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New York State Theater No. 13 - The Promenade

"The sparse and mineral elegance of the promenade, filled by human movement is symbolic of the New York City Ballet’s spirit and practice." [1]

Photo by Ezra Stoller

“Johnson's three-dimensional talents are undeniable. They are evident in the progression of spaces from the entrance lobby to the dramatic, three-tiered promenade—the two being interconnected by two magnificently modeled travertine staircases.” [2]

“That sense of community was masterfully achieved in the theater's second-floor promenade, one of New York's great public rooms. Ascending to it from below was, like one of Balanchine's ballets, an exercise in movement and drama. Patrons entering the building in the compressed space of the lobby were swept up a pair of grand staircases at either end of the room. These deposited them in the multistory space of the promenade, watched over by Elie Nadelman's woozy oversize sculptures and surrounded by balconies fronted by brass filigree. Johnson was unabashed in the inspiration: the Paris Opera of Charles Garnier, the sine qua non of beaux arts magnificence. He had won his debate with Kirstein, and the theater would be defined, both for good and for ill, by the decision to privilege the spectacle of theater over back-of-house functionality.” [3]


Critics disparaged the promenade as looking too much like a prison. Johnson happily accepted those observations because he was in fact inspired by prison architecture.

The Critics:

[T]he grand promenade, […] appears like a highly decorated penitentiary. I doubt if this was the designer's intention, but a high oblong hall, encircled by tiers of balconies railed in by vertical bars even they are bronze does tend to have this effect. On a strictly practical basis it is hard to see the balconies' purpose, as they lead nowhere except in a loop and are rather narrow for grand promenading." [4]

“Because of the catwalks that surround it on all sides the Promenade itself looks a little like a cell block in a very posh prison. It would benefit immensely from having the walks on the front, and possibly those on the sides, removed. This would not only relieve the prison effect, but would clear the present visual obstruction of the plaza, a full view of which is very pleasant during intermission” [5]

Johnson's Statement:

“The best critic is, of all people, Virgil Thomson, the famous music critic. He said, "Philip Johnson's interiors always look as if he got them from jails." And you know, that's exactly where I got it. If you visit a good jail, it would look like this. They're usually much narrower, but the little cells are off the balconies. You can always watch where everybody is, you see. There are some charming interiors of jails. The only one I visited at that time was H. H. Richardson's big jail in Pittsburgh, the Allegheny Courthouse. But I always liked that shape of a semi-enclosure. Here I left out the wall on the north side.” [6]


“Now, from the top steps, in a stunning burst of revelation, released from the low-hung crypt, as if some huge swagged curtain suddenly swept up into the flies, we are enfolded by a hall two hundred feet long, and almost half as high and wide. Steady as mathematics but hung with an almost random arboreal frailty, a system of three serried balconies ring the huge room, railed with gilt transparent grills of mineral brocade, reflecting an identical range of terraces within the actual auditorium itself. This hall for ample occasions is only an overture to spectacle, yet in its perfection of proportion, absolute justice of scale and execution, it is already drama. Its ceiling is hand-laid gold-leaf. One must climb to the top walkway to relish Its magical by-play, mirroring and reflecting walls, windows and floor below in a gilt rippling lake. From the entire height of the roof, a deep curtain of brass bead drops, shimmering constantly in the slight breath of the room's draught. A plaid pattern of red marble laid into the travertine pavement, serves as a grid upon which people move. This is social architecture demanding to participation of a public. It is only matured and pollinated by the presence of people.” [7]

[1] Lincoln Kirstein, 1975 Souvenir Program

[2] Ilse M. Reese in Critical Trialogue on Johnson’s Lincoln Center Theater, Progressive Architecture, May 1964

[3] The Man in the Glass House by Mark Lamster

[4]  “Against The Stream” by Michael Manser, Observer Weekend Review, May 24, 1964

[5] Charles W. Millard, The Hudson Review, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Winter, 1967-1968), pp. 657-663 

[6] Philip Johnson: The Architect in His Own Words by Hilary Lewis and Philip Johnson

[7] Lincoln Kirstein in 1964-65 Souvenir Program

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