Before Lincoln Center, there was San Juan Hill. Robert Moses razed the predominantly Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood to make way for new theaters and a Fordham University campus in the 1950s, replacing tenement buildings with white travertine monuments to “high culture.” More recently, Lincoln Center has tried to reimagine itself, and partially atone for this original sin, by remaking its physical spaces to welcome a wider, more diverse community to the campus. In summer 2023, Lincoln Center announced efforts to redesign its western edge, where for decades a large blank wall has stood, not particularly inviting to the high schoolers and public housing residents who face it every day. Already, outdoor public spaces encourage people to linger, while overhauled information displays broadcast a full suite of cultural offerings inside. The new lobby of the remodeled David Geffen Hall directly invites people inside to gather around generous couches and tables even outside of performance hours. The interior public space models how long-standing institutions may engage new audiences, and destabilize long-held ideas about what an “audience” even is.
The performing arts industry is in crisis: decades of declining subscriptions accelerated by the pandemic and rising production costs have led to mass layoffs and decreased and reworked programming. In other world cities, like London, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen, governments have pressed performing arts institutions to provide more public service in exchange for continued financial support. Venues have reimagined their lobbies and circulation spaces to appeal to sunset watchers, coffee drinkers, tango dancers, and others outside of traditional symphony and theater audiences. Tim Carey, who practices architecture and is also a trained clarinetist, traveled to Northern Europe to see how they are reimagining their public spaces to serve a new daytime “audience.” Below, he charts a path forward where concert halls and theaters may continue to offer the exceptional experiences of live performance and extend their joys into the realm of the everyday.
In his essay “Here is New York,” E.B. White celebrated the many small indignities that accompany public life in New York City: reminders of the “implausibility” that a city of such breadth should continue to function, and of what we trade for the “sense of belonging to something unique . . . and unparalleled.” Navigating the streets and subways is rarely without hiccup and finding a spot for lunch might involve an extended stakeout; these mundane obstacles are just as emblematic of city life as the transcendent experiences that are a reward for persevering through them. On a hot afternoon this past July, I passed a woman at Lincoln Center looking for a place to enjoy a coffee who was thwarted by a locked door — another of the small inconveniencies that pepper daily life here. “It’s supposed to always be open!” she exclaimed, and turned to her friend to form a new plan. This was not, however, one of the lunch counters or delis that White wrote of in his 1949 essay — this was the door to David Geffen Hall, home of the New York Philharmonic, temporarily closed for a private event.
This building, designed by Max Abramovitz and opened in 1962, offers the city one of the “unparalleled” experiences that White alluded to: a performance here is a collective experience and an encounter with art that transcends the everyday. Recently, however, the concert hall has become more permeable to the rhythms of everyday life. A long-awaited and recently completed renovation includes an expanded foyer space with expanded hours. Flanked by the box office and a wildly celebrated restaurant, the Karen and Richard LeFrak Lobby is open all day and contains a coffee stand, a 50-foot wide digital screen, and public restrooms. A smattering of brochures and digital posters signal the concerts that take place upstairs, but orchestral music doesn’t have an overwhelming presence here. The space is more readily described through the ways in which visitors use it: remote workers stake out a central table, while, near the entrance, pairs of friends rest their feet in armchairs. Serpentine couches and pebble-shaped stools fill out the rest of the space, where visitors use the free WiFi while recovering from an afternoon of shopping or take a break from pushing a stroller — all under the watchful eye of a handful of employees.
These activities are all visible to passersby through the lobby’s glazed facade, which highlights the space’s delicate position between two different faces of this campus. The plazas just outside host nimble and improvisatory public uses: there is a constant stroll of visitors, some lingering on benches, and casual outdoor performances have successfully invited audiences that have historically not been well-served by Lincoln Center. Inside the complex’s monolithic performing arts buildings, however, are institutions that present art forms that cultivate a connoisseurship that elides all too easily with perceptions of elitism. These institutions are struggling, in turn, with the financial and cultural implications of declining subscriber bases over the past 15 years, as well as grappling with calls to diversify their audiences and confront historic ties to the destruction of San Juan Hill. Many performing arts institutions in the United States, confronting similar issues, have focused on audience return rates, outreach initiatives, and donor retention. But a handful of institutions, including the New York Philharmonic, are also addressing these questions by rethinking the nature and utility of their lobby spaces. By expanding the segment of the population who might have a reason to visit their buildings and offering public spaces between art and daily life, these institutions are exploring new modes of expanding their reach, revenue, and relevance.
