A Concert Hall Reborn: David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, USA
A comprehensive revamp of David Geffen Hall is tailored to the New York Philharmonic's signature sound.
PROJECT David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, USA
ARCHITECTS Diamond Schmitt (Concert Theatre & Masterplan); Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (Public Spaces)
TEXT Elsa Lam
PHOTOS Michael Moran, unless otherwise noted
“Powerful. Confident.” That’s how musicians in the New York Philharmonic described their sound to a team of acousticians and architects tasked with redesigning David Geffen Hall, facing Lincoln Center’s central plaza, in New York City. “This isn’t an orchestra that’s introverted, it’s an orchestra that broadcasts and loves to share,” says architect Matthew Lella of Diamond Schmitt, who was one of the project leads, alongside colleagues Gary McCluskie and Sybil Wa, and New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. Think of the epic music of Gershwin, which figures in the New York Philharmonic’s signature repertoire, he adds. It’s the sound that the musicians wanted their orchestral home, which opened in mid-October, to contain and enhance.
It was a long-held desire, dating back over half a century. When Lincoln Center opened in the early 60s, many of its half-dozen performance spaces worked beautifully. But the orchestra’s space, designed by Max Abramovitz and then known as Philharmonic Hall, was plagued by acoustic problems from the start. New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg commented on the hall’s “decided lack of bass” following opening night; higher frequency instruments like oboes and clarinets echoed against the smooth walls, and musicians had trouble hearing each other.
Many of the problems persisted through a 1976 gut renovation (which saw the venue renamed Avery Fisher Hall), led by architect Philip Johnson. A series of subsequent tweaks—including the addition of bongo-like sound reflectors along the sides of the stage in the 1990s—helped, but not enough. In the early 2000s, the orchestra threatened to leave Avery Fisher for its original home, Carnegie Hall.
The root of the problem, notes principal Gary McCluskie of Diamond Schmitt, is that there were always too many seats for the volume of space. At the conception of the hall, in a bid to increase the reach of the orchestra and to match the 2,760-seat capacity of Carnegie Hall, its board made
a last-minute decision to add as many seats as possible to the 2,400 planned for the venue. Abramovitz managed to squeeze in an additional 338 seats—but without consulting the acoustician. The 1976 renovation, while correcting the worst of the acoustic issues, retained the same number of seats.
This over-density of seats affected the transmission of sound, as well as the sightlines crucial for audiences to connect the sound to its source. “When you were sitting at the back, it felt like a football field,” says Adam Crane, the New York Philharmonic’s Vice President of External Affairs. At the front, the views were often not much better: the upper balconies faced each other head-on, rather than being turned towards the stage. Views for VIPs in the very front boxes only took in half the stage, with the field of vision further cut off by the acoustic wall bumps.
In 2015, a $100-million donation by entertainment executive David Geffen spurred a new attempt at renovating the building. Diamond Schmitt, partnered with Thomas Heatherwick, comprised one of four teams invited to participate in a limited design competition to redesign the New York Philharmonic’s home. In response to the client’s brief, their winning scheme included relocating the main concert hall to sit on the ground floor, as well as adding a new 1,000-seat venue atop it. But this proposal would require extensive demolition, resulting in a three-year construction process—a year more than the orchestra was willing to be absent from their home base.
It was back to the drawing board, this time with Diamond Schmitt flying solo, and an assignment to investigate the feasibility of a redesign that retained the structure of the existing building, rebuilding the concert hall in its current placement, and adhered to a two-year construction schedule. (The expected completion, which had been set for 2024 after construction in two phases, was accelerated when the orchestra decided to fast-track the project during pandemic closures.) As the schematic design for the project was being finished and it turned into a formal commission, Manhattan-based Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (TWBTA) was added to the team, heading up the design of the public spaces of the building and providing a local connection.
A crucial move within the performance space, Wu Tsai Theatre, was reducing the number of seats to 2,200, and configuring those seats to bring audiences closer to the musicians. The front of the stage is pulled forward by 7.6 metres; the main seats are set at a slightly steeper rake that improves sightlines. A new section of parterre-style seats is set behind the stage; this area can alternatively accommodate a full choir, or be swapped out for a raised performance platform. To the sides, the box seats are replaced with terraced lines of seating, gently angled towards the stage. The whole is set within a carved beechwood box, with softly angular balcony fronts and rippling wall panels that diffuse sonic waves, improving the distribution of sound in the room. “We wanted the room to embrace the orchestra, so that the orchestra could embrace the audience with its sound,” says Lella.
