Extreme Makeover: Lincoln Center

May 1, 2009
Alice Tully Hall gets an audio makeover

Lincoln Center is an undergoing an ambitious, expansive  renovation that will transform it into a visually striking  arts center for the new millennium. Not that it wasn't  noticeable before, but much of the '60s style architecture  is not as arresting or inviting today as it first was when it  emerged 40 years ago, so it needed a new look and to offer  expanded access to the public. Whereas the original building  surreptitiously slipped into the surrounding urban landscape  and possessed a modest box office and inconspicuous hallways and lobby space, the new building is far more bold in  its look and layout.

But even more important than the new facade is the outstanding renovation that has occurred on the inside, which  has considerably expanded the functionality of the hall. An  interesting contrast is at work here: a "louder," bolder exterior  visually and a quieter, more relaxing interior aurally.

Express Line

Architect Liz Diller, principal of the Diller Scofidio & Renfro  architectural firm that worked with FXFowle, observes that  intimacy was the objective of the original Alice Tully Hall, and  transforming it was a difficult feat. "We had to keep the bones  of the hall," she explains. "We had to keep 1,100 seats, so the  Hall was done within 18 inches. It was very small. Mark, our  brilliant acoustician, had to deal with many sound issues that  had to be changed and fixed."

One of those issues was the subway line that runs directly  underneath and which could be heard in the original auditorium.

"It's the oldest subway in New York," states acoustician Mark Holden, Chairman and Director of Design of the  JaffeHolden acoustical design firm. "It's the first line, and it's  solid granite. We're sitting right on rock, and the sound vibration from the express trains, especially when they were moving very quickly, was coming through the rock and at times  was audible in the old Hall. So we had to isolate that."

Another major audio issue emerged from within the room  itself. Much of the sound from the stage was hitting the sidewalls, and rather than being delivered to the center orchestra,  some of the sound reflections were being sent towards the  rear of the hall. Subtle changes were made to the shape of  the ceiling and sidewalls.

"Alice Tully was not a bad hall acoustically," says Holden.  "I think it was considered quite good, but we were trying to  reorient some of these reflections to provide a bit more clarity  so you could have definition of instruments."

They could not expand upward because the Julliard  School of Music was right above the hall, and solid granite  was below them. To solve the problem of sound bleeding in  from underneath the venue, a floating concrete floor approximately four inches think and sitting on engineered rubber  pads was installed to help isolate sound from the subway.  As the walls themselves were resonating some of the sound,  they were separately structured with rubber isolaters. And in  coordination with Lincoln Center's efforts the Metropolitan  Transit Authority placed rubber pads under 1,000 feet of train  tracks at the adjacent subway stop, reportedly approximately  five years ahead of their plan to do so.

Centering Sound

In addition to less white noise, the actual acoustics of the  room have been redesigned to make a concert event a much  more pleasurable experience. "The side walls are chevroned  in a way that some of the sound reflections are projected  more into the center orchestra," says Holden. "The backside  of these angles is designed to keep the sound onstage."  Having attended the opening night concert, Holden himself is quite pleased with the sound. During the performance  he heard tiny finger cymbals ringing and light guitar plucks  resonating throughout the whole room. "If you didn't have  dead quiet, you never would have heard that," he beams.  "Bringing the noise floor down allows you to hear the room  like it really is."

It was important for Holden and his team to bring a sense of  acoustic diffusion to the hall. Located around the hall are compact cones of varying sizes protruding from the wall surfaces  that provide high frequency diffusion. They are cast plaster with  gypsum reinforcement.

"The diffusion on the surfaces, the gaps between the panels,  the lip in the ceiling that comes down with the air supply, all of  this stuff was researched very carefully and was calculated and  modeled to provide sound diffusion in the room," states Holden.  "The seats themselves were tested. Nothing was left to chance.  Nothing was arbitrarily put in. Everything was put in for a particular reason." There are even long, black, double layer wool,  acoustic banners that can be mechanically lowered down on  each side of the venue, and they are used for amplified events.

Glowing Reception
Beyond the world of sound were the lighting considerations.  Diller says that she and her team wanted "to close the hall from  the inside, almost like a tailored suit, with this high performance  skin, which does many things for us. One of the things is that it  illuminates from within. Why can't wood have lighting properties?"

The rebuilt wood walls were given a laminated veneer—  created from a log of single moabi tree from Africa, which  was then shipped to Japan to be sliced microthin for this  purpose—atop a substrate of MDF, a wood composite material; on some areas the substrate being a thick resin. Back-lit  by very quiet LEDs, the wood walls glow from within.

In terms of audience perspective, the top and lower elevations of the main seating section were kept as they were,  and the architects were able to slightly change the contour  of the rake of the seats. Theatre consultants Fischer Dachs  Associates "helped us with the layout of the seats in such a  way that everyone really has a good view," says Diller. "Its  subtle, but you can see much better." She adds that they  could not insert a middle aisle to break up the wide seating  rows that were originally there, especially considering the  tight space they had to work with, but she says no one felt  a need to change it. The box seats flanking each side of the  auditorium remain from before.

Other renovations include new audio, lighting, and auxiliary control rooms created in old storage spaces at the rear of  the chamber, new acoustic windows cut in, and old projection rooms retrofitted with modern technology to show both  film and video productions.

All in all, it's an impressive new look and functionality  for a four-decade old building, both on the inside and the  outside.

Lincoln Center itself is pleased with Tully's lavish makeover. "This innovative design has boldly re-established Alice  Tully Hall within the Lincoln Center campus and reconnected it with our upper west side neighborhood," declares  Reynold Levy, President of Lincoln Center. "The hall now has  a whole new level of openness, intimacy and transparency,  demonstrating the many ways in which the redevelopment  project will continue to transform Lincoln Center into a more  welcoming and open destination — a true performing arts  center for the 21st century. Never again will anyone ask the  question, 'Where is Alice Tully Hall?'"  

Extreme Makeover: Lincoln Center
via Stage Directions