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Alice Tully Hall by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, New York, USA

The renovation of Alice Tully Hall is the first phase of Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s comprehensive rethink of the Lincoln Centre in New York, the campus home of 12 art institutions. Photography by Iwan Baan

From its main entrance on Broadway, you might think that Alice Tully Hall - housed in the Juilliard School building on the campus of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts - had been entirely redesigned. But turn the corner and walk west along W 65th Street and you’ll notice that the south facade changes about a third of the block down.

The gestural, shallow square cut-outs and Tetris-like windows folding over corners and indentations sink until they turn into examples of rational modernism and the floors below are the same as the Juilliard you might have known when it was completed in 1969. If you look closer you may notice that at that point, the travertine cladding changes from light to a weathered dark.

There’s continuity here but also, at moments, a more marked break between old and new. All this is orchestrated by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) in its newly completed renovation of Alice Tully Hall.

Looking down the south facade, this moment of change is emblematic of the building itself: exhibiting both the noteworthy successes and minor failures in the evolution of one of New York’s most important theatres, finally as architecturally successful as it is famous.

The new Alice Tully Hall - a performance venue for concerts, film, theatre and dance, with the associated Juilliard School located above - is only one part of a new Lincoln Center masterplan by DS+R, but it is the first and largest element to be unveiled. Completing next year, the masterplan includes a general opening up and pedestrianisation of the campus along with several new building projects.

Even before entering the remodelled Alice Tully Hall, it is apparent that the new space offers a vastly improved experience for concertgoers. The original theatre, designed by Pietro Belluschi, was long Lincoln Center’s weakest building. Muted entrances and low colonnades made the interior feel cramped and dark, reinforced by the fact that the building was used mostly at dusk and at night.

The renovation comprises a new extension of almost 2,300m² and an overhaul of the building’s east facade on Broadway, interior lobby, the upper levels of Juilliard, and a new mid-block entrance at the building’s south face on 65th Street. It is thus a series of moves ranging from small to large, and while the structure and much of Juilliard remains untouched, the building feel quite new. On the south facade, for instance, the architects have also created a new entrance to Juilliard - a significant move because previously the famous performing arts conservatoire had no street presence. A large staircase featuring stoop-like steps for sitting and hanging out leads up the school’s main level on the second floor.

Belluschi’s original building is pulled apart to create a glazed foyer

Belluschi’s original building is pulled apart to create a glazed foyer

Belluschi’s original building is pulled apart to create a glazed foyer

Back on Broadway, the new double-height lobby is fully glazed and the entrance grand. The building’s most prominent gesture is the raised south-west corner and projecting dance studio, which has echoes of Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art (AR February 2007), also by DS+R. Initially, the new building seems dominated by its glazing, providing an unfortunate connection to the nearby Time Warner Center (though partner Charles Renfro did point out that Alice Tully uses a more elegant one-way cable wall system). Yet the building also features several tricks of perspective, detailing and form that indicate a subtle conceptual process.

The architects employed careful scaling to separate the entrance from street level without losing grandeur. The main doors are actually set down a half-storey, a tactic that doesn’t read from afar, but is appreciable once you’re on the same block. Descending to enter the building - an original feature, but one which the architects have used to their advantage - creates a dissonance between the lobby and the street which, ironically, makes the entrance feel more ceremonial and less like a storefront. This is emphasised by the grandstand-like outdoor stoop seating, located just under the corner of the overhang for pedestrians to sit and watch comings and goings.

The interior of the lobby is fairly standard, though its monumental scale makes a welcome change from the building’s previous incarnation. A long concrete bar protrudes from the box office into the lobby space and sits in front of the theatre. A suspended platform floats overhead, providing the first-floor lounge with a lookout. Clad in hyperpolished Portuguese azul ataija, a creamy limestone, the floors gleam.

Between the minor changes in level, the glazing and the vantage points, the architects have clearly thought about how the space structures movement and exchange between the building’s users to create its own performance.

This concern underlies many of the design decisions, making the building, above all else, an experience rather than a form. Despite the simplicity of the space - this area only comprises the lobby, theatre and services - the architects succeed in creating an experiential sequence that structures a kind of narrative. The outer surface of the auditorium, for example, is made of muirapiranga, a dark, rich wood that creates the perception of a building within a building. By distinguishing the theatre volume through use of materials, the architects emphasise it both as a spectacle and a destination.

The theatre couldn’t lose any capacity in the renovation, so all 1,087 seats were retained. Its volume is about the same, though the architects were able to reclaim some height, which has had a noticeable impact on the sense of space. The technology was also upgraded, with automated curtains and a screen for the annual New York Film Festival (for which the Lincoln Center’s film society picks the repertoire). The gentle folds in the wood panels and matrix of bumps on the rear stage wall serve purely acoustic ends, says Renfro. Acoustic design company JaffeHolden helped develop both the form and paneling for the interior - arguably its most innovative feature.

Thin panels (developed with materials manufacturer 3form) are backlit, so the wood effectively becomes translucent. Bands of red LEDs make the walls and the rear of the stage ‘blush’, according to Renfro, before and after performances.

He describes this effect in terms of elevating the theatre itself to become a performer, though to my mind the effect is more akin to aeroplane exit lights, and the sheen of the panels makes them appear more like plastic than wood.

The technology is relatively straightforward: the light fittings are encased in a one-inch-thick moabi wood veneer backed with resin. Renfro describes how they went through extensive material testing to check acoustics and appearance and were lucky in that their first hunch proved to be the most successful. Resin acts like plaster, which has good acoustic performance, so the system was both affordable and performs well.

Originally the theatre featured vineyard seating but this served to create a psychological barrier between performer and audience, so the new layout uses continuous seating instead. The architects worked with Italian furniture manufacturer Poltrona Frau to design the seating both in the auditorium and in the public waiting areas, resulting in elegant, thin profiled seats upholstered in Ultrasuede. The stage, like the bar in the lobby, projects past its base and thus appears to float. The stage, wood paneling on the walls and ceiling and the render of the floor all share the same tones, making the interior appear seamless.

Like the rest of the building, the hall features smart detailing and decisions instead of big gestures and empty formalism. The effect works. Sitting at a concert later, the music took centre stage - as, of course, it should - and the architecture only revealed itself in its subtle successes, rather than grabbing attention.

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