interior of David Geffen Hall with orchestra playing

David Geffen Hall Fixes Decades of Architectural Missteps

The new home of the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center aims to improve both its acoustic qualities and community standing.

A visually arresting space originally designed by Max Abramovitz, the home of the New York Philharmonic has always been impressive. In her New York Times review, Ada Louise Huxtable celebrated how its tapered travertine-faced columns and delicate curves express the structural forces of their concrete loads to form elegant arcades. With the caveat that it needed to perform acoustically—and the jury was still out—Huxtable appreciated how the interior came to life during intermissions, with audiences visible through the glass-walled foyer and tiered promenades, bringing a “stream of animation and color” to the city.

“The quality of being inside a musical instrument, that’s our theme.”

Gary McCluskie, principal and lead designer, Diamond Schmitt

It was a civic monument, for sure. In 1962, the philharmonic was the first building to open to the public at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, comprising the New York City Ballet, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and Juilliard School of Music. But Huxtable’s caveat about the acoustics was either a premonition or an already whispered rumor. Its sound quality was poor, and it remained infamously troubled through a series of renovations, including a reconfiguration of the balconies and dampers in 1970, a reconstruction of the entire hall in 1976, and another minor effort in 1992.

This time the demolition went even further, carving back the walls within the former Avery Fisher Hall and practically building a new structure inside its footprint. Judging by the orchestra’s exquisite preview rehearsals and its opening day performance, they finally got it right. Principally designed by Toronto-based Diamond Schmitt—responsible, most notably, for a center for the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto in 2006, the Maison Symphonique de Montréal in 2011, and the Mariinsky II opera house in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2013—with Tod Williams Billie Tsien as public space subconsultants, and ultimately, close collaborators, the philharmonic now named for record-and-film magnate David Geffen was extensively tested in advance by acoustic engineer Paul Scarbrough of Akustiks using the latest sound modeling technology.

More from Metropolis

To reshape the main performance space, now named the Wu Tsai Theater, they removed and stepped in the side walls at the ground level. The balconies were cut back to their bases, reshaped and re-raked. The proscenium arch was removed in favor of a more intimate audience arrangement closer to the performers. The rake of the orchestra and seating was sharply increased to improve sight lines for both. Along the way, the hall’s maximum capacity fell from 2,738 to 2,300.

lobby with gold walls, blue ceilings, and carpet
staircase and lobby with gold walls, blue ceilings, and carpet

“The first ideas weren’t necessarily acoustic,” says Gary McCluskie, principal and lead designer for Diamond Schmitt. “It was experiential. Could we be closer to the music? Could we be around the musicians? That’s a social idea.”

An assortment of acoustic panels, reflectors, undulating sound-absorbing-and-reflecting solid beech wood millwork, and horizontal slats around the stage allow the entire hall to be tuned for different levels of sonic intensity. Ten adjustable acoustic panels allow musicians in the orchestra to hear their discrete instruments within the crescendo of minutely timed vibrations emanating around them. For amplified events, fabric dampeners attach to the walls.

“It was a real back and forth composition [with Paul Scarbrough] to create this undulating rippling wall effect which has a fundamental purpose of acoustic reflecting. It’s so much about how we in the audience feel in the room as well,” McCluskie says.

The custom seating, with rose-petal fabric designed by TWBT and manufactured by Maharam, contributes a warm feel and helps with acoustics. Rows added on a parterre above and behind the stage are especially inexpensively priced and offer an embodied aural experience, placing the audience almost inside the orchestra. Face to face with the conductor from the perspective of the musicians, the hall becomes like an instrument played by the performers. These will be hot tickets.

exterior of David Geffen Hall

“The quality of being inside a musical instrument, that’s our theme,” McCluskie says. “The experience at the parterre level, there’s a warmth and envelopment that is really present. I love that with the orchestra there you can zero in and focus aurally and visually on an element of the music. The sound up there is so full.”

During film screenings, special events, and corporate product releases, a retractable screen rolls down above the stage. They rolled it out during the opening day concert, a composition by Trinidad-native jazz trumpeter and composer Etienne Charles that remembers the Black, Puerto Rican, and Afro-Caribbean San Juan Hill community destroyed by Lincoln Center. In the late 1950s, New York’s civic leaders and power brokers diverted federal urban renewal funds earmarked for the demolition of slums and construction of affordable housing to build a highbrow cultural center. San Juan Hill disappeared forever.

Lincoln Center intends to reclaim this history. A mural by Nina Chanel Abney, titled San Juan Heal, covers the north facade on 65th Street. Warm and inviting public spaces designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien are meant to welcome a wider audience into the space and open its ground-level to the active pedestrian life of Broadway. Offices and an escalator were moved up and back, away from the facade, creating a 100-person Sidewalk Studio dedicated to small concerts, DJs, and special events. A video screen backdrop and metallic string curtains play with transparency and layering effects. A new ticket booth on the southeast corner is open from Broadway in addition to the main entrance from the plaza. The glass-canopied entry ramp belongs to Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s 2009 Lincoln Center public space redesign. 

entry way to david geffen hall

Significantly, the lobby has been opened and extended back, exposing Abramovitz’s original structural columns, which appear like shapely bollards anchoring a freight ship. “This is to be a living room,” says Williams, “It’s important to be inviting.” TWBT carpeted the lobby in a custom deep blue walk-off mat and furnished it with colorful sofas and lounge chairs. Visitors are served by a bar and café as well as an Afro-Caribbean restaurant by James Beard Award-winning chef Kwame Onwuachi. A screen extending nearly its entire width shows lounge patrons live concerts happening inside for free. The rest of the time, a video piece by Jacolby Satterwhite, An Eclectic Dance to the Music of Time, animates the screen.

At intermission, patrons luxuriate in an expanded glass-walled promenade on the second level. Diaphanous curtains, rose-petal felt accent walls, brass chandeliers, a black granite bar, and terrazzo floors with inlaid bronze accentuate the space’s soaring ceilings, which are painted a deep blue. The translucent facade steps out to two arcaded terraces overlooking the plaza and the ballet theater, again animating the city with life.

“It’s not just that we’re here and you must come to us,” says Deborah Borda, president and CEO of the New York Philharmonic. “We want to invite you to come to us. Everything about this building is meant to be inviting.”

interior of david geffen hall with orchestra performing

Would you like to comment on this article? Send your thoughts to: [email protected]