Alice Tully’s makeover: dry, dull, uncomfortable

July 2, 2009

Among the New York Times’ consistently excellent music critics, Allan Kozinn is often the odd man out. He writes intelligently about concerts on the margins, while also standing up for many traditional performances and artists of the old guard. He sometimes sounds a bit prickly, which is one of the things I most admire about him. Today he struck a blow for those of us who loved the “old” Alice Tully Hall and are sad to see it gone.

Liz Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, the architects of the project, are freshening up Lincoln Center, ostensibly because the “closed and elitist” language of this 1960s landmark has turned away the concertgoing public. As with much that is transforming American cultural institutions during the recession, Lincoln Center’s motives for changing its buildings and public spaces are rather short-sighted. Putting more bodies in the seats at the expense of preserving the longstanding value of a cultural landmark, the LC administration hired a trendy, “conceptual” architectural firm to update its public spaces. Unfortunately, a casualty of this makeover was one of the city’s best concert venues.

Kozinn’s appraisal of the Alice Tully Hall renovation is written from the point of view of a discerning listener as well that of a regular patron who demands a commodious venue in which to enjoy many kinds of music. He does not swoon, as many have, over the “transparency” of the cantilevered lobby looming over Broadway. He finds the high tech lighting in the new hall rather gimmicky after the first visit. He minces no words about his view of the acoustics and general performance of the new hall–“I hate the new Tully Hall.”–strong condemnation from a leading music critic in view of the almost universal praise that followed the opening some months ago.

To those who have followed the career of Diller and Scofidio, Kozinn’s views should come as no surprise. Like many contemporary “starchitects,” these designers care little about the experience of patrons who regularly use their buildings. They were among the most arcane, abstruse and arid of the “conceptual” artist-architects of the 1970s and 1980s. Mixing performance, texts and often unbuildable collages in their early work, Diller and Scofidio developed their reputations as “paper architects.” Like Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, and Daniel Liebeskind, they professed their disdain for building–that is, until they began to make money doing it.

It is little wonder, then, that Kozinn finds the new concert hall numbingly dull, colorless, and inhospitable to music. He questions the decision to fill the bright, large lobby with a restaurant rather than leaving space for patrons to mill about the space. He finds little to praise about the hall’s new interior. Pietro Belluschi’s warm wood and comfortable red seats in the old hall were beloved of patrons. I remember many wonderful performances in the Belluschi hall, which was intimate, sonically rich, and popular with performers. Why was it renovated? I suspect that the administration and the architects simply saw a chance to “re-brand” the hall with a hot new designer’s label. Their attitude shows clearly, if ironically, in the choice of a new location for the portrait of Alice Tully that once stood in the lobby–a small vestibule adjacent to the ladies’ rest room.

No one questions the need for a larger lobby and a better circulation system at Tully. The original location at the back of the Juilliard School and tortured entry sequence were hated by everyone who used the facility. The architects improved this immeasurably. Give them credit for this modest accomplishment. But don’t be dazzled by shiny new surfaces and expensive technology, overlooking the obvious flaws in this ill-conceived project. Allan Kozinn has not bought the “propoganda line” that Lincoln Center is employing to sell its renovation plans. To wit, that the new architecture will create “open,” people-friendly spaces that will bring new audiences to what was once a “closed citadel” of the arts. Perhaps New Yorkers should be skeptical too.

One Response to “Alice Tully’s makeover: dry, dull, uncomfortable”

  1. Patty said

    I just sat in Alice Tully Hall and can confirm everything in this review. The sound was brittle and not warm and the seats positively uncomfortable.

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