Geffen Hall: The Wrong Note
The rechristened David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center opened last fall amid much brouhaha, but the dirty little secret about the renovation of the New York Philharmonic is that, except for the concert hall itself, the public spaces—the interiors that wrap the hall—were all much better before. The ground floor now looks like an airport hotel lobby, with patterned carpets and comfy couches, and the main, three-story atrium starting on the second-floor mezzanine, now painted a dark blue, recalls a ’60s discotheque. It’s all off-key, as if the architects had struck the wrong tuning fork.
Being visually tone-deaf is no small irony for the institution that since the nineteenth century has paced classical music leadership in the United States with the highest artistic standards and expectations: think Toscanini. But at a time when refinement is considered elitist, and disciplined simplicity stodgy, the leaders of this renovation have, through an exercise in design populism, dumbed down one of New York’s most iconic structures; we now pass through an overture of mediocrity on our way to Beethoven.
Many design decisions, large and small, worked against the nature of a building originally conceived as a fusion of Modernist clarity and classical order. If its architectural purity seemed austere and aloof in today’s cultural economy of instant gratification, the original 1962 building by Harrison & Abramovitz had—from a design rather than purely acoustic point of view—principled integrity. With lithe columns bowing with subtle classical entasis, the colonnaded facades initiated a clear visual through line from form to materials to color. What we now encounter is an eclectic pile-up of feel-good details nibbling away at pride, grandeur and principle, as though our greatest civic monuments, in an effort to become relatable, are trading Châteauneuf for latte.
First, the Phil got the ball rolling toward architectural suicide through design by committee. No one, from the head of Lincoln Center to the architects, seems wholly responsible for a chain reaction of decisions that started with the vandalization of the building when the masterful sculptures Orpheus and Apollo were removed. Max Abramovitz, architect of the hall, approached New York sculptor Richard Lippold, an early proponent of site-specific art, to reinvent in a modern language the equivalent of the crystal chandeliers of traditional buildings. Richard Kelly, famous for his lighting at the Seagram Building on Park Avenue and Saarinen’s TWA Terminal, raked light on them from above. Building and sculpture worked together closely, an aesthetic unit.
In 1963, art critic Calvin Tomkins devoted a long New Yorker feature to the creation of the twinned sculptures, noting their inspiration: swaying tree limbs trailing on the ground during a walk that Lippold had taken in a garden. Besides shedding notions of class associated with cut crystal in favor of a more democratic language of abstraction, Lippold’s re-creation of a moment of nature in movement—set against the timeless ideal of a peripteral building originating in ancient Greece—was prescient, an instance in which art anticipated science. Within a decade, Lippold’s riff of cascading limbs and leaves would land on the computer screens of chaos scientists looking for order within the apparent disorder of natural phenomena—cloudscapes, mountains, lightning bolts. Lippold’s two sculptures, complementary cascades of shimmering gold-anodized metal at either end of the long, narrow, four-story atrium, were a major, site-specific public work that added a sense of movement and the surprise of disruption to the static spatiality of the symmetrical, colonnaded building.
Inspired by the timelessness of classical architecture, the building, so still and steady in its geometric regularity, needed the spontaneity of freefall. Its tumble anticipated by almost a generation the architectural search for order in disorder subsequently pursued by architects like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid. Arguably, Lippold was there first.
In a city that prides itself as a capital of the art world, in a building that houses an institution whose art moves through time, no one in these cultural precincts stepped forward to protect the visual cadenzas falling through space. Nobody in the power chain got it. Some were counting beans instead. The arguments for their removal were weak—according to one argument, the sculptures were shedding parts, and according to another, the sculptures couldn’t be repaired (and they couldn’t be reinstalled even if repaired). Two representatives from Lincoln Center, Douglas Woodward and Peter Flamm (Vice President of Real Estate Development at Lincoln Center), presented the renovation project and insisted the pieces were unsafe, adding that their removal would allow the Phil more readily to rent the space that Orpheus and Apollo occupied for corporate events.
Asked why the sculptures had been removed, an architect from Tod Williams Billie Tsien, architects of the public space, conducting a press tour in November responded that they had been removed with the knowledge and approval of the Lippold Foundation. He was apparently unaware that the moribund Lippold Foundation is dysfunctional, now merely an address without an office or staff, its archives lost (probably somewhere in Italy). There is no one of authority in an essentially shuttered foundation to speak for Orpheus and Apollo.
Cognoscenti outside Lincoln Center protecting art in the public sphere did cry foul, invoking what the French call “le droit moral,” the moral right to protect a work of art. But the morally obtuse bureaucracy collectively ignored calls from outside, even though, rightfully, the pieces belonged to the public, and the administration is the protector of the Center’s artworks. Landmark West! in Manhattan and the Preservation League of New York State, which cited the sculptures on its “Seven to Save” bi-annual endangered sites list, put on a well-attended online public presentation about the loss of the sculptures to public view and the importance of Richard Lippold. Spatially, they belonged not only to the atrium, but to the Lincoln Center Plaza, where they could be seen shimmering behind the plate glass façade.
The suits who run the Phil turned a deaf ear to the pleas. Perhaps the directors, middle managers, architectural consultants, and the architects themselves believed in their own uber-authority, or perhaps in the irrelevance of art to the musical cause. In any event, people with an ear had no eye. The Phil was being beaten with an ugly stick. Furthermore, the bean counters among them saw a profit motive in their removal. In a closed in-house circuit of bureaucratic indifference, hiding at first behind the fig leaf of being “a temporary” removal and then in the closure that descended on the process during Covid, momentum gathered, and the pair of Greeks inevitably came down, boxed and carted away to an uncertain fate. Charged as stewards of the Lincoln Center art collection, the administration canceled one of the most important (and spatially effective) pieces in its possession, as if it had the right to cancel the second movement of a Beethoven symphony because it was too slow for popular taste. Judith Saltzman, a preservation architect consulting on the project, barely said a word at an early meeting in the Landmark West! offices about the issue. The CEO of the Philharmonic, Deborah Borda, would or should have been aware of the stream of protest letters and a symposium organized by the Preservation League.
The instant they were removed, the sculptures conceived for the space lost their intrinsic meaning, and the space itself lost its protectors. Building and architectural sculpture had been co-dependent, but now there was a void to fill. The administration abhorred a vacuum.
No one I met during official tours had apparently read the New Yorker article, or at least no one referred to it. During another tour, an architect in the office of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects commented that the sculptures were removed so that the atrium could “focus on people,” meaning that it was being transformed into the kind of “people space” that Henry Timms, president of Lincoln Center, was advocating in his conceptual approach to a new Lincoln Center. The big idea was to transform the ceremonial space of the old Avery Fisher Hall, and with it the processional ascent into the concert hall, into a venue that could stage events independent of the concerts inside. The once elegant Avery Fisher would get hip with cross-programming that would push the usual classical repertoire in other directions. Abramovitz’s building, symphonic for its orchestrated architectural harmonies but now recomposed as a pop song, became an instrument of the institution itself becoming lite.
Just who actually set this series of unfortunate events into motion is murky, but reportedly Timms answered the vocal Preservation League with silence, according to one of its leaders, and opined that since the concert hall itself was being reduced by 500 seats, there would be fewer people to occupy the four original tiers, and attendance at intermission would appear anemic. Eliminating the top tier to achieve the intensity of a crowd in a smaller space meant it was possible to lower the ceiling, too, to make practical use of the captured space: the aerial reaches of the atrium became a windowless floor of offices, the only natural light coming off a side corridor. Creating a new floor opened the possibility of fitting in a theatrical ceiling into the bottom of the new floor for changing, unspecified events in what was now becoming a multi-purpose, three-story atrium. A pair of fairly useless balconies migrated into the void formerly occupied by the sculptures, the floors suspended on steel cables lined with a small flock of metal doodads, supposedly sculpture.
What had been a monumental reception space on the mezzanine level, proportioned to the building and the exterior plaza and to the stature of the institution and its music, was now downsized, its civic grandeur and its open relationship to the plaza compromised by clunky steel equipment that seemed capable of supporting acrobatic shows. Timms had come to Lincoln Center intent on bringing in new audiences, but transforming the spaces into a fun house for coffee breaks and laptop picnics on the ground floor and a flex space fitted with trapezes of lights suitable for a Las Vegas floor show or a Cirque du Soleil performance for corporate events has tipped the culture of the Philharmonic toward real estate. The renovation has none of the power or nuance regularly produced by the orchestra. The unfortunate redesign of what is a vestibule into concerts fails the raison d’être of the whole building, music.
With the light scaffolds in place, what is, or was, an aspirational space loses its idealism to engineering. At night, from the plaza, with the trays of steel equipment suspended, we’re staring past the colonnade into a high-tech ceiling topped by a cornice line of ghoulish blue light.
The line of defense for saving the sculptures, and with them the tone of the public space, would have been the architects themselves, or the architectural consultant, Paul Goldberger, who started working on the project in 2019. But everyone acquiesced to the desire to make the city’s temple of culture comfortable and accessible, and as flexible as a multi-purpose high school auditorium.
Removing Orpheus and Apollo pulled out the stopper. A building clad inside and outside in travertine—another recollection of classical antiquity thrumming through the Modernism—was criticized in one of the tours as beige, as though travertine were guilty of blandness, like a beige apartment. Billie Tsien observed in a tour that the hall lacked “glamour,” and so architects elevating color and glamour into a design concept stood a literally superficial argument up against 2,500 years of architecture history. Citing the work of Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa, they used silver and gold mosaic tiles from Venice in walls next to new stairways that obstruct the transparency Abramovitz intentionally built into the space. The effect is completely out of character. The architects have introduced elements from a different and inappropriate architectural language.
In their practice otherwise, the architects’ default design position has always been building up a structure as a collage of materials that give body to design: generally they materialize the abstractions of Modernism. But at the Geffen, they apply materials decoratively. Abramovitz had clearly used travertine for its textured porosity, subtle warmth, and cultural memory, and a Modernist of his generation and stature would have considered an application of shiny lamé surfaces arbitrary and insulting.
In a sad irony, the architects went off campus to borrow tradition from the Pantheon in Rome, where thousands of rose petals during Pentecost are dropped through the open oculus of the dome, symbolizing the descent of the Holy Spirit to earth. A three-story mural of giant fuschia, red, and orange petals designed by the architects and realized in felt on the back wall of the atrium, set against a deep blue, in fact “rediscovers” the idea of the falling tree limbs and leaves dismantled with the lost sculpture. The blossom murals, however, don’t work visually, as the landings striate the three-story mural into horizontal strips so the petals don’t look as though they’re falling. On another tour, an architect from the office did not know that his office’s translation of this poetic idea into architectural decoration already existed with the Lippold sculptures.
The loss of the sculptures is not lessened by the fact that Goldberger arranged eventually to recycle the artwork to a bridge between terminals at LaGuardia Airport, where he also serves as architectural advisor. The Phil’s loss may be LaGuardia’s gain, but it is still the Phil’s loss: they should never have left. Goldberger should have body-blocked what became a permanent removal rather than pose as their savior. Moreover, the pieces that were conceived for the Phil lose their meaning when transported to another space, especially since Lippold is no longer alive to hang them. Lippold installed his works piece by piece from hanging threads of metal attached to new wood ceiling stanchions of his design, moving up and down ladders to execute the details from his own, precisely hand-drawn drawings. His works are not so much about the individual strips of metal, but rather how he positioned them to relate and capture the magic of space and light.
What had been a well-coordinated interior that merged and reconciled the classical ideal of measured clarity and the Modernist idea of transparency became trivialized by a series of aesthetically arbitrary moves missing an underlying philosophy. The architects did in fact go back to where Abramovitz had already been, the classical world, but they drew different lessons, finding anecdotes instead of a holistic vision. The once iconic interior, infused with a sense of civic grandeur, is now just plain middlebrow, no longer idealistic, no longer aspirational, no longer spatially limpid: AM, not classical FM.
Flaubert said that the unforgivable sin in literature is a lapse in tone. So, too, in architecture. The architects’ individual moves—the lowered ceiling, the discotheque blue, the doodads, the hanging steel apparatus for occasional lighting—all erode the grandeur, creating a field of anecdotes that, without a larger vision, boldly and unapologetically corrupts its architectural integrity. In New York, their masterful American Folk Art Museum of 2001 was demolished about eight years ago when MoMA expanded. Specialists in architectural intimacy, they excelled at the small scale of a museum two brownstones wide, where they created spatial pockets that architecturally framed individual artworks. Sadly, the museum was taken down. Just as sadly, with the best of intentions, their design takes down Abramovitz’s design, only without the formality of demolition.
Part of the Tod Williams Billie Tsien’s Geffen commission involved reorganizing the support spaces in the building, and according to the architects, they consolidated and reorganized back of house areas to increase office space and to accommodate musicians better. Restrooms were expanded and “equalized” to reduce lines at intermission, especially for women.
If there was an overarching idea in the renovation, it was to use architecture to open what was perceived as a closed and aloof building in a chilly institution, “to reach more people on their terms, not on ours,” said Timms on NPR’s All Things Considered. To achieve the goal, they very visibly inflected the public spaces by applying a style that had nothing to do with the bones and character of the building or the Lincoln Center campus, from which it is now estranged. Arguably, because of its clarity and the consistent development of a strong idea, Avery Fisher Hall was once the best of the three main buildings in the ensemble, but it is now compromised, and an outlier from the trio. The renovation exits the building from the tightly bound trio, weakening the campus.
Beyond style, the architects reprogrammed the public space strategically, with mixed results. A glass garage door on the plaza opens up to a lobby—now twice the size of the original—conceived as a public living room, comfortably furnished so that folks can drop in for a sit and a read: a hospitable idea, yes, but spoiled in its off-key execution. Elsewhere, nearest the street, the southeast corner of the ground floor is now dedicated to ticketing and coffee, its new front-and-center location making it more visible and accessible. In the other lead corner, an ambidextrous restaurant will feed folks inside the lobby and outside on the plaza. Injections of functions involving food are being used to activate the ground floor of the monument.
The escalators that previously occupied the front corners, originally sited there by Abramovitz for visibility—clear circulation was an item of architectural faith for Modernists—have been traded in for stairs and demoted to a less visible location behind the corners, decreasing the clarity and the classical sense of procession through the space. The architects have activated the more remote northern corners of the building with boutique spaces whose activities, some public—lectures, recitals, meetings—will be visible from the street, supposedly creating a sociable transparency, though in all probability, without much real impact.
The better news about the renovation is that another set of architects, Diamond Schmitt of New York and Toronto, worked on the concert hall itself, considerably improving the famously awkward and cold shoebox space. Reducing the number of seats from 2,700 to 2,200 allowed the architects to eliminate the proscenium stage and bring forward the orchestra into a widened hall, achieving an intimacy greater than what had been offered by the original configuration. Though the architects shortened the hall, they couldn’t find space for a real organ: unfortunately, a digital stand-in isn’t the same.
Still, by the artistic standard set by America’s Toscanini of concert hall design, Frank Gehry, at Disney Hall in Los Angeles (and in his recent Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin), the aesthetics here are clumsy. CEO Borda, who came to New York from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was in a position to know the difference, though she enthusiastically owns the results. An ungainly veil of acoustically porous wire mesh now drapes the ceiling, along with adjustable acoustic panels. A flock of black downlights blights the forward part of the ceiling near the orchestra. Striving for the effect of an instrument, the architects paneled the hall in a warm honey-colored wood, but they mix rippled, striated, and staggered panels, milled to look like sound waves, in a combination that is neither harmonic nor dissonant, neither tonal nor atonal, but unconvincing. To achieve the flexibility of an all-purpose high school auditorium (meant to expand musical offerings beyond the classical repertory), the architects devised fabric-covered sound baffles along the sidewalls that move up and down: with exposed plywood ends, they are tacky. (Pending final adjustments, the jury is still out on the acoustics, but certainly the sound so far is an improvement over the original hall.)
Of course, the hall is warmer than the previous shoebox in feel, but the hall remains a work of competence rather than the work of art that the orchestra deserves and New York expects, especially given the city’s elevated self-esteem in relationship to Los Angeles. Disney Hall raised the bar and has led us to expect more.
The lapse in tone in the public spaces and the overall apologetic attitude for classical formality in a deft Modernist interpretation didn’t need to happen. What the Avery Fisher Hall really needed was a light but refreshing touch. The public spaces of the MetLife Building, finished in 1963 and belonging to the same architectural generation as Lincoln Center, recently underwent a major refurbishing, but there the architects didn’t fight or contradict the design and simply made it better in its own original terms. They left no invasive fingerprints on a design that, like Abramovitz’s, was conceived and executed with integrity.
Most notably the MetLife redesign takes advantage of advances in lighting to cultivate a luminous minimalism: the interiors come to life in the simple glow. High doses of the most immaterial of materials, light, striking creamy expanses of terrazzo, give the interiors an emotional lift. Not least, a wonderful wire sculpture by Lippold himself, the three-story Flight, a study in energy at a time of intellectual fascination with atomic power, was refurbished with the respect that this artist deserves. In the same building, the magnificent Josef Albers mural in syncopated squares of color was impeccably re-created and rehung over the escalators into Grand Central.
There are other precedents within Lincoln Center’s orbit. In a corner office building at 42nd Street and Fifth, the lobby designed by light artist James Turrell offers another example of how the redesign of the Philharmonic might have been approached. In a lobby-wide environmental light installation, Turrell simply hides colored lights out of sight in coves that bathe adjacent walls in shifting hues and, somehow, in wonder. He uses minimal means for maximal effect, bringing the architecture to an elevated level.
But at the Phil, there was suggestive precedent on the campus itself just outside the windows. Another set of New York architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DSR), had subtly added elegant interventions a half dozen years ago that refreshed the Lincoln Center campus. Long, cantilevered canopies with the elegant, attenuated proportions of a cigarette holder lead, for example, from Geffen Hall and the New York State Theater to Broadway, protecting patrons from the rain. DSR also designed a restaurant with a sodded, contoured roof that floats like a butterfly between the Lincoln Center Theater and the Geffen. DSR built on the classicism by easing and dynamizing the formality at acupuncture points, adjusting and lightening its character rather than working against its grain, and against its grandeur and stature.
A more productive approach would have been to understand the nature of Abramovitz’s achievement, and make it better by respecting its architectural terms rather than picking a populist architectural argument with a basically classical building. No need to make the Phil more “relatable” by diminishing its pride. No need to make the institution all things to all people with adjustable lighting trapezes, blue light, and a mix-and-match décor that sugarcoats the building for greater popular appeal.
Inadvertently what the redesign of the Philharmonic does best is visualize its institutional identity crisis, as it chases youth tickets, audience diversity, and profits. But if any institution in the city knows what it is, or should know, it’s the Phil, an icon of classical music that doesn’t need to apologize for its cultural dignity. The building needed a tune-up, not an overhaul, and a tune-up based in authentic reinvention at the level of the music it already performs, to affirm what the institution is, has been, and should continue to be. When Deborah Borda commented in a recent article that the work amounted to a transformation not a renovation, she was more right than she knew. Sadly, the renovation of the building is waging a transformative effect on the Philharmonic’s own character.