Harrison’s Cold War vision involved an acropolis of the performing arts, which, to Moses, Rockefeller and their social circles, meant western classical music, musical theater, opera and ballet. The campus rested on a plinth above the neighborhood. It turned its back to the public housing developments along Amsterdam Avenue.
At the time, classical music in America was still a growing, aspirational brand of middle-class entertainment. Cities across the country weren’t able to build concert halls big and fast enough. Lincoln Center advertised itself as the cultural model for postwar urban redevelopment. When it was announced that Abramovitz’s hall would seat fewer people than Carnegie, critics cried elitism. Lincoln Center ordered Abramovitz to squeeze in 180 loge seats in lieu of boxes, reconfiguring the hall’s balconies, among other things — “fateful decisions,” as Scarbrough put it to me the other day, because the changes exacerbated the hall’s acoustic problems.
Not long ago I went to visit Scarbrough and his colleague, Christopher Blair, Akustiks’ chief scientist, at their offices in Norwalk, Conn., where they had built a scale model of Geffen large enough to walk into. Imagine a hinged box split vertically down the middle. I mentioned the word “sarcophagus” and Blair indulged in gallows humor about the hall being where “the reputations of acousticians and architects have gone to die.”
Both men recounted how Leo Beranek, Abramovitz’s acoustician for Philharmonic Hall, who had guaranteed his new scientific approach would create the ideal auditorium, ended up sidelined on the decision about enlarging the hall. “Acousticians were just expected to sign off on an architect’s plans,” Scarbrough said, “and in fact the example of Philharmonic Hall became proof why that had to change.”
Skip forward to the turn of this century. The urbicide of San Juan Hill had faded from many New Yorkers’ memories. Lincoln Center had come to be regarded with a little more affection, as part of the civic furniture, an oasis in the city grid, its facilities in need of an upgrade. A plan to refresh the campus emerged, which was to begin with Avery Fisher. Then, in 2003, the Philharmonic suddenly informed Lincoln Center of its intention to move back to Carnegie. A few months later, the move was off, but the damage was done. Lincoln Center shoved Avery Fisher to the back of the line for renovations and allowed the drab hall to deteriorate further while the rest of the campus was redone.