Lifting the Curse

David Geffen Hall promised to rid New York’s preeminent concert venue of its sonic troubles. But this tale of woe goes far deeper.

I remember the day, even the general hour, I heard Lincoln Center planned to redo Avery Fisher Hall. It was August 2017, at the beginning of my first year of graduate school at Johns Hopkins’s Peabody Institute in Baltimore. I had gone to Peabody to study architectural acoustics, and we had just used Avery Fisher and its even more ill-fated predecessor, Philharmonic Hall, as a case study of what not to do. Some of us joked that the site on which Lincoln Center stands was cursed and that the building’s sonic problems karmically originated from the mass displacement of the mostly Black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods of San Juan Hill and Lincoln Square. The involvement of the overhyped starchitect Thomas Heatherwick, whose farcical Vessel project neared completion at Hudson Yards, only seemed to reinforce our curse theory.

So, I’d written off David Geffen Hall, as the building was to be rechristened, the second I heard the news: it would, I thought, inevitably be architecturally banal or flamboyantly ugly, beset by delays, and come in way over budget.

Fortunately for the New York Philharmonic, none of those things turned out to be true. In fact, the hall opened early and on budget (itself no small thing, estimated to be $550 million). After two and a half years of curtains, concert season has returned to Lincoln Center. Heatherwick bowed out of the project early, though his initial collaborators, the Toronto architecture firm and concert specialist Diamond Schmitt, remained inside, and its overhaul of the auditorium, buttressed by new public spaces by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects, generally works. If we’re still invoking the supernatural, then all this is surely a good omen. But Geffen Hall, perhaps more than any concert hall in the US, has some serious baggage to overcome, not just in terms of sound.

The drama of Avery Fisher Hall and the intensive personal study that eventually stemmed from it leads me to want to make bold statements about the subject. For example, I consider architectural acoustics (much like classical music itself) to be wholly counterintuitive to the profit motive. I have the history of modern concert hall design—an anthology replete with intractable conflicts between acoustics and the other spatial arts—to back this up. The hall, itself a gut remodel of an even more infamous failure, is just one textbook example.

Within the context of acoustical development, Avery Fisher was what I later called a “neo-shoebox” in my masters’ thesis, a formal taxonomy of late modern concert halls. The main practitioner of this typology, the prolific acoustician Cyril Harris, took the nineteenth-century shoebox form—rectangular in plan and section, with one or two balconies and no (or if necessary, a small) proscenium—and tried to adapt it to twentieth-century modernist architecture and front-of-house profitability metrics. The results were middling at best.

Neo-shoeboxes like Avery Fisher Hall, the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, and Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis are too wide in plan and too short in section to achieve anything like the warm reverberance characteristic of a Boston Symphony Hall or Vienna’s Musikverein, whose footprints are smaller simply because their architects had to adhere to rigorously practiced neoclassical architectural proportions. Moreover, because these contemporary halls ascribe to a more minimalist vernacular (be it modern or New Formalist), they lack the ornamental frosting, for example, that a hall like Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw uses to its advantage in scattering sound and avoiding echoes. But perhaps the greatest problem that plagues the neo-shoeboxes was the provisioning of too many seats, which they do, to put it crudely, so they could sell more tickets and make more money. Avery Fisher boasted a whopping 2,742 seats, far above the ideal range—between 1,000 and 1,800. It had a third balcony that prevented that hall from being as reverberant as it should have been. All this made the auditorium dry or too absorptive—in other words, a little dead.

WHEN I ARRIVE AT GEFFEN HALL, gussied up in a sequin dress, the place is already packed. It’s opening weekend. People are crowding into the ground-floor lobby, some of them ticket holders, others just curious. Immediately I notice that there’s, well, light in the lobby—a space that was once formal, cloistered, and stuffed with offices and had little interaction with the plaza and fountain outside. All that’s changed now. We can thank Williams and Tsien, whose design office also transformed the closed-off spaces upstairs into secondary performance spaces and lounges facing the corner of 65th and Broadway, an undeniable improvement. [Williams and Tsien are sponsors of NYRA. — Ed.] The lobby and mezzanine interventions are sumptuously detailed. The rose petal motif throughout the building, imprinted on the auditorium seats and in fabrics throughout the lobby, adds both texture and a little bit of a unifying, decorative theme. Metallic, shimmery curtains, low-slung lounge chairs, and dark carpet invoke a bit of midcentury glitz. The extensive use of blue on the walls and soffits provides a nice contrast to the dramatic, nigh hyperbolic, reds of the Metropolitan Opera House next door. Over the course of the afternoon, from the mouths of the architects and the bigwigs at Lincoln Center, we hear assertions of reconciliation: with the street, with the public, with Geffen Hall’s troubled past, and, through the debut’s musical programming choice, with Lincoln Center’s violent beginnings.

