New York Times, September 12, 2003
Hall, Carnegie's Buried Treasure
Michael Nagle for The New York Times
view of Carnegie Hall's new underground performance space, Zankel
HALL may persuade you to rethink your attitude toward underground
spaces. Technically, it may be in a sub-subbasement just inches away
from hell. Architecturally, the new hall couldn't feel more privileged.
Designed by James Stewart Polshek and Richard M. Olcott of the Polshek
Partnership, the Judy and Arthur Zankel Hall is a serene, grown-up
place, made for a maximum of 644 listeners who like to concentrate
together at the same place and time.
by the architects as a mining operation as well as a design project,
Carnegie Hall's new performance space sits within a cavity carved
out of Manhattan schist. Parts of the bedrock are exposed, actually,
in backstage areas and in a public stairwell. The sense of enclosure
within the earth actually enhances the brightness and clarity that
the architects have brought to the design.
Polshek has an agreeable appreciation of things French. So do I. Mr.
Polshek's design for the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American
Museum of Natural History suggests at least a passing familiarity
with the glass walls of Jean Nouvel's Cartier Foundation in Paris.
At Zankel Hall, we catch the urbane scent of Christian de Portzamparc's
City of Music, also in Paris. The perfume lingers longest in the elliptical
enclosure of polished Venetian plaster that surrounds the new auditorium
like a cone of golden sunlight.
hall is entered through the merest vestibule that opens off Seventh
Avenue, just north of 56th Street. From there, double escalators descend
to the orchestra level. Glimpses of the cone appear during the ride.
The plaster's warm, lustrous finish, which bears traces of the hands
that applied it, is a lovely visual overture to the live music that
awaits us below. White lamp shades are refrains of the ellipsis motif.
you have visited Mr. Portzamparc's organ recital hall at the City
of Music, you will expect the Zankel auditorium to be elliptically
shaped also. Surprise: it is rectangular, and the contrast with the
curved, sloping walls of the plaster cone is very Polshekian. The
design's formal complexity is balanced and does not appear contrived.
luxury version of a black-box theater, the hall has the feel of a
broadcasting studio, which it partly is. Periodically, the room will
be used for distance learning, a closed-circuit process that will
link musicians and audiences from around the world for live performances
and master classes.
colors set the ambience. Walls, floors and seat frames are fashioned
from maple and American sycamore. The seats are upholstered in sage.
We are in an outdoor clearing, in other words, a space set aside for
ceiling is regulation black box: an inverted thicket of house lights
and stage lights, protruding from black metal trusses. The historically
inclined will recognize a resemblance to Perpendicular Gothic, a style
that has long evoked spreading foliage overhead. The receding darkness
of the ceiling sets off the light wood.
walls are formed from slatted wood panels. From certain angles, the
panels look woven, giving them the appearance of tatami mats. Modern
architects like Walter Gropius saw in these traditional modules of
Japanese design an antecedent of their own preoccupation with industrial
prefabrication. Their serene horizontality also caught the admiring
eye of Frank Lloyd Wright. Mr. Polshek's debt to the modern masters
is explicitly acknowledged in an upstairs corridor that leads to parterre
seating, where he has placed an iconic bench of slatted wood designed
by George Nelson in 1946. Staggeringly elegant wall sconces, dimly
lighted by blue fiber-optic filaments, glint against the pale sycamore
Hall is an industrial artifact in its own right. Apart from the excavation
and construction work by the Tishman Construction Corporation, the
hall itself is an intricately mechanized device that can transform
itself into more seating configurations than I could find use for.
Suffice it to say that the floor goes up and down, in sections or
all at once, and 12 banks (or "wagons") of seats slide in and out
. . . How to put it? Zankel Hall does things.
Polshek team worked on the design with the theater architectural firm
Auerbach, Pollock, Friedlander and with Jaffe Holden Acoustics. For
me, the most interesting aspect of this venture will reveal itself
in a few weeks, when the hall first makes use of its new distance-learning
technology. Many architects today, especially younger teams, are beginning
to explore the possibilities of a hybrid space in which conventional
enclosures are linked together by means of advanced communication
Hall may be the first place New Yorkers will have to observe and participate
in this type of programming on a continuing basis. It will not be
the last. We're just at the beginning of developments that are likely
to revolutionize the ways people think about and plan shared social
space. They will also change the way we think about cities.
music and dance, architecture has long been among the most interactive
of the arts. At Zankel Hall, down deep in the earth, new spatial thresholds
await. And could we have an old one back, please? Robert J. Harth,
Carnegie Hall's executive and artistic director, mentioned to me that
the Russian Tea Room is for sale again. Any takers? Must have proven
track record of filling rooms with stars.