I wrote this a number of weeks ago after seeing a concert during Alice Tully Hall’s “Opening Nights Festival” in March. Since we were planning coverage of the building (reviewed this month by Suzanne Stephens), I held the piece so both could appear at the same time. Below is a slightly different critique; one based less in historical precedents and more on problems of contemporary digital practice.

Recently, I attended a free Julliard Orchestra concert at the new Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center in New York (designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, with FXFowle). Coming into the auditorium, as a whole, is like entering a sort of seashell. Wrapped from floor to ceiling in a single log of Moabi wood, there is no point of rupture at any surface—the stage doors, for instance, are tucked into a regularly segmented wall, pivoting panels that seamlessly rotate in and out of an undulating surface. Another strangely smooth form comes in the balcony level, a continuous band that sweeps around the back of the theater and then bleeds into the wall just above the stage on either side. The effect, from my position at the back of the main floor, felt like a pair of giant arm rests, or maybe, more eerily, a pair of tentacles.

That night, the orchestra played Oliver Messiaen’s From the Canyons to the Stars…, commissioned by Alice Tully herself in the 1970s, and premiered at the previous version of Tully Hall in 1974. Messaien wrote the orchestral piece after visiting the natural monuments of the American southwest, which inspired him to explore a range of sounds and instruments—a wind machine plays a prominent role throughout the 97 minute piece. Before the concert, conductor David Robertson appeared on stage to introduce the work, but it turned out to be an introduction to the acoustics of the hall, as well: he spoke without a microphone, but sounded and felt very close. Though the hall is not enormous (it seats about 1,000), from my seat in the second to last row the acoustics seemed undiminished. An extended French horn solo near the middle of the piece was performed with a vast range of dynamics and a series of muting techniques, all conveyed with clarity. At the same time, more expansive sections, which included a large orchestral ensemble as well as a battery of percussionists, were equally well served. Though designed for chamber music, the hall’s capacity seems elastic.

Near the end, however, a long and majestic piano solo proved that the hall’s closeness could cut both ways—the musicians seemed nearby, but so did everyone else. One section called for the pianist to play a loud note on the lower register, followed by some sort of uncomfortable manual muting operation underneath the keyboard that allowed the note’s overtones to echo in its wake. It was a dramatic technique, but, toward the end of the lengthy piece, one could feel the audience becoming restless. Finally, during an extended rest, a cell phone sounded a bouncy Carribean tune. It was not only annoying (if kind of hilarious) on its own, but the cumulative disdain of the audience was palpable. Either way, the auditorium performed admirably.

Much more has been written about the series of urban-minded moves that occur outside the theater. From a heavy concrete mass, the designers have incised a new glassed-in lobby that echoes the similarly transparent entrances to the existing Lincoln Center theaters. It is unquestionably impressive, and no doubt an improvement, but there is a bit of a facile quality to the environment—Diller Scofidio + Renfro have gone beyond the cynical detailing of their clearest contemporary, OMA, to a more craft-based approach. But one wishes they might fully relent and engage the materials and structure in a more honest manner.

Though the lobby design achieves the goal of opening the building, re-imagining the bunker-like severity of the previous hall, it is done so as a single, unbroken gesture. This is an impressive feat, but the tectonics seem to work backwards from initial concepts, rather than building up from constructional or material principles—the building is an approximation of the computer model. This is distinctly felt in the seamless glass façade; suspended by a net of cables, it wraps around the hollowed out ground level more like an idea of “transparency” than an intervention which works with the structure and form of the former building. There is no articulation of this surface—very little indication of where one might enter and no variation in how the façade meets the street or the building. Similarly, the two boxes that peek out from the slanted ceiling plane—the donors’ lounge and a dance studio for the American School of Ballet—are angular volumes, tightly wrapped in immaculate grids of glass or white, fiber cement panels. These cladding strategies can seem like willful deception, thoroughly concealing the heroic structural gymnastics underneath. It's an approach that works backwards from the computer rather than out of the existing fabric of the building, allowing designers to work from the image, conjuring a vision and then sending it to the engineers to figure out.

And the ease of the computer is related to the ease with which the architects have disregarded the existing building, creating an intervention of 21st century sheen within a shell of brutalism. DS + R decided to confront the existing building with pure contrast and, from an urban design standpoint, they were right to do so. Pietro Belluschi and Eduardo Catalano’s Tully Hall was a bastion against the street, designed for a Lincoln Center of another time, and that insularity was correctly dismantled. But its Brutalism had value, too—intimacy, spatial variation, and weight. None of those qualities are anywhere in the new Tully. The lobby, though admirably open, is an aquarium for concert-goers with nowhere to hide. The layered, sheltered spaces of Brutalist architecture made for layered, sheltered public spaces, too (the lobby of the National Theatre in London, for instance). The neo-modernist glare of the new Tully has thrown away the good parts of its predecessor with the bad, and perhaps, in the context, dancing with Brutalist ideas would have been more appropriate than rushing to another more obviously attractive partner.   

But such criticisms are for those who worry too much about such things. Concerning the larger issues of the building’s relation to the city, the architects made all of the right decisions, and one can easily forgive them some of the smaller ones. After the performance, as I stood in the illuminated lobby, the city speeding along outside, there were too many people, too many conversations, and too much movement to really care whether the architects’ intervention (and the moment in the field it represents) will endure. In the end, the building has carved out a new space in the city; a more informal, more contemporary counterpoint to the high modernism of Lincoln Center. Most importantly, the auditorium—pushed in every way by Messiaen’s complex composition—sounded clear and true.