At a symphony performance, the most integral instrument is perhaps the concert hall itself. Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall is a case in point. Originally designed by Max Abramovitz, the New York Philharmonic’s headquarters had been notorious for poor acoustics since its opening in 1962. Over the years, several architects, including Philip Johnson, sought to resolve the issues, to no avail. But the latest revamp, completed this past October, may finally mark the end of this sonic saga.
Toronto-based firm Diamond Schmitt (which also operates a New York office) won the competition for the hall’s design in 2015 based in part on its experience with Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts and the Mariinsky II Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia. Over the past two years, the firm raced to meet an accelerated schedule that moved up construction to take advantage of pandemic closures.
The architects’ most dramatic update is to the auditorium’s layout: The stage shifted 7.6 metres forward to allow for seating on all sides. “The Philharmonic was talking about how the shape of the room will support the energy of the performance,” principal and lead architect Gary McCluskie explains. “They liked the energy
of the traditional shoe box shape but wanted the social experience of the surround.” Walls and balcony fronts made from moulded solid beech add to the intimacy, while brass accents evoke the materiality of musical instruments. On the ceiling, which was raised based on musician feedback, expanded metal mesh enclosures by Toronto company Eventscape conceal some of the hall’s strategic acoustic features.
Indeed, drawing from the expertise of Paul Scarbrough and Christopher Blair, principals of acoustical design consultancy Akustiks, many of Diamond Schmitt’s interventions balance beauty with sonic considerations. Sinuous wood elements improve reverberation, bass response and sound differentiation, while acoustic panels hidden behind the stage can be adjusted to either absorb or reflect sound. (During the first rehearsals this past summer, Scarbrough and Blair custom-tuned these panels in response to real-time orchestra feedback.) Fabric wall banners along the theatre’s perimeter provide extra absorption for amplified sound programs — including an orchestra- accompanied screening of Jurassic Park this past November.
Beyond these acoustic upgrades, the renovation also set out to choreograph a new social experience. Inspired by the Met’s signature chandelier, a series of dainty gold lights hover above the stage, dropping down to seat level as the audience enters. “All of the devices we were working with were thought about as personifying the music in different ways. So the firefly light fixture was trying to evoke the way that sound fills a space,” says McCluskie.
It’s this sense of visual identity that Diamond Schmitt’s collaborators, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (TWBTA), championed throughout David Geffen Hall’s public spaces. Building on its earlier success with Lincoln Center’s David Rubenstein Atrium, TWBTA has transformed the nearly 2,000-square-metre Grand Promenade upstairs reception area from its previous all-beige iteration into a monumental space bursting with colour. Inspired by the rose petals that come down from the Pantheon at Pentecost, a cobalt blue felt mural introduces a dramatic rose petal motif along the second floor and upper level balconies. Offering yet another link to the auditorium, two overlooks bookend one of these tiers to create a dynamic of community and intimacy.
Downstairs, the newly expanded ground floor — once enshrouded by curtains that emphasized exclusivity — is now a kind of “living room” for the city. Ticketing areas, offices and circulation were all relocated, granting prime corner real estate to an informal performance venue and a Kwame Onwuachi–run restaurant, Tatiana, designed by hospitality heavyweights Modellus Novus. A garage-style glass door allows the building to open to the adjacent plaza, while a ramp seamlessly connects its Broadway frontage to the sidewalk.
Reflecting Lincoln Center’s commitment to accessibility, both gestures welcome people into a lobby where anyone can now watch live-streamed performances for free; informal lounge furnishings are nestled among massive, tapered columns from the original building. The Philharmonic debuted its new space with a performance of San Juan Hill: A New York Story by composer Etienne Charles, a multimedia work that honours the neighbourhood, primarily inhabited by people of colour, that was razed to make way for Lincoln Center in the 1960s. It’s a shift that is reflected in the building both inside and out: a vibrant mural by Nina Chanel Abney graces David Geffen Hall’s 65th Street facade as a poignant symbol that the arts are to be experienced by all.
The renovation of David Geffen Hall addresses issues of acoustics and accessibility to create a “cultural living room” for New York City.