Press surrounding David Geffen Hall’s reopening last year primarily focused on the improved acoustics of the auditorium, but coverage that touched on the LeFrak Lobby referred to it as either a “welcome center,” a “hangout zone,” or a “lobby.” The institution itself describes the space as a “living room,” and it is by no means the first of its kind (though architectural critics are apparently still grappling with what to call a publicly-accessible space associated with a performing arts institution). The LeFrak Lobby is a direct descendant of Lincoln Center’s own Rubenstein Atrium, a slim, mid-block thoroughfare that was built in the 1970s as an exterior privately-owned public space. Like many of its counterparts, it was left uncared for and unloved — until Lincoln Center took on all maintenance costs in exchange for free rent. The institution subsequently enclosed and renovated the space, opening it back up to the public in 2009. Designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (also the team behind David Geffen Hall’s new public spaces) the atrium has a similar combination of a ticket booth, refreshment stand, and flexible seating, plus a small stage for free performances. The atrium is active throughout the day, and its simple arrangement of café tables is occupied both by patrons of the café stand and those simply taking advantage of a place to relax.
The Rubenstein Atrium was quietly revolutionary, indicating that a nonprofit organization might have a vested interest in serving as the steward of an indoor, daytime public space. With the continual decline of subscriber bases and a decrease in charitable giving after the 2008 financial crisis, Lincoln Center’s commitment to this space signaled the lengths an institution might go to respond to these headwinds: the Atrium provided the institution with three new street frontages, an additional box office, and new daytime revenue through its food and beverage sales. In its casual use, free performances, and spatial generosity, this renovation translated the improvisatory public engagement present in Lincoln Center’s outdoor plazas to an indoor space. Though the Rubenstein stopped short of giving casual visitors an ability to cross the threshold into one of Lincoln Center’s rarified performing arts buildings, it suggested that an arts institution and an indoor daytime public space might have a symbiotic relationship.
A 2012 renovation at the Public Theater similarly explored the potential of its public spaces as sources of engagement and revenue. Shortly before its reopening, Artistic Director Oskar Eustis described an aspiration to “put more emphasis on this downtown building as a center and as a campus,” appearing to invoke the benefits of Lincoln Center’s variety of public spaces. A new upstairs bar would be open a few hours before and after a show, and an expanded stoop ostensibly created an exterior gathering space that the architects, James Polshek and Ennead Architects, referred to as the “seventh stage.” But rather than reaching out into the rhythms of city life and potential new publics, the reconfiguration of the lobby spaces was focused on giving existing audiences a reason to linger in the building and continue to spend money after a performance. A handful of other performance venues have since explored similar offerings, closer to the street and public life. (The Shed, for example, contains both a bookstore and a bar that are open outside of performance hours and accessible from the street.) Yet when these additions attempt to court non-ticketholders, they enter their institutions into another notoriously competitive industry: 80 percent of storefront bars and restaurants in New York City fold within the first five years.
Across town, the design of the Pershing Square Signature Center’s aimed to elevate the experience of both audience members and daytime visitors. Designed by Frank Gehry and opened in 2012, the Signature Center is housed within the lower floors of a luxury condominium tower, where a circuitous foyer space on the second floor meanders around three small theaters and a grand staircase, offering a variety of spaces for audiences to mingle and socialize. A small café-bar and bookshop nestled into this circulation sequence were designed to remain open during the day and after performances, and casual seating leads right up to the doors of the theaters. This entire lobby space is available for daytime public use, when food and beverage service revenue combine with an generous encouragement to interact with a theater space.
The experience of being here is enriched enormously by the moments of overlap between the everyday and the theatrical. A door left ajar gives a glimpse into a theater space and its daytime hum. Equipment carts and lighting rigs occasionally roll by, accompanied by technicians. These are fleeting and alluring signs of the transcendent experiences that a return visit for a performance might offer, even to someone who has simply stopped in to use the restroom.
