Monday, March 29, 2010

Chance Encounters

A couple of Sundays back, I had one of my dreams fulfilled. I was taking a small group of the general public (as opposed to a school group, etc.) around Lincoln Center. One of my guests had specifically requested to see Alice Tully Hall, which was fine. Sunday afternoons really are often the best day to come, because we have almost everything available and wide open. I discovered later that he's an architect working on a new hall dedicated to chamber music for the Ordway Center for Performing Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota. I always love having architects on my tour and immediately switched over to include more of that information, although I fear I was boring the other guests to tears.

Anyhow, we walk into the front of Tully, I look up, and standing on the balcony right above my head is Liz Diller, Ricardo Scofidio, and their colleague, whose name I can't remember (not Charles Renfro). I turned to this architect on my tour and said "that's her, isn't it?"

--Photo courtesy Egodesign.
But we both knew it was. I couldn't believe my good fortune.

I explained the transformation of Sixty-Fifth Street and the new openness of the front of the hall, showed the portrait of Alice Tully and went through her biography (and that of her little white dog, Sophie), and up to the Patron's Lounge.

Diller and Scofidio were still out on the balcony, and saw me, so I smiled. My heart was beating a mile a minute.

What I usually talk about there is how great a choice DS+R were for the renovation of a performing arts complex. Here's one great example of why: in Mies van der Rohe's landmark Seagram Building are two restaurants, the Four Seasons and the Brasserie, both with original interiors by Philip Johnson, who also designed the Koch Theater at LC, of course. By some weird coincidence, Patina Restaurant Group also runs the Brasserie 8 1/2 in the Solow Building by Gordon Bunshaft, who designed the Library for the Performing Arts at LC. Connections, connections. The Brasserie was destroyed by fire in 1995 and now has a new interior design by DS+R. It looks like a very groovy, space age airport lounge or something.

--Photos courtesy AEWorldmap.

You walk in the front door of this restaurant, and a camera automatically takes a picture of your face, putting your face on a television monitor above the bar in the dining room. For every person who comes in after you, it bumps you down one screen until there are no screens left. It's all about seeing and being seen as a diner in this restaurant, and a lot of their work does this. It blurs the distinctions between "who is the performer?" and "who is the spectator?"

The grandstand at the front of Tully is the perfect example.

It doesn't look out at New York City, but rather looks into the cafe, into Lincoln Center. For someone sitting on the grandstand, the people having sandwiches in the cafe become a kind of natural performance. A lot of their interventions around Lincoln Center have played with this idea, and I think it's perfect.

Halfway through my spiel, they came back in from the balcony. I said "hello, I was just telling them about the Brasserie," but I don't think I finished that thought. I introduced myself and told her that it's been a dream of mine to meet her for so long. She introduced Ricardo Scofidio, and I was like "oh, I'm sorry, I didn't recognize you" and shook his hand also. I probably made a bit of a fool of myself, but I was a little starstruck. It was almost as awesome as getting to meet Robert Venturi, but for somewhat different reasons.

I asked her if the hyperbolic paraboloid roof of the restaurant across the street had been a nod to Eduardo Catalano, who had assisted Pietro Belluschi on the Juilliard building (and was also mostly responsible for the Laguardia School building right across Amsterdam Avenue).

--Photo courtesy NC State University.
She confirmed that, indeed, one reason was the Catalano House in Raleigh, North Carolina, but a number of other reasons, also. The shape makes the green roof appear like a softly rolling hill, it will also make for a dramatic curving wooden ceiling in the restaurant underneath. I pointed out that they sometimes drain the water out of the reflecting pool and will have a classical guitarist or someone playing music there in the summertime. The downward slope on the southwest corner will make for a great place for audiences to sit for impromptu performances.

By the way, I also recently asked one of the construction workers how they're ever going to mow the grass up there. He said it will be a groundskeeper with a hand-pushed lawnmower, who will be tethered to the top edge of the roof because some parts of the slope are rather steep. That should be interesting to see.

Ms. Diller also talked a little bit about Dan Kiley's landscape architecture. She said they found the public space somewhat cold and sparse, but in talking to the preservation people, there was this idea that grand public spaces like that
should be desolate. I wasn't sure exactly why they'd say such a thing--maybe in the interests of a kind of aesthetic purity? But she said they agreed and disagreed with that concept for different reasons.

They had to leave after a few minutes, but it was so very gracious of them to stop and speak with my group like that, I was really grateful, and honestly my luck couldn't have been any better that day. Had the one gentleman not requested to see Tully, I might not have gone there at all.

©2010, Ryan Witte


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