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New York State Theater No. 3 - Coming to Consensus

After agreeing upon the location of each building for Lincoln Center, the architects still needed to come to consensus on visual elements to ensure that the buildings existed in harmony with one another.

Building Material

“The members of the architectural team then addressed themselves to questions of unity in the overall design. They first considered the use of a common exterior building material. Belluschi suggested Roman travertine, from the same quarries near Tivoli that provided the marble to build ancient Rome. Agreement was enthusiastic. Of all decisions required of them this was the quickest one they would make.


"A second question concerned the treatment of the facades of the three buildings facing the entrance plaza. Harrison, Abramovitz, and Johnson all urged glass because they wanted those approaching the halls to be able to see interiors and to see other people moving about. They wanted those within the foyer areas of the halls to be able to look out, to be aware of the life on the plaza and in the other buildings of the center. Glass facades facing the plaza were approved.

Height and Shape

"Other important elements of unity emerged from these meetings. The concert hall and the ballet theater, facing each other and framing the approach to the opera, were to be of identical height and mass, with differences in the designs of their facades. Outside balconies at promenade levels on these buildings and on the opera house at the same elevation were approved to extend the opportunities for interaction and to relate all buildings to their common plaza.

Photo by Don Weiner for FORTUNE Magazine

"The architects worked with clay models representing the mass and location of each building. [pictured] Shapes of clay were changed and moved around, and the interrelationship among the several buildings was constantly scrutinized.

"This does not mean monotony or the submergence of individual buildings, but it does represent an effort to create Lincoln Center as a unified whole to house six separate institutions.” [1]


The Processional Element in Architecture

Philip Johnson felt strongly that a theater goers experience begins as they approach the theater. Every architectural element the encounter on their way to their seat prepares them for the experience they are about to have.

"[Philip Johnson] proposed porticoes on the front of both Philharmonic Hall and the dance theater, a change that significantly improved the facades of the two facing buildings and created a processional approach to the opera house. The other architects concurred in the proposal, recognizing also that the resulting narrowed plaza provided a better relationship to the opera facade." [1]

Photo by Iñaki Vinaixa

Philip Johnson: “It is known to the veriest tourist how much more he enjoys the Parthenon because he has to walk up the Acropolis, how much less he enjoys Chartres Cathedral because he is unceremoniously dumped in front of it. How much better St. Peter's Square used to be before Mussolini ruined (opened up) the approaches. Vincent Scully's temples are sited for approach as well as all the other considerations he has outlined for us. But approach is only one aspect of processional, one moment of feeling. The next is the experience of entering, the shock of big space, or dark space, as it encloses (in time always) the visitor.

"Memory, by the way, plays a much larger part in architectural experience than is acknowledged. One feels better in a theatre seat, I contend, if then spaces traversed getting there are uncrowded straight, in other words—clear.” [2]


Philip Johnson's memory of these decisions:

"Was the overall plan of three buildings for Lincoln Center originally your idea, and did you organize the work of the other architects involved in the project? 

Early rendering of the New York State Theater

Philip Johnson: 'I was influential on two things, the use of travertine and the 24-foot module. We all used the same module since the buildings were all for the same type of purpose and shouldn't have been different heights. This gave unity to the whole square. That we all managed to agree was very hard for the seven or so architects involved. But since they were all so split up and my idea of how to group the buildings was so simple, nobody's ego was too badly smashed by agreeing to my plan. Personally, I wanted my building, the New York State Theater, to be north of there. on the next block where the Juilliard School is now. The design was a half-circle that was to face the diagonal of Broadway. But they put me on the same site with the other buildings and I accepted that. I had no influence on the others, really, but I did do the plaza.'” [3]

[2] "Whence & Whither: The Processional Element in Architecture" by Philip Johnson. Perspecta, Vol. 9/10 (1965), pp. 167-178 (12 pages)

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

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