These days, however, there are few visitors to witness these moments. The café-bar and bookstore have not fully reopened since the Covid pandemic, and the space has become so secretive that a potential new patron would be unlikely to ever find it. Though a paper sign neatly placed on the exterior door indicates that the Signature Center is open Tuesday through Saturday from noon until six, only the box office and turnstiles are visible through the glass door. For a daytime visitor in search of a quiet workplace who has the temerity to take the sign at face value, a security guard immediately asks the purpose of the visit but then warmly gestures to the feature stair nearby and the generous space it leads to.
In the years since these spaces emerged, subscriber bases have continued to dwindle while calls for diversity and inclusion in these institutions have grown. Generally, increasing access to performances in the auditorium is seen as the ultimate tool to generate change in these areas. But public spaces like the LeFrak Lobby, the Rubenstein Atrium, and Signature Center acknowledge that there may be more ways for the architecture of a performing arts building to aid in those missions. These spaces have the potential to stitch their institutions into the everyday lives of a wider set of citizens and provide value to them — potentially leading to new revenue streams or even an eventual ticket purchase. In most cases, however, examples of these spaces in New York City only tentatively celebrate their role on the threshold between everyday life and the performing arts. Only rarely do they yield productive overlaps between those two worlds or suggest that a return visit for a performance might be rewarded with a cathartic collective event. Furthermore, in a city of this size and breadth, many people less familiar with these institutions are unlikely to even know that these spaces exist.
The most expansive and widely publicized incarnation of these ideas that the city has seen emerged out of specific social pressures, but ultimately proved temporary. Several performing arts institutions — including the Public Theater, Atlantic Theater Company, New York Theater Workshop, and Playwrights Horizons — opened their lobbies to activists during the 2020 racial justice protests, providing water, snacks, hand sanitizer, and the use of their restrooms. But this generosity was triggered only by massive social upheaval and public pressure from groups of artists, audiences, and funders that had begun to call more loudly on nonprofit performing arts institutions to show tangible efforts to reach wider and more diverse audiences. Furthermore, it also occurred at a time when performances were stalled due to the Covid pandemic, and these spaces were even more vacant than usual. Though these efforts signaled enormous potential for a symbiotic relationship between performing arts institutions’ non-profit missions and public space, they addressed a short-term call to action rather than a lasting rethinking of who these spaces serve, when, and to what end.
A response to dwindling subscription ticket sales and diversity and inclusion initiatives, the public spaces and daytime programming in these flagship buildings are ultimately in dialogue with these performing arts institutions’ roles as mission-driven nonprofits. Alongside near-constant efforts to preserve audience and budget, and provide welcoming gestures towards broader populations, these spaces can sometimes feel like waiting rooms — tentatively gesturing towards new publics that may not be sufficiently encouraged to appear. In the end, they are more likely to be used by long-time cultural consumers who already know they exist. In other countries where funding is explicitly tied to a demand to serve all taxpayers, however, similar projects take a wider view of their raison d’etre. In Europe, for example, where state subsidies cover a substantial portion of operating costs at many institutions, this funding is accompanied by a mandate that the institution serve the entire population to the best of its ability. This stipulation has led to public spaces that broadly signal that something as expensive as a performing arts building should serve more than the performing arts and cast a wider net for the uses that their public might have for the building.
A cultural building boom in the early 2000s brought new waterfront performing arts centers with extensive public space components to several cities harboring the North Sea: Oslo’s Opera House, (Snøhetta, 2008) and Reykjavik’s Harpa Concert Hall (Henning Larsen, 2011) both gesture towards a wider public utility for performing arts buildings by providing immense public spaces.
A handful of smaller facilities in the region echo this gesture while more closely matching the scale of the LeFrak Lobby. The Skuespilhuset, a Copenhagen playhouse completed in 2008 and designed by Lundgaard & Tranberg Architects, sits on a pivot point between two public thoroughfares and connects them with a boardwalk that follows its front facade. The glass facade provides pedestrians with a glimpse of a dramatic, suspended sequence of stairs and platforms leading up to the auditorium. Young people linger at picnic tables with beers in tow, and a local tango