After Years of False Starts, Geffen Hall Is Being Rebuilt. Really.


For years, the New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center have struggled to do something about the orchestra’s lackluster concert hall.

Plans came and went. Star architects signed on and signed off. The Philharmonic tried, disastrously, to return to its old home, Carnegie Hall. A $1.2 billion redevelopment gave Lincoln Center a sweeping makeover — but left the hall as is.

Then, in 2015, the entertainment mogul David Geffen restarted the project with a $100 million donation that gave the hall his name. But construction, which was originally to have started this year, was put off as logistical problems sent things back to the drawing board.

Now, officials say, the reconstruction of David Geffen Hall is finally about to happen — for real, this time. A new plan to transform the acoustically and aesthetically challenged auditorium into a more intimate, better sounding space was unveiled on Monday.

The project, set to begin construction in 2022, will substantially rebuild and reconfigure the interior — removing more than 500 seats — and will feature new public spaces designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, who were quietly added to the design team earlier this year.

The new plan aims to tackle these issues. The stage will be pulled forward 25 feet (to what is currently Row J) to bring it closer to the audience, and new seating will wrap around the sides and back of the stage, reminiscent of the way it is configured for Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart concerts in the summer, as well as in many world-class halls built in the past 50 years.

The new space will have fewer than 2,200 seats, down from 2,738. The orchestra will be placed on stepped risers, so that back row percussionists will be as visible as the violinists up front, and a more steeply raked floor will also improve sightlines.

The upper tiers will be rebuilt, and seats there will be directed toward the stage — not set at right angles, as they are now, which forces audience members to look sideways. The walls will be resurfaced in order to improve the hall’s resonance, especially when it comes to bass frequencies.

One statistic suggests the greater intimacy promised by the design: While a third of the seats in the current hall are more than 100 feet from the stage, fewer than 10 percent of those in the new hall will be that far away.

The construction schedule, which relies on having some components built ahead of time, has been designed to limit disruption to the orchestra. The hall will close in May 2022, shortly before the end of the Philharmonic’s regular subscription season, and reopen that November, two months after its season usually begins. The orchestra will then play a slightly abbreviated season in the unfinished hall from its new stage, which will have been moved forward.

The hall will close again in May 2023 for nearly a year to finish the work — during which time the orchestra plans to perform at Carnegie Hall, New York City Center, elsewhere in the city and on tour.

The rebuilt Geffen Hall is scheduled to open in March 2024, though it has not been unusual for major concert halls, including the glamorous new Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, to face delays and cost overruns. Ms. Borda said she expected the Philharmonic’s music director, Jaap van Zweden, to preside over the reopening — an early indication that she anticipates extending his current five-year contract, which is up in 2023.

Mr. Geffen, who had expressed frustration at some of the earlier setbacks, said he was pleased. “I hear the plans are great and can’t wait to see them,” he said in an email. “New York deserves a great concert hall.”

Mr. Timms of Lincoln Center said that he also saw the project as an opportunity “to give people deep connections with not just the music but with each other” and “to think quite carefully about how we connect with the outside world.”

The hall’s public spaces are being revamped with that in mind. The redesign calls for moving the box office and doubling the size of the lobby; adding a casual bistro and more bars and restrooms; building a Lincoln Center welcome space; and transforming the corner of the building at the busy intersection of 65th Street and Broadway — currently office space hidden behind curtains — into a public-facing “Sidewalk Studio” for classes, lectures and small performances. The building’s 65th Street facade is intended to become a large-scale canvas for site-specific artworks.

Ms. Tsien and Mr. Williams have designed high-profile projects including the Barnes Foundation museum in Philadelphia and the Asia Society’s Hong Kong center. The addition of the firm is the third significant architectural iteration of the project: Norman Foster was initially selected in 2005, followed a decade later by Thomas Heatherwick.

They will focus on making the hall’s public spaces — which can be confusing and off-putting, with long security-line bottlenecks — smoother and more comfortable.

“There are physical changes that are happening, but we’re also trying to change the emotional temperature,” said Ms. Tsien. “Because now the lobby space has all of the charm of an airport terminal.”

The relationship between the Philharmonic and Lincoln Center, its landlord, which also uses the hall for its own musical presentations and for corporate rentals, has sometimes been frosty. The Philharmonic’s short-lived attempt to merge with Carnegie Hall, in 2003, damaged the partnership, and some of Lincoln Center’s flashy earlier ideas for the Geffen Hall renovation were seen as unsuitable for a symphony orchestra. Both organizations have gone through management turnover as the project stalled.

But Mr. Timms and Ms. Borda said that relations have markedly improved, and that the current rethinking of the project was very much a collaboration, both in terms of planning and fund-raising, which they said would be done jointly going forward. The initial decision to rename the hall for a gift that will cover less than a fifth of the total cost has drawn criticism; officials said they expected to announce other naming gifts soon.

There are still many decisions to be made, from the kind of wood that will line the walls of the auditorium to the color scheme of the new seats. But one thing is certain, Ms. Borda said as she surveyed the current interior: It won’t be this drab, cheerless brown.


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