Given the goal of delivering a powerful sound, the Diamond Schmitt team debated whether the extensive use of wood was appropriate: would it make the hall appear cozily rustic rather than confidently urban? In the end, the orchestra felt that wood was fundamental to how musical sound would be supported by the space, and lead acoustician Paul Scarbrough agreed.
Flair was imparted to the hall in other ways, including in its lighting: in a nod to the raising of the chandelier that accompanies the dimming of the lights at the Met, a cloud of pulsing firefly-like lights rise into the air before a performance at David Geffen Hall begins.
Perhaps the theatre’s boldest gesture is the bespoke upholstery on the seats. Instead of the expected solid navy or scarlet, the fabric, selected by TWBTA, is a collage of pinks and magentas on a purple backdrop, evoking scattered flower petals. The upholstery ties in with a curtain-like felt that wraps the outside of the concert hall in a cascade of falling rose petals.
The inspiration for the floral motif stemmed from Williams and Tsien’s experience of the Pentecost celebrations at the Pantheon in Rome, when flower petals are dropped through the ceiling’s oculus. “It’s a rainstorm of petals—a rainstorm of beauty,” says Tsien. The petal form is also part of the columnar chandeliers in the stacked lobbies, created from cascades of cymbal-like brass discs.
The architectural team’s strategic rethinking of the public spaces surrounding the orchestral hall aimed to increase the openness and accessibility of the building. By relocating offices from the ground floor to an upper level, they were able to clear out the ground floor to create a spacious lobby—a kind of public lounge, open to all. The space is marked by a garage-door-style connection to the plaza, and mushroom-like structural columns, which TWBTA uncovered and restored from the original building.
The main lobby also includes a plaza-facing 15-metre-long media screen that will display bespoke video art pieces during the daytime, and simulcasts of the New York Philharmonic’s performances in the evening. In this age of ubiquitous live feeds, such programming may seem obvious—but the unionized members of American orchestras have typically opted to vet their work before having it broadcast in any way; this initiative is the first of its kind. One can imagine the simulcasts gaining a following, just as the orchestra draws a crowd for its summer concerts in Central Park; both initiatives lay the groundwork for a robust fanbase among younger audiences.
The architectural team also made the critical decision to relocate escalators from the corners of the building to its flanks, freeing valuable real estate for a plaza-facing box office and restaurant, both of which can remain open when the building is rented out for corporate events. At the building’s northeast corner, TWBTA freed up ground floor space for the new Broadway-facing Sidewalk Studio, intended for small performances, rehearsals, and workshops.
Behind its screen of travertine columns, the building is largely enclosed by glass, so both the ground floor and upper levels are highly visible. TWBTA chose an indigo-blue paint for both the walls and soffits, drawing views deep into the space. The ground-level escalators are set against creamy white stone; above, stairs to the balcony levels rise against walls clad in iridescent glass tile—with shimmering gold tones facing the street; and antique white gold on the concert hall side.
These design decisions make the activity within David Geffen Hall visible to motorists on Broadway and pedestrians in Lincoln Center’s central plaza. In turn, the lobbies gain animation from the street, and from each other: the upper concert-level tiers were enlarged by the removal of glass smoke screens, and the addition of promontory-like overlooks fosters connection between the levels, adding to the festive atmosphere of concerts.
“New York is an emotional place,” says Diamond Schmitt’s Matthew Lella. “It’s a place where people feel willing to express themselves.” During the orchestra’s tuning week in August, the crescendo opening of Bruckner’s 7th Symphony filled the theatre with feeling, capturing something of the anguish and resilience of the city’s intense pandemic experience, when the orchestra went on a nearly two-year hiatus from conventional concerts. “It gives you goosebumps, which it’s supposed to do,” says McCluskie. “But it doesn’t matter what they’re playing in there, it’s an emotional room: it gives [the orchestra] the tools to grab people’s emotions and create all of these colours and textures.”
During opening week in October, Diamond Schmitt principal Sybil Wa, who was based in New York throughout the project, attended almost every performance, including multiple versions of the same program. “It’s clear the value of live music is unique,” she says. “Each performance had its own feeling: an artist and audience chemistry. It felt different even if the notes on the score were the same.”
