New York Tragedy: Doomed De Portzamparc Plans for City Opera
By James S. Russell
Oct. 19 (Bloomberg) -- In the home designed by Christian de Portzamparc for New York City Opera, a great curving shell in bright red would wrap itself around the audience as everyone ascends an escalator to their seats.
De Portzamparc, 62, created a design that offers many sublime moments, one that orchestrates audience movement with the kind of balletic theatricality not seen since the Opera Garnier opened in 1874 -- in Paris, where de Portzamparc is based.
But de Portzamparc's vision is not to be, even though the opera company has been trapped for more than four decades in Lincoln Center's architecturally lugubrious and acoustically hopeless New York State Theater. City Opera announced in May that it would not proceed, even as it continued working with de Portzamparc until August.
Architecture alone can't save a struggling live-performance art form, but it can powerfully convey the drama and delight that can be found on stage. De Portzamparc's design, never publicly unveiled, suggests just how exciting this lost opportunity might have been.
The hall was to have been built diagonally across from the northwestern corner of Lincoln Center. A & R Kalimian, an apartment developer, bought the site from the American Red Cross for $72 million in 2004. De Portzamparc's task was made considerably more complex because the site had to accommodate both the opera house and a large Kalimian residential tower. The tower would have helped to defray the new building's costs -- probably around $400 million.
Designing from the inside out, De Portzamparc shaped the lobby spaces as if from thick, viscous liquid, flowing the movement of the audience in sensuous curves. The floors warp up to mold themselves around elevators, stairs, coatrooms and other essentials. Viewers would pass from womblike enclosures to grand spaces that spiral up to mysterious heights.
The elaborate lobby wrapped a pitcherlike shape hung from the roof that would contain the auditorium. It had to hang because loading areas and set-preparation spaces (both of which are woefully inadequate at the State Theater) had to squeeze under the stage, bringing the lowest level of the auditorium 40 feet above the street.
De Portzamparc packaged the building in a very simple box, placing it right up against the street, where it could assert its presence. He allows the taffy-pull shapes inside to collide with -- and trace their shapes on -- the exterior, so that a merry alternation of glass and solid panels covers the box with Jean Arp abandon.
A Hardy Hall
The architect was not entrusted with the design of the auditorium itself, even though he has major halls under his belt in Paris -- and, most recently, the Luxembourg Philharmonic, which opened in 2005.
City Opera chose Hugh Hardy, architect of the well-liked 1987 Alice Busch Opera Theater of the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, New York. The boldly decorative sensibility of Hardy (of H3 collaborative in New York) would seem an uneasy match with de Portzamparc's slinky bravura, but the work of meshing the designs of hall and the building never began.
In a telephone interview, Hardy said he had configured the auditorium with small, curved terraces that would overlap for intimate views of the stage without resorting to huge balconies. At somewhere between 1,800 and 2,000 seats, the house would have been enticingly more intimate than the State Theater (2,800) or the mammoth Met (4,000).
Smart Stacked Towers
Plopping big towers atop important cultural facilities is a marriage that almost never works, but de Portzamparc's design addressed this knotty problem adroitly by stacking the rental apartments in a long slab at the rear of the lot. It rises on narrow pylons to leave air around the opera house, then gently thickens into angled facets and deep recesses so that it looks like three slim towers rather than a formidable block-long wall. The apartments would ascend in steps to about 60 stories.
De Portzamparc didn't solve all the problems that such large-scale development would create. The tower would throw enormous shadows east and west.
It is something of a wonder that de Portzamparc untangled such extraordinary complexities to the degree he did. The project foundered, participants say, because it was too difficult to allocate the costs of the opera house and the residential tower. Even if Kalimian and City Opera had been able to cut their deal, construction intricacies, and the number of parties that had to agree, would give anyone pause.
City Opera says it's still discussing a new home, but the task looks ever more formidable. The de Portzamparc effort makes it all too clear just what New York City is missing, and why the self-proclaimed world capital of culture has so much trouble nurturing it.
(James S. Russell is Bloomberg's U.S. architecture critic. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this story: James S. Russell at firstname.lastname@example.org