Spearheaded by Robert Moses, the Lincoln Center complex originally stretched from 60th to 70th Streets, replacing fourteen blocks of housing and businesses northwest of Columbus Circle. The massive endeavor was supported by a number of New York high rollers, including philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, who in turn recruited Wall Street to back it and the New York Times to hock it as a temple of culture that, in reality, turned out to be more like a fortress. These backers sought to use Lincoln Center for a variety of cultural and material gains, cloaking the displacement of whole communities in a language of Cold War patriotism and establishment munificence. Rockefeller, as the urban historian Samuel Zipp notes, spun the project’s destructive edge into a virtue, calling it “a new kind of city therapy.” This cosmopolitan ideal informed the center’s architecture and planning, which sponsors sold as being in a classical European vein. The plaza linking the opera house, philharmonic hall, and performing arts venue (now the David H. Koch Theater) was consciously designed along the lines of an Italian piazza. As for the buildings, their solidity, subtle suppleness, and simple, if expressive, lines were calculated to recall Greco-Roman temples. This neoclassical-modernist junction required a similar acoustical approach. And so, the expert was called in.

Leo Beranek, the nation’s leading acoustician and principal of the pioneering engineering firm Bolt Beranek & Newman, was eerily familiar with the acoustical profile of nineteenth-century shoebox halls. In the 1950s, he traveled the world collecting material for a massive typological sourcebook, published in 1962 as Music, Acoustics, and Architecture. By the time Beranek finished it, he thought he knew everything there was to know about concert halls. His approach, like Moses’s, was a profound modernist arrogance—science and its godlike masters had finally done away with all the mysticism and guesswork in acoustics (to say nothing about the explanatory power of curses). In the final chapter of the book, Beranek announced that he planned to utilize this knowledge in his biggest project to date: Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center, which was to replace the sonically second-rate and now too-small Carnegie Hall as the home of the New York Philharmonic.

From the beginning of his involvement, Beranek wanted Philharmonic Hall to take on the shoebox shape of its inspiration, Boston Symphony Hall, but with a new, slick twist: a slightly bowed plan and a milk bottle section. But first he had to fit this shape into a wide, low ceilinged, and stratified building by Max Abramovitz. Beranek and his colleagues tried to overcome this odd pairing through various accoutrements: notably, overhead ceiling panels that sent early reflections to the center of the auditorium and stage walls that featured an “acoustically transparent” slatted structure. These add-ons, however, did little to ameliorate the acoustics of the hall, which Leonard Bernstein famously deplored.

Philharmonic Hall opened in September of 1962, and after only seven years of use, it was deemed unfixable, gutted and remade as Avery Fisher Hall. Cyril Harris was brought in to implement his neo-shoebox approach. He did away with Beranek’s twinkly ceiling panels and milk-bottle section. Instead, he introduced a wide, rectangular auditorium, added a proscenium, and stuffed this plan to the gills with seats and balconies, a concession to the penny pushers. He clad the ceilings and walls in plywood-backed fiberglass, in ’70s browns and metallics. These changes made for a flat-sounding, dull hall, but at least it was listenable and tolerable for the musicians. A band-aid rather than a facelift. More doctoring was administered over the subsequent decades, until Avery Fisher Hall would be to acoustics what Pruitt Igoe would be to architecture: a failure so dramatic as to become a rhetorical whipping post. The two projects were also invariably tied to the ethos of modernist planning, urban renewal, and the belief that design could liberate both the arts and the poor, respectively. But Pruitt Igoe was mostly a social, not architectural, failure, inextricable from racist public policy. Avery Fisher Hall, by way of Lincoln Center, was both.

THE CONCERT IS ABOUT TO START. The seats they’ve given the critics, up front and center in the orchestra section, prioritize sight lines and intimacy and are among Geffen Hall’s most expensive. One of the project architects from Diamond Schmitt is sitting in front of me. He tells me that the hall is opening earlier than expected. Pandemic-induced closures, coupled with Lincoln Center’s decision to suspend concerts for the duration of the renovation, expedited the opening. The same circumstances also kept the project on budget, a rarity for a concert hall. The firm was aided by the well-known acoustician Paul Scarborough, who is sitting a few rows behind. I settle in to listen, take out my notebook, make some diagrammatic drawings. When the first musicians, a jazz combo, step out, my ears perk up: Does the hall sound any better?