“I watched the audiences as much as the artists, and it is possible that the building may very well do what all of us working on the project set out to do: enable a new connection between the artists with their established and new audiences,” says Wa. She talked to many of the New York Philharmonic’s musicians throughout the work and during that opening week. Horn player Lellanee Sterrett, she says, “told me that in the old proscenium hall, it felt like they were playing in a cupboard—in comparison to the new surround hall that she is in now.”
The uniqueness of David Geffen Hall’s acoustic achievement, notes McCluskie, is that every instrument’s distinct voice can be heard in the space, yet they also combine into a single musical declaration. That balance between the individual and the whole is part of the building’s acoustics, and the powerful driving idea behind the falling rose petals that adorn and encase the theatre. But perhaps its most poetic architectural expression is in a detail that may be overlooked by even the most avid concert goer. The public lobby’s wool carpet, which extends to the plaza entrance, is embellished with a motif made from a single, continuous yellow line that wends its way through the blue field. Many Southeast Asian refugees ended up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where the carpet was made by Scott Group Custom Carpets, explains Tsien, “and there’s one guy that personally tufted this wandering yellow line.” Adds Williams, “It’s as if he was doing a drawing, miles and miles long.”
The path to renovate the New York Philharmonic’s concert hall has similarly been a long journey, for many people. At a hardhat concert before the official opening, the seats of Wu Tsai Theatre were filled with designers, engineers, fabricators, and tradespeople—just some of the many involved with the project. Together, they’ve created a place that the New York Philharmonic’s musicians can be proud to call home.
CLIENT Lincoln Center, New York Philharmonic | ARCHITECT TEAM Diamond Schmitt—Gary McCluskie (MRAIC, Principal-in-Charge), Sybil Wa (Project Architect), Matthew Lella (FRAIC, Project Architect), Donald Schmitt (FRAIC, Principal), Michael Treacy (MRAIC, Principal), Nigel Tai (MRAIC, Principal), Graeme Reed (MRAIC, Associate/Project Manager), Michael Lukasik (MRAIC, Associate), Mehdi Ghiyaei (Associate), Stephanie Huss (Associate), Jose Trinidad (Associate), Javier Zeller (MRAIC, Associate). Diamond Schmitt Design Team—Carlos Calpe Gargallo, Alexa Carrol, Sherri Catt, Claudia Cozzitorto (MRAIC), Paul De Voe, Kholisile Dhliwayo, Marie Divivier, Nick Duch, Hugo Flammin, Emre Goktay, Simge Goktay, Jim Graves, Brandon Griffin, Liheng Li, Christiano Mahler, Maya Orzechowska, Alberto Saputelli, Matthew Schmid (MRAIC), Nika Teper, Brian Tseng, Russell Wooten, Coco Xiong, Albert Yu, Wei Zhao. Tod Williams Billie Tsien—Tod Williams (FAIA, Lead Designer), Billie Tsien (AIA, Lead Designer) Paul Schulhof (AIA, Partner), Azadeh Rashidi (Project Manager), John Skillern (Project Manager), Whangjin Suh (Project Architect), Olen Milholland (Project Architect), Mando Fytou (Architect), Josh Stastny (Architect), Jessica Sadasivan (Architect), Isaac Southard (Architect), Chris Phillips (Architect), Jenee Anzelone (Architect), Sherry Ng (Architect), Laura Joo (Architect) | STRUCTURAL Thornton Tomasetti | MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL/PLUMBING/FIRE PROTECTION Kohler Ronan | ACOUSTICS Akustiks, led by Paul Scarbrough | THEATRE DESIGNER Fisher Dachs Associates, led by Joshua Dachs | INTERIORS Diamond Schmitt and Tod Williams Billie Tsien for their respective areas | CONTRACTOR Turner Construction Company | RESTAURANT DESIGNER Modellus Novus | LIGHTING Fisher Marantz Stone | LEED Socotec (formerly Vidaris)| ENVELOPE Forst Consulting Architects | ELEVATOR VDA | HERITAGE Li/Saltzman Architects – Judith Saltzman | AREA 20,900 m2 | BUDGET $550 M | COMPLETION October 2022
ENERGY USE INTENSITY (PROJECTED)311 kWh/m2/year | UNRENOVATED BUILDING 460 kWh/m2/year | WATER USE INTENSITY (PROJECTED)0.211 m3/m2/year