Like most people with access to the American media, I've seen Lincoln Center from time to time as a still or video image, but I'd never gotten around to seeing myself. It never was a high priority, and if I'd had more time last week, I would have gone somewhere else -- I really wanted to see some of the collection at the Met again, for example, after 20 years -- but limited time meant a limited, though not worthless, objective. So I walked to Lincoln Center from Times Square.
As a site for cultural institutions, Lincoln Center certainly has heft. But as I sat there on that sunny day, one thing impressed me most of all: the place is dated. Badly dated. No one would propose such a development now, thank God.
When I got back, I did a little looking around (hardly exhaustive), and got the distinct impression that the design doesn't make too many lists of the architectural marvels of New York City. I found the following at preserve.org, which shed some light on its origins in the 1950s:
Modern Icon: Lincoln Center
By Kathleen Randall
(Randall is a graduate of Columbia University's Historic Preservation Program)
"Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (1955-1969) marked the first gathering of major performing arts institutions of an American metropolis into a centralized location... From its conception, the nation's first 'cultural center' was promoted as a source of benefits that went well beyond providing new performance spaces for ballet, opera, symphony and drama. Commentary surrounding the project documents how the Center's visionaries instilled it with a mission so large it included slowing popular culture's assault on the traditional arts, promoting cultural exchange throughout the world, democratizing the arts and even rescuing middle-class from a dangerous abundance of leisure time.
[Ha-ha ho-ho hee-hee, I would gladly risk the perils of an abundance of leisure time. But that's only one of those things that futurologists predicted that didn't pan out, like cars that drive themselves.]
"These goals demanded a visibility and monumentality, which were achieved by clustering the arts institutions on a super block site and by an architecture wholly different from the surrounding Upper West Side neighborhood. The site was made possible through Robert Moses' Lincoln Square urban renewal project -- a massive undertaking that originally included a skyscraper hotel, commercial theaters and a fashion center along with a new opera house... The project displaced thousands of residents and businesses, generating a swift and organized opposition that had little chance in an era when 'slum clearance' was the strategy of choice for saving cities.
[Robert Moses, pioneer highway builder. I hadn't realized he had a hand in Lincoln Center. My grandfather built roads, so I won't mock Moses for that, but the plaza at Lincoln Center does have something of the sensibility of an empty highway.]
"The first major announcement of Lincoln Center in the New York Times reported that the Center would feature 'an architectural style defined as Monumental Modern.' What monumental modern might be was anyone's guess. Six American architects were awarded commissions: Wallace Harrison, opera house; Max Abramovitz, philharmonic hall; Philip Johnson, state theatre; Eero Saarinen, repertory theatre; Gordon Bunshaft, library; and Pietro Belluschi, Julliard School. Working with Harrison as coordinating architect, the architects agreed on a set of 'unifying elements' before setting out on an architectural adventure that would span more than eight years. Referencing Lincoln Center, Philip Johnson noted the similarity of backgrounds among the selected architects."
I'll say this: it isn't the worst example of Modernism I've seen -- you'd have to go to the former Soviet Bloc for that. But the public area in between the grand establishments of culture is bleak. It's completely paved over, with one fountain, forming an alien presence in the rich tapestry of New York. There is some greenery in a small park cater-cornered to the main plaza, but the vegetation comes surrounded by rings of knee-level masonry. Which is also the only place to sit, unless you park yourself on the rim of the fountain. What is it with modernist plazas and benches? That is, why aren't there any? Yes, something that people would actually use would interrupt the sweeping flow of the design, or somesuch.
At first, I thought the walls of the opera house and the other buildings were dirty, but then I realized that the stone was naturally mottled and dirty-looking. Saves on cleaning, I guess. Could it all have been planned this way? Could the goal of the "unifying elements" have been to produce a barren, ugly place during the day, but which looks mighty spiffy at night, and even better on TV?