Geffen Hall is a rich, well-composed auditorium, warm with regards to lighting, material palette, and, thanks to the extensive use of wood, acoustics. Little ripples in the maple panels—a lovely, subtle detail—diffuse sound at strategic points. Dodecahedral pendants provide gentle audience lighting, and their retraction into the ceiling adds a bit of showtime theater. A geometric reflective canopy and the slightly bowed lines of seating nod sentimentally to the original Philharmonic Hall.

Acoustically, the hall is also improved. It is far more reverberant and spacious, the maple-on-concrete replacing Avery Fisher Hall’s plywood-backed fiberglass diffusers, significantly enhancing the bass response, giving it that full, rich sound in the low strings we so expect from live classical music. The sound of high-frequency instruments like celestas and cymbals shimmer with new depth. Diamond Schmitt replaced the claustrophobic proscenium with a configuration it has successfully employed in its concert hall projects for almost a decade: a smattering of surround seating behind the stage, subtly increasing seat count while providing a more intimate in-the-round listening experience.

In terms of both material choice and spatial configuration, Geffen Hall could be the sister of Diamond Schmitt’s Montréal La Maison de Symphonique. Like it did in La Maison, the firm made concessions in Geffen to ticket box. Namely, that third balcony, taking up space that a traditional shoebox leaves open to give listeners that spectral, shimmery airiness, is still there. When I ask Paul Scarborough about this, he tells me he compensated for the third balcony by paring it back almost two-thirds of the way from where it had been. He then took the third-tier wall and carved out some additional height to add volume to the auditorium. It’s a clever compromise, but still a compromise that results in dulled sound and a compressed spatial experience for those in the upper-tier seats. The cheap seats, as it were.

As I indicated earlier, reconciliation seems to be on the menu, sometimes in a way that is a bit too on the nose. The New York Philharmonic led its opening-week concerts with San Juan Hill, a piece by Juilliard jazz professor Etienne Charles that pays homage to the neighborhoods that Lincoln Center wiped clean off the cityscape. It was a nice gesture, but something doesn’t sit right with me about the self-congratulation that accompanies these sorts of acknowledgements, which never carry the burden of true reparations. One premiere doesn’t fix an entire institution. Tickets aren’t much cheaper, either.

During a postconcert tour of the lobby, guides made sure to point out a giant screen that will be used to show concerts with piped in sound for free. Via wide, garage-like doors, a café, and many sofas and chairs, the public is encouraged to enter, mingle, and take a rest in a “truly public” space. (We’ll see how “public” this space is when the first unhoused person takes a nap on one of the sofas.) I find funny any pretense of democratizing the American concert hall, an institution teeming with class signifiers ranging from a prescribed pattern of concertgoing behavior to visibly hierarchical seating. It should spark suspicion.

And yet, I think we can finally put to rest the curse of Philharmonic Hall. This latest iteration is by no means a failure. It’s a perfectly enjoyable concert hall, perhaps the best, if not only, solution. Abramovitz’s persistently pesky architecture, the front office’s financial motives, and the goals of architectural acoustics. Geffen is as good as it is ever going to be. The improvements are, despite my cynicism, very real.

A free concert screening is better than no concert, even though it would be better if Lincoln Center offered the real thing for free. It is an objective good that the hall is better and more pleasurable to be in. It is nice that, after the muddy-sounding (though beautiful) Carnegie Hall and the lumbering Philharmonic Hall–Avery Fisher Hall frankenstein, the rightfully venerated New York Philharmonic now has a suitable place to perform. A building doesn’t have to solve every problem. It doesn’t have to bring about revolution, though that would be nice. But we shouldn’t forget, nor accept, what Lincoln Center was and to an extent still is—a real estate scheme—nor how it failed, as that failure both informed and subverted later approaches. Arguably, the purpose of a concert hall is to be a special elision of music and architecture, a purely civic endeavor that enhances the city and its citizens, a place for enjoyment and edification, of culture. But beneath that noble rhetoric lies the need, in this privatized world of the arts, to make a profit regardless of who gets trampled or exalted, and to sell tickets and sell them for a lot of money, even if that means the cheap seats really do sound cheap. Geffen Hall will never reconcile those politics and social structures architecture can’t fix but which still inform architectural reality.

Kate Wagner is an architecture critic. She has used this piece to exorcize the demonic spirit of her master’s thesis.