Steve barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Thu Oct 21 06:57:36 PDT 2004

Here is yet another perspective of the new digs for Jazz at Lincoln Center.
That of the design world.

Steve Barbone


Engaging the City's Intimate Connection to Jazz

Perched five stories above Columbus Circle in the Time Warner Center, Rafael
Viñoly's new design for Jazz at Lincoln Center has a cool ethereality that
lifts it above the mediocrity of its setting. It's a reminder that some
experiences become more intimate when they are shared in full public view.

The complex, measuring 100,000 square feet, has three performance spaces -
the 1,200-seat Rose Theater, the 550-seat Allen Room and Dizzy's Club
Coca-Cola - and a Jazz Hall of Fame. The beauty of these spaces lies in
their emotional range. The most stunning, the Allen Room, opens onto a
dazzling view of Manhattan's Midtown skyline. The largest, the Rose, is more
insular, while Dizzy's Club has a cozy informality.

What's so surprising is that all three arose in the context of one of the
city's most convoluted - and lifeless - recent development projects. Jazz at
Lincoln Center was conceived as just one component of Time Warner's massive
retail-office project, overseen by the Related Companies, the developer, and
designed by David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Mr. Childs designed
the project's retail and commercial spaces, while Mr. Viñoly oversaw the
design of the jazz center; the architects had to negotiate the relationship
between the spaces.

Mr. Viñoly's complex rests on top of the Time Warner Center's shops and
restaurants, a soulless mall that has the feel of a mausoleum. Conceived by
Mr. Childs as a series of identical floors on the first four stories that
frame a vast glass atrium overlooking Columbus Circle and 59th Street, the
mall's uniform spaces - clad in expensive-looking gray granite and glass -
are a vision of suburban ennui. Even the view of the city, experienced from
a series of balconies that are pulled back from the main facade, seems
detached. The sterile result is a conventional development formula, an
efficient trap for consumers.

Mr. Viñoly obviously wanted to isolate his project from the one below, and
link it closely to the vibrancy of the city outside. At various points, he
and Mr. Childs discussed creating a series of escalators that would run
straight from the mall's main atrium to the lobby of Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Mr. Viñoly also tried in vain to negotiate direct access from the street.
Eventually, they settled on a compromise: a bank of elevators set just
inside the mall's entry at Broadway and 60th Street.

This entry has the advantage of allowing visitors to sneak by the mall's
depressing warren of shops. The elevators rise directly to the jazz center's
fifth-floor lobby. The Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame is tucked to one side of
this. Designed by the Rockwell Group, the long narrow room is enclosed
behind pivoting cork-clad walls that open so people can drift in directly
from a corridor leading to the restrooms and entrances to the theaters. The
hall's undulating wood ceiling and plush carpeting, decorated in a
brown-and-beige geometric pattern, are a cliché of 1960's style. The rest of
the lobby, designed by Mr. Viñoly, is dominated by a large, oddly shaped
events space with a window that yields your first glimpse of the Midtown
skyline and the trees of Central Park. Photographs of jazz performers line
the walls. (In a nod to the developer's desire to tap into the jazz center's
clientele, the escalators here lead down to the mall's fourth-floor

The lobby areas, which feel as if they have been carved out of the mall's
leftover spaces, would be at home in a neighborhood cineplex. But at least
they avoid the pretentious middlebrow posturing of the granite-clad retail
areas below. Their informality suits the center's mission to make jazz

It is best, however, to ignore these spaces and retreat into the theaters.
The Allen Room alone justifies the torturous trip up from the mall. Casual
and compact, it provides a stunning view of Central Park's bushy treetops
and the axis of 59th Street. At night, the view dissolves into a spectacular
series of overlapping images. A soft curtain of light descends over the
stage, evoking veil-like clouds of smoke. Two enormous glass walls - one
enclosing the room, another the exterior of the building - frame the backs
of the performers. Lights from the cars streaming by on 59th Street below
reflect off the glass, creating a refracted pattern of blue, red and gold.

At moments, the colorful rhythms invoke Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie Woogie''
(1942-43), whose overlapping grids of line and colors captured the vibrancy
of Manhattan's street grid. But here, the delicate layering of images gives
the space an unexpected visual depth, and you feel as if you're drifting at
the city's edge. The audience, performers and city collapse into a single

That connection, that transparency, is as meaningful from the street as it
is from the seats. Its aim is to offer the entire city a more intimate
relationship with the art form, and put jazz at the center of New York's
cultural life.

By comparison, the Rose Room, much bigger, is more self-contained. Its oval
form is surrounded by three rings of balconies. Clad in a dark, rich wood,
the balconies give the room a rigid formal symmetry. The stage, set at one
end and decorated with an arc of vertical lights, anchors the room, but the
space can be rearranged to suit different kinds of performances: sections of
balcony behind the stage, for example, can be removed to create a more
conventional proscenium stage. A seating area at the back of the theater can
be replaced by a more informal table arrangement.

Mr. Viñoly's past work has often felt cold and inhuman. The brick-and-stucco
shell of his Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, for
example, is brutal in its simplicity. The Rose Theater has a similar
geometric purity, but this is the architect at his warmest. The room's
proportions are perfect, and the symmetry locks your attention on the
performance. When the lights dim, everything but the stage and the elegant
balconies disappears, leaving you floating inside a womblike space.

That sense of drifting returns in Dizzy's Club, the center's most relaxed
venue. Tables are scattered around a small stage; more views open up to the
city, this time farther north to Donald Trump's sleek, bronzed tower and the
treetops of Central Park West.

There is something to celebrate here. In engaging the city so directly, Mr.
Viñoly's design reasserts jazz's importance to New York's social life. Yet
the project suggests what is wrong with the public-private partnerships, so
typical today, that made construction of the Time Warner Center possible.
Situated in a maze of commercial interests, the jazz center shows how
contorted an effort it takes to negotiate a city where business so often
comes before art. 

The theaters are a gift. But imagine what they would be if we could
obliterate the banality that surrounds them.

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