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Lincoln Shelter

Lincoln Center: The Building of an Institution

by Edgar B. Young, with a foreword by Frank Stanton
New York University Press, 334 pp., $24.95

Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc., shelters opera, instrumental music, dance, drama, film, the Juilliard School, and a research branch of the New York Public Library. It has operated since 1962, time enough to call for more than congratulations. Pebble-aggregate paving around the central fountain needs granite replacement.1 Carpeted walls on the State Theater’s promenade are filthy; its seats are sprung. An ominous fissure threatens the basement. Travertine veneer on Avery Fisher (né Philharmonic) Hall is eroded. Money donated for annual maintenance is no glamorous option; wear and tear slowly affect visible service. Much is always skimped in the final press of construction, with euphoric disdain of future patchwork. However, the reflecting pool facing the Beaumont Theater leaks no more and, despite blemish, the several “cultural” facilities are in uninterrupted use.

Lincoln Center, in its physical presence, is neither tragic nor unique. Edward Durrell Stone, architect of Washington’s John F. Kennedy Center, first proposed three free-standing theaters for music, dance, and drama. Forced to consolidate under one vast roof, they found inevitable leakage required emergency salvage from the Congress. Management of huge amorphous civic centers needs tact and compassion, to say nothing of intelligence, goods hard to buy from even the most expensive PR consultants. Lincoln Center, Inc., is a nonprofit real-estate holding company, a custodian offering light, heat, security, and fund raising, the returns of which, one way or another, its constituents share.

It is not a conglomerate masquerading as a Medici. Charming janitors are rare enough, but whoever loved a landlord? Adversary relationships were ingrained from the start. These persist. Personal energy is always wasted which neither prescience nor experience can staunch, but the act in performance more than compensates. All first steps in financing, land acquisition, bulldozing, opposition from the press and local community planning boards, however anguished or heroic, are forgotten. What Lincoln Center has become is useful, its results determined by the city’s infrastructure together with skills in singing, making music, dancing, and playing roles.

Edgar B. Young, executive vice president for its construction, has composed an official apology. Mr. Young, a close associate of John D. Rockefeller III, assigns to him a central influence. Realization might have been slower without so numinous a name, but it could not have been much different without it. Mr. Rockefeller had slight interest in performing art. Anyone sitting near him at a concert or the opera sympathized with his malaise. To him, such art was, at best, therapeutic, like population control. Control, per se, did interest him. Mr. Young’s narrative is an orderly if absurdly partial account of efforts in urban renewal, tenant relocation, financing. Striving to be judicious, he supplies post card captions.

Little is made of earlier proposals, the most evident of which was Rockefeller Center itself. Although the great art deco Radio City Music Hall still evades the wrecker, the large and beautiful Center Theater was lost to office space years ago. In the early Twenties, Josef Urban, the greatly gifted scenic artist of the Metropolitan Opera, made renderings for a new house in the taste of Vienna Secession. The Century Theater, above Columbus Circle, went some way toward an all-purpose house, but it was too large for the audience of its time.

There’s only self-indulgence worrying the bones of battles gained or lost, but as purge against confusion certain basics are best stated. As Auden wrote to Lord Byron:

It’s possible a little dose of history
May help us in unravelling this mystery.

Lincoln Center’s originators, as distinct from those later “invited,”were unified under a single concept. This was, and remains, the control of real property. If there is a single motto that might be carved on one of its walls it is: “Organised hatred, that is unity.”2 The central consideration of public trusteeship is tidy manipulation. Without it, there can be no housekeeping or continuity. It is claimed, with justice, that performing artists subsidize tax-free producer-custodians. Pelt and plumage of trustees are as vivid, indeed as peculiar, as those of performers. Neither has much time to probe the other. Trustees consider artists mysterious, magical, anarchic; naughty. Performers recognize boards of directors as remote, tiresome, heartless, and dumb.

The early meetings of the corporation were held at the Century Club. Catty-corners, at 43rd Street and Fifth Avenue, shone a recently completed branch of the Manufacturers Trust, designed by Gordon Bunshaft. Its all glass exposed frontal, with the vault door plain to all in a splendid symbol of armored candor, greatly impressed Mr. Rockefeller. He was taken with its frankness, its seasonal nocturnal warmth. Lincoln Center was bid to have a glass skin on every face, whether or not transparency had any function. In this he was seconded by Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., chairman of the board of the Philharmonic-Symphony Society, and its president. He was also chief of Corning Glass Works. Today, if one looks at the back of Fisher Hall, it is sealed against the light of day. Despite Mr. Rockefeller’s displeasure, Philip Johnson sheathed the three service sides of the State Theater in stone, which requires no window-washing and opens on no gracious vista.

The Metropolitan Opera, designed by Wallace K. Harrison, serves as central magnet for Lincoln Center. There was thought of a processional from Central Park through to Broadway; this would have meant replacement for the West Side YMCA. Harrison was inspired by the majestic fallen vault at Ctesiphon; perhaps a nearer precedent was Walter Gropius’s 1957 auditorium for Baghdad University. As built, the Met boasts five identical arches with quasi-Mondrian glazing, lacking a centered emphasis, a facade sliced from an endless repeat. To have raised the first and fifth unit, or lifted the third, would have betrayed a formal symmetry, a lapse into Beaux Arts pattern, then aesthetic heresy. In the last century, Augustus Pugin, fanatic of neo-Gothic, detested Palladio as “pagan”; hence un-christian and un-worthy.

Lincoln Center’s overall aspect is monumental modernoid, a style as dated as art nouveau or art deco but less blithesome. Visible through the huge windows of the Met are Marc Chagall’s Hallmark Chanukah cards, less fanciful than the murals in Charles Garnier’s Paris Opéra, which André Malraux, in the perfect-taste of his epoch, concealed behind an even tackier Chagall. The Met vaunts a demi-baroque grand staircase leading nowhere and a minimum of public space. An enormous open orchestra-pit lavishes hedges of sound which only the toughest larynx can penetrate without electronic boosters. Richard Wagner, hardly alien to public appearance, at Bayreuth sank his orchestra under the stage with the sound reflected by a curved wall; conductors did not appear as members of his cast.

With Avery Fisher Hall, designed by Max Abramovitz, we approach sorry science or a vase of worms. Acoustics as an objective absolute compares with sociology, psychiatry, and cancer prognosis. Acoustics are less a science than a scapegoat for trusteeship. As autarchic justice is but a consensus of legal opinion at a given time and place, as nuclear definition is a present accommodation of Nobel physicists, so the metric of acoustics is not about music, but about which expert gets the job. Most visitors to art museums scan paintings guileless of attribution, surface condition, provenance, or subject. Most concertgoers are content with what they think they hear. However, for those so sensitive to aural vibration that presence or absence of tone is torture, acoustics afford a proprietary conversation-piece.

There is all but unanimous agreement that Carnegie Hall in New York and Symphony Hall in Boston are criteria of acoustical perfection. Arguing about the defects rather than the qualities of a facility approaches the sport in metaphysics or theology. Carnegie Hall was not only salvaged; it was sanctified.3 It is hard to cite a single nineteenth-century or early twentieth-century hall with acoustics to complain about. We forget that older halls were half the size of our “best” ones and were never miked. Before Berlioz, Meyerbeer, and Wagner, listeners were more aware of formal structure and clarity than decibels and sonority. The Philadelphia Academy of Music, accepted as a universal favorite, is essentially a provincial German opera-house, beautifully renovated for its 1959 centennial. Its famous orchestra plays within a portable shell permitting its stage to be shared by opera and ballet. In designing the State Theater Philip Johnson held its capacities in mind.

The original acousticians for Philharmonic Hall based their plan on similarity to Boston’s Symphony Hall, a classical double cube, rectilinear and unmiked, of medium size. Dominated by fear that Boston’s seating was too small to offset likely deficits and haunted by the stubborn rivalry in Carnegie’s survival, the board of the Philharmonic pushed for a swollen floor. When disaster struck, naturally acousticians were blamed. Paid for in part and named after a manufacturer of electronic equipment, a second unsuccessful treatment was gutted and Avery Fisher Hall evolved. Philip Johnson as architect submitted to the dictates of an assigned expert.

The new version, like its predecessors, was hailed as “best yet.” Then doubt wiggled. Some balcony subscribers seated facing the opposite walls complain they cannot see the orchestra. Some conductors feel they can’t hear centered solo virtuosi. A fractious, vocal minority in the band admit that while now they can hear each other play (impossible previously), overall sonority is both muddy and sharp with little upper-bass or midfrequency impact, while individual timbres are difficult to distinguish. Others deplore its ambiance of electronic edginess: transistor sound.

An inquirer wonderingly asked the man who reigns as Lincoln Center’s Delphic oracle, who indeed is ultimate acoustical authority? The answer, innocent of cynicism, was: “The incumbent senior music critic on The New York Times.” Acoustics, apart from uncommon common sense, is a matter of physics and P R, not of musical taste.

Circumstances surrounding design and construction of the State Theater are exceptional. A single patron empowered with public funds assigned two artists to build as they chose. In 1966, the Empire State celebrated its tricentennial. Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller pressed legislation for a commemorative theater. In 1935 he had been among the first to back Balanchine’s stripling American Ballet. In 1941, as Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs under Franklin Roosevelt, he sent the company to every South American country save Bolivia and Paraguay. At his first inauguration as governor, in 1966, the New York City Ballet danced “Stars and Stripes” in Albany’s State Armory, transported by special train from Grand Central.

At Dartmouth, Nelson dreamed of becoming an architect. Politics were his real pleasure but he took a postgraduate course in engineering and real-estate, hobnobbing with his father’s colleagues in the construction of Rockefeller Center. He was known to suffer from an “edifice complex” by the time he projected the billion-dollar Empire State Plaza in Albany. He told Balanchine to name his own architect. In 1946, Philip Johnson had redesigned the foyer of the School of American Ballet à la Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona pavilion, using marbleized paper instead of stone. Since the New York City Ballet had no legal autonomy until 1980, it answered to no building committee or board of directors for dilution or division. Its management was sole client. Lincoln Center, Inc., had but casual interest in design. Building was completed in jig time, coming in within its budget, a single instance in the entire complex.

  1. 1

    New York’s 1982 capital budget has just granted $39 million to our Department of Cultural Affairs, a generous increase over last year’s budget. In its turn, Cultural Affairs is granting $6 million to Lincoln Center, Inc., for repairs to the Plaza pavement. Would it not have been more evenhanded if at least a portion of this expense had been raised from private sources in order to assign a larger purse to more diverse grantees?

  2. 2

    John Jay Chapman, “Lines on the Death of Bismarck,”1898.

  3. 3

    For those questioning Carnegie’s perfection or the supremacy of renovated Avery Fisher, read Leighton Kerner’s surgical analysis in The Village Voice, May 20-28, 1981, for wary diagnosis.

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