Lincoln CenterTaking Centre Stage
Urban renewal finally succeeded, and Lincoln Center's completion heralded change for the upper west side, and affirming New York as a bona fide cultural capital.
It was summer 2011 when I first clapped eyes on Lincoln Centre. The city was a hot labyrinth of asphalt and tinfoil skyscrapers glinting in the afternoon sun, and I was a tourist, wide eyed and awestruck by my first visit to a place I’d only ever seen on celluloid. I’d been whisked from JFK’s heaving heart to The Beacon Hotel on the leafy Upper West Side, where the streets were wide and, as I realised when I moved to the East Village 18 months later, comparatively clean. I asked the driver if I could sit up front so I could see the city, and he agreed, pointing out landmarks along the way, “There’s the UN, Times Square is thataway.” He told me in his thick New Jersey accent when we pulled up, that riding in the front was “you know, kind of a faux pas.” I dropped my bags and hit the streets, sultry and humming in the early evening, quickly losing any sense of direction. I confused Broadway for Columbus Avenue, and ended up right in front of it. Like Manhattan, Lincoln Center, with its monumental entrance, majestic arches, and dancing fountain, felt instantly familiar, a quintessential New York landmark, looming in the summer twilight. Not wanting to stray too far from the hotel, I wandered around the iconic main plaza before finding a spot by the fountain, where I watched guests arrive in suits and cocktail dresses for a performance at The Metropolitan Opera House.
Lincoln Center is so enmeshed with the cultural fabric of New York City that it’s difficult to imagine it was only conceived and built in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, it forms a 16.3 acre slice of culture, and a beloved hub for the arts, attracting five million visitors each year and known across the globe for its world class facilities and performances. Spanning from 62nd Street on the south, to 66th Street on the north, and bordered by Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues, Lincoln Center is comprised of 30 indoor and outdoor performance venues, including the so-called Big Three; the Metropolitan Opera House, Avery Fisher Hall, where the New York Philharmonic orchestra makes its classical magic, and David H. Koch Theater, New York City Ballet’s home stage. Lincoln Center houses 11 resident arts organisations, from the opera, ballet, and orchestra to the revered Juilliard School, one of the world’s leading performing arts institutions.
Following a radical redesign in the early 2000s that altered not just the physical attributes of Lincoln Center, but also the public’s perception of it, the venue has evolved from a conservative bastion of the Upper West Side into a thoroughly modern facility that democratises the arts. Playing host to countless public festivals and free concerts, it also houses exclusive events, including New York Fashion Week, which decamped from Bryant Park to Lincoln Center in 2010.
The development of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts was spurred on by John D. Rockefeller III, who raised more than half of the 184.5 million USD required to bring it into existence as part of the Lincoln Square Renewal Project in the 1950s. The idea – to create an island for the arts in New York and unite the city’s cultural institutions, then dotted around Manhattan – was at the time, an outlandish one. America had never seen a performing arts centre, and, as well as having to define why Lincoln Center would be beneficial for the city, campaigners often had to explain what a performing arts centre actually was. The Upper West Side wasn’t yet the stately neighbourhood it is today, and some detractors fretted over moving the city’s respected cultural organisations to an area regularly blighted by crime. Urban renewal finally succeeded, and Lincoln Center’s completion between 1962 and 1966 heralded change for the Upper West Side, and affirmed New York as a bona fide cultural capital. By the 1990s, Lincoln Center had lost a little of its lustre, and was seen as a remote and somewhat intimidating arts facility, accessible only to society’s upper echelons. In a city forever in flux, Lincoln Center needed to evolve from a formidable arts centre into a contemporary, user friendly cultural destination, without losing the design elements that had made it a landmark.
“The question really was how to make this place more inviting, more connected, more successful – less a kind of travertine mausoleum to culture and more a part of the ongoing functioning city,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger of Lincoln Center in 2011. Diller Scofidio + Renfro, an architecture firm better known for its art installations than its buildings, brought a maverick spirit to the 2006 1.5 billion USD redevelopment, hurtling Lincoln Center and its venues into the 21st century without stripping them of their character. The new pedestrian promenade and Hypar Pavilion lawn and restaurant were rapturously received, as was the extensive redesign of Alice Tully Hall, the expansion of the School of American Ballet, and the addition of public spaces throughout the campus. Since my move to New York in 2012, I’ve become a regular at Lincoln Center, falling head over heels for its breadth of cultural offerings. I’ve seen Shakespeare’s magnificent tragedy Macbeth brought to life by Lincoln Center Theater, and had my senses tickled by the vibrant Gorillaz opera, Monkey Journey to the West, as part of the ever imaginative Lincoln Center Festival. I’ve watched with wonder as the chandeliers were raised in the Metropolitan Opera House, all plush red velvet and twinkling gold ceilings, and, like the rest of the audience, left misty eyed after a devastatingly beautiful performance of Madama Butterfly. Last December, I watched the New York City Ballet dance The Nutcracker at David H. Koch Theater, where the sugarplum fairy elicited squeals of glee from the children next to me, and theatre magic made it snow indoors until the entire stage resembled a giant snow globe. Outside, the year’s first real snow was falling, blanketing the plaza in powdery white. The children, delighted that art had become life, threw soft snowballs at one another as the feathery flakes stuck to their hair. The fountain danced on.