March 10, 2009
by Lisa Delgado

Event: Alice Tully Hall Press Preview
Location: Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, 02.19.09
Speakers: Reynold Levy — President, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts; Frank A. Bennack, Jr. — Chairman, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts; Katherine Farley — Vice Chairman, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and Chairman, Lincoln Center Development Project; Elizabeth Diller — Principal, Diller Scofidio + Renfro; Charles Renfro, AIA — Principal, Diller Scofidio + Renfro; Sylvia Smith, FAIA, LEED AP — Senior Partner, FXFOWLE Architects; Adam Kusinitz — Senior Project Manager, Lincoln Center Development Project; Ron Austin — Executive Director, Lincoln Center Development Project; Mark Holden — Principal, Acoustics, JaffeHolden; Peter Flamm — Chief of Staff and Senior Director of Planning and Logistics, Lincoln Center Development Project
Organizer: Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts

The newly opened Alice Tully Hall, re-named the Starr Theater.

Iwan Baan

Stars such as Yo-Yo Ma and David Byrne have graced the stage of Alice Tully Hall, but during a preview before its recent opening, the real star was the redesigned theater itself. With its eye-catching expanses of wood veneer curving over gill-like forms along the sides of the theater, the space seemed to embrace the onlookers with warm tones and understated forms.

The visually cohesive expanse of wood veneer was part of design architect Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s strategy to give the newly named Starr Theater a sense of intimacy it had previously been lacking, Elizabeth Diller explained. Thanks to the help of acousticians JaffeHolden, they were able to improve the 39-year-old auditorium’s acoustics and eliminate rumbles from the subway, but an equally important goal was to eliminate “unwanted visual noise,” she said. “In many halls, there are distracting elements like acoustic panels and hardware, railings, exposed equipment, exposed light fixtures, and so forth. And for this hall, we developed a high-performance wood skin, which you see wraps the entire hall, all the surfaces: the floor, the stage. We thought of the wood almost like a bespoke material, almost like a tailored suit.” The skin encloses lighting and other equipment, and its “gills” are designed to perfect the acoustics, said Sylvia Smith, FAIA, LEED AP, of associate architect FXFOWLE Architects.

The thinness of the veneer is conducive to a certain signature effect: in the moment when the theater goes dark and a hush falls before a show starts, the walls can light up in a rosy “blush” when illuminated by LEDs from behind. (See “The Unnatural: How Diller Marches to a Different Drummer,” Reports From the Field, e-Oculus, 06.24.08). When demonstrated, this glowing effect appeared a bit patchier than expected, but no doubt its novelty will still make an impact on audiences.

While “intimacy” was the watchword of the theater, designing the lobby and exterior spaces of the hall was about creating a sense of celebration and connection to the surrounding city, according to Diller. In the past, Lincoln Center has suffered from a reputation for elitism fostered by its austere superblock architecture that appeared unwelcoming from the surrounding streets. In the original 1969 Brutalist design by Pietro Belluschi, the Juilliard building that includes Alice Tully Hall was “entirely internally focused and mute to the street,” she said. In the new design, a dramatic cantilever at the corner of 65th Street and Broadway not only expands Juilliard’s space but also provides a “framing canopy” for Tully. Large glass curtain walls yield views inside, creating part of a new “Street of the Arts” along West 65th Street — a concept that was first unveiled almost five years ago and is finally starting to come to fruition, noted Lincoln Center Chairman Frank Bennack.

Especially appropriate for these recession-pinched times, the hall offers ample and inviting hang-out spots for those without tickets but longing for somewhere to relax, people-watch, and perhaps grab a cup of coffee. A visible café in the lobby tempts passersby, and outside, a whimsically designed “infopeel” (incomplete at the time of the tour) offers stairlike seating and information screens in a structure shaped like a candy wrapper curling up from the ground. “Whether you’re buying a ticket or not, we want you to come; we want you to stay a while; we want you to enjoy this precious public space on a very dense island,” declared Reynold Levy, president of Lincoln Center.

Lisa Delgado is a freelance journalist who has written for OCULUS, The Architect’s Newspaper, Blueprint, and Wired, among other publications.


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