The Twentieth Century Society

Review: The Landmarks of Tomorrow: Lincoln Center and the High Line event

Reviewed  by John M Bacon

Several New York preservation organisations sponsored this promising-sounding event last December.  Lincoln Center,  New York’s much revered (and landmarked – the US equivalent of listing) 1960s performing arts centre, has recently been refurbished by architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DSR). The closest UK parallel must be Herzog  & De Meuron’s work at Tate Modern.   This firm received huge popular acclaim for the High Line, the linear park that reinvented a disused overhead railway line as a smart place to stroll and be seen;  it’s constantly packed with both Manhattanites and tourists.

The format was a conversation between architect Elizabeth Diller of DSR and Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, a longtime New York preservation and cultural leader. Disappointingly, the concept of landmarking DSR’s work in the future was not addressed directly, but  Diller made some interesting points about working with and altering the historic structures – and admitted that DSR’s work on Lincoln Center and the High Line may itself need to be ‘rethought’ in 20 years’ time.

Diller said the work on the High Line sought to retain its ‘subversive’ character:  for many years, one had to trespass to access it, and it harboured its share of drug addicts and transients.  The aim was to preserve this ‘abject’ beauty, to create a place where visitors could have a ‘quiet’ experience and view the City from a unique perspective. But the overwhelming success of the project has altered the ‘strange balance’ that made the site so special.  Diller cited the large-scale residential construction that the High Line has attracted as a problem, not so subtly suggesting that none of it was particularly distinguished or sympathetic with the slow, restful atmosphere DSR sought to preserve/create.  Ultimately, Diller sees the High Line as an ‘experience’, not a built environment per se, not unlike that other great man-made landscape in New York, Central Park.

DSR sees its nearly-complete work at the Lincoln Center complex as an effort to integrate the Center with the City and dispel the sense that Lincoln Center is a ‘fortified citadel of culture’ for suburbanites coming by car.  The Center was a product of 1950s urban renewal efforts and is in fact built above a parking garage, a plinth that DSR sought to ‘erode’ as part of its work.  Diller noted the sensitivities of many towards the Center’s architecture and urban spaces, and noted that Docomomo was among the groups DSR worked with on the project.  She also asserted that they have shown respect for the 1960s buildings and that their main contribution has been to integrate media into the complex, citing the LED message boards on the risers of the two main staircases and other signage; in other words, more about image than architecture.


Diller did not address the most radical physical alterations they have made, notably to Pietro Belluschi’s Juilliard School building and its Alice Tully Hall, which generated some protest (including from Docomomo), and their alterations to the Dan Kiley landscape designs of the side plazas.  Nor did she address their physical additions, including the lawn-covered ‘wedge’ (which in part replaced the Kiley landscape) flanking the Center’s iconic reflecting pool with its monumental Henry Moore sculpture.  Some critics have found fault with the new structures, notably with their details and finishing.  One wonders if these new structures will ever attain the landmark status of the site’s original buildings.

Ultimately,  I was left with the impression that Diller does not particularly care.  She and her DSR colleagues have completed two projects which are very much of the moment and she is already on to the next thing (including the third phase of the High Line).  Diamonstein-Spielvogel did not press Diller on any of this, nor did either of them ask how the City could or should landmark the ‘experience’ and the ‘image’ that DSR have created.  These will be questions for another time, perhaps when DSR’s own work is threatened due to age, over-use or changing fashions.   The event could just have easily been called Altering Landmarks for Today and Maybe Tomorrow – it’s a debate that remains as embryonic in the US as in the UK.

Published February 2013