A new West Side Story is being written in Manhattan this year. The Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the largest cultural complex in the world, is undergoing its first architectural transformation since its 1959 groundbreaking.

Already underway, Lincoln Center’s 65th Street redesign project will establish a new translucent pedestrian gateway to the 16-acre cultural complex, which is home to 12 performing-arts organizations that welcome, educate, employ and entertain millions of people every year.

Originally built in the High Modern style so popular in the mid-20th century, the complex drew several world-famous architects of the time who designed several of the center’s travertine marble buildings. The designers included Max Abramovitz of Harrison & Abramovitz; Philip Johnson of Philip Johnson Associates; Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; and Pietro Belluschi, with associate architects Helge Westermann and Eduardo Catalano.

“The architects that participated in the original design were used to making the highest abstract modern work,” says Charles Renfro, partner, Diller Scofidio + Renfro. “That is best represented in several buildings of the UN headquarters, where several of these architects had been involved. With this complex, there was a challenge to evoke the classical symmetry that cultural institutions tend to hang their cultural identities on.”Today another world-class architectural team led by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with FoxFowle Architects PC has undertaken the task of honoring and building upon the center’s architectural, cultural and economic significance.

“The inspiration for the design was Lincoln Center itself,” says Renfro. “Our proposal grew out of the DNA of Lincoln Center. We tried to capitalize on the things that were already working well and getting rid of the things that weren’t working so well.”The $489-million 65th Street project broke ground in March and has been called an “architectural striptease” that will shear away the concrete walls and make the street more pedestrian- and patron-friendly.

“Our goals were to make it more transparent, to make it more spectacular, to lighten the architecture,” says Renfro. “Not only was it modern, it was actually brutalism modern, meaning it used exposed concrete, very heavy members. It’s a very oppressive feeling and we are trying to take that feeling away, while having a great deal of respect for the original intention of the architects.”

To be completed by 2009 in time for the center’s 50th anniversary, the project will create a vibrant new cultural corridor that spans West 65th Street from Broadway to Amsterdam Avenue, uniting the street with the surrounding cityscape. By extending the threshold of Lincoln Center, the campus is opened up to encourage the interaction of artists, teachers, students and the public. The project includes major facility expansion and enhancement; the transformation of the North Plaza, one of the most important public spaces on campus; and the complete redesign of West 65th Street highlighted by a dramatic new street-level identity program for six resident organizations. These include the Juilliard School, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Lincoln Center Theater, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts Inc., the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the School of American Ballet.

“These are world-class institutions and, if you walk down 65th Street, you have to ask where is the Film Society? Where is the Lincoln Center Theater?,” says Reynold Levy, president of Lincoln Center Inc. “The block is really now a kind of an anonymous block, almost a service block, and yet tens of thousands of people walk to our facilities on that block, and we believe when the work is completed hundreds of thousands more will.”Levy says there were several motivations for the 65th Street Project but none more pressing than “to open up the campus to make it much more inviting, welcoming, accessible and enjoyable to be here. This will be a place where you can relax, a place where you can meet a friend, have a drink and sit in some shade, a place where you can read, or a place where you can take out your computer and check your email.”

These were certainly not the objectives of the original center, which cleared the substandard housing that was predominant in the area. Today, as society and the neighborhood has changed, so must the center, says Renfro.

“In the original design there was a functional aspiration, which sought to localize the different users,” explains Renfro. “So cars had their place. Pedestrians had their place. I don’t think it was as much about crime, as it was about a functional clarity and the kind of grand expression of capitalism actually. In recent years, there has been a general trend in urban design to revive the street. Our design is participating in that general trend.”To expose the street to natural light, the 12-foot concrete bridge over 65th Street will be replaced with a translucent bridge, while the street will be narrowed by 12 feet to allow for an expanded pedestrian walkway with benches, trees, lighting and interactive signage.

“The entire 65th Street corridor will be bathed in light instead of the dark freeway that it is now,” says Peter Malkin, president of W&M Properties and co-chair of the Lincoln Center Real Estate and Construction Council. “That will be a tremendous improvement.”

The upgrades and enhancements to the public spaces are a correction in the existing design. “One of the diagnoses of the problem from the original center was that so many people were involved that the public space suffered,” explains Renfro. “There was no consensus between the different architects on how to execute the common space. They did have a landscape architect, who was in charge of all of the plaza. The sense was that his work was so downplayed and overshadowed by the pieces of architecture that it never received the money or attention it should have from the beginning. We are trying to correct a mistake from the original plan.”

Once completed, the street will come to life, drawing the public, patrons and students worldwide. “It’s not only Lincoln Center, it’s the entire neighborhood that is going to benefit from the project. Lincoln Center is the heart of the Lincoln Center Square neighborhood,” says John Avlon, president Jeffries Morris Inc. and co-chair of the Lincoln Center Real Estate and Construction Council. “It will enhance the inter-flow between Lincoln Center and the community. Lincoln Center was a well-designed and well-planned multi-building institution, but somehow the well planning and good design fell asleep when they were looking at 65th Street.”

The project also includes an extensive renovation of Alice Tully Hall. One of the most utilized—yet under-recognized—venues at Lincoln Center, Alice Tully Hall has never undergone a major renovation. New seating will be installed as well as interactive signage at the Broadway Plaza. In addition, the main entrance to the Juilliard School will be brought down to street level, exposing the interior by replacing the stone façade with a sheer glass wall. The school’s upper level will also be expanded by 45,000 sf.

One of the biggest challenges was bringing a general consensus to the overall design among the 12 constituents at Lincoln Center, which contributes $1.5 billion annually into the metropolitan area, employs the equivalent of 6,000 people full-time, and educates 2,000 full-time students and several thousand part-time community students. It draws five million people a year, of which 3.4 million are ticket buyers, says Levy.

Besides those organizations that are to be the focus of the 65th Street Project, Lincoln Center also has six other cultural organizations: the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, the New York Ballet, the New York City Opera, the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts and Jazz at Lincoln Center. All companies will continue to operate their full schedule during the renovation.

“The biggest challenge was that it is an operating performing arts institution,” says Renfro. “In addition, we have had to work very closely with the City, with the Landmarks Commission and grass roots landmarks folks to make sure that our designs meet with everyone’s approval. We’ve been pretty successful so far.”

Levy agrees with the success of the design and looks forward to the project’s completion.”The new design will do a spectacular job of retaining what’s best about the Lincoln Center campus and adding to it an entirely new artery and new set of vistas, a new set of entryways to the campus,” he says. “People will be dazzled by the transformation on 65th Street from Broadway to Amsterdam Avenue. This will be a street truly unrecognizable. It will come to life in the evening and during the day. Its building spaces will be luminescent and transparent.”Additional projects at the center are to be announced later this year. “We have reached agreement on concept design for a beautiful reorientation and transformation of the Columbus Avenue frontage to Lincoln Center and Josie Robertson Plaza,” Levy says. “Our current plan is to unveil that in June. We hope to complete that work as well as the 65th Street work in time to celebrate Lincoln Center’s 50th anniversary in 2009.”

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