebouw. Queen Elizabeth Hall in London is also a victim of
"architctural acousticians", and the Barbican is not much better. Maybe New Yorkers can take some comfort in that and enjoy a bit of their own schadenfreude.

But I live in NJ between the two toxic music halls. I can only pray that at least A.F. does not fall prey to bamboozling architects and image crazed Trustees.

Dec. 09 2012 12:51 PM
David from Flushing

The truth of the comment of Roger from Queens may be seen at Verizon Hall in Philadelphia. The design was heralded as being in the form of a violin with acoustical chambers with doors that could be opened to various degrees. A comment in the NYT likened these to "100 Pandora's boxes" and sadly this proved to be the case. The last time I was in the hall a few years ago, these chambers were completely covered by a heavy velvet curtain. A price of several million dollars has been circulated as the cost of acoustical correction.

Rather than attempt the tricky business of an entirely new hall, I have often mused whether it might be more practical to reproduce a hall already known to be excellent. This would likely cause any architect to choke, but it is the result that counts, not being original.

Dec. 08 2012 04:34 PM

Roger from Queens

As a member of architect Philip Johnson's design team for Avery Fisher Hall, I believe my colleagues would agree our 40-year-old design lacks the flexibility to support today's new performance formats and spatial relationships between performers and audiences. We designed a classic "shoebox" to house traditional concerts. Since AFH doesn't have the incomparable sound of Carnegie Hall, it's time for a change. But some caveats: 1) let's be clear about what AFH is expected to do in terms of people, performances and equipment, 2) don't be surprised about conflict between the old exterior and the new interior, which will strain Max Abramovitz's neoclassic shell, and 3) remember acoustics is an art as well as a science, with no guarantees of success even with computer simulations!

Dec. 08 2012 01:42 PM
Ian Crossley from Chatham, NJ

The upper tier seating along the side is very uncomfortable because the seats do not face the stage. In long performances sitting askew detracts from the enjoyment of the performance. I hope this upgrade will ensure all seats face the stage.

Dec. 08 2012 01:06 PM
David from Flushing

If I could make an addendum to my previous comment, I once heard a radio announcement of an organ recital elsewhere in Lincoln Center. The main gist of it was, "Do not miss a rare opportunity to hear the Alice Tully Hall organ." One would imagine that an organ in hall attached to a music conservatory would enjoy more use, but it seems that was not the case at that time.

Dec. 07 2012 06:46 PM

David from Flushing: you raise good, fair questions.

Consider this: many major concert halls with important orchestras resident in them, ie: Philly, Boston, D.C., Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Kansas City, etc. have pipe organs installed in them. Most are there due to donations, some were included in the original cost of the hall. Avery Fisher, when it was called Philharmonic Hall, had a pipe organ it. The music directors and hall operators recognize they need to have the real thing there for use of the resident orchestra, visiting ensembles and others.

Additionally, many acoustic engineers say they like having pipe organs because the pipes and windchests of the organ serve to enhance the acoustic of the hall and spread the sound around and make it less deafening brilliant. Some proof of that idea is that three of the best concert halls in the world, Vienna's Musikverein, Boston's Symphony Hall and Amsterdam's Concertgebouw all have pipe organs prominently 'exposed' on or above the stage for precisely that reason.

Further, a pipe organ has a rich sound that is alive and has a presence other types of organs do not have. For example, I attended a NY Phil concert which featured music from a suite for a Richard Strauss opera. The score called for an organ and the NY Phil honored that by having their 'digital' organ deployed. But for all that, the organ was seen but in effect not heard. They use what they have, but what they have isn't worth it. It won't be worth it until they have a real instrument that can actually match the output of a full symphony orchestra. That's something a digital organ could only do with VERY large, very ugly speakers.

Dec. 07 2012 01:20 PM
Adolfo Vergara from México

And what about the opinion of architects?

Dec. 07 2012 12:56 AM
David from Flushing

As much as I would like to see an organ at Avery Fisher, there is the question of how much it would be used if installed. Generally, organs sound better with higher reverberation than what is normally found in concert halls. This tends to limit the desirability of concert hall organs as solo instruments. Then there is the question of how many organ and orchestra works there are and how often they are played. In days of tight money, a large organ is a massive expense.

Dec. 06 2012 05:42 PM
Steven from NYC

A pipe organ! Yes,Please!!!!! A PIPE ORGAN!!!!!!!!

Dec. 06 2012 03:48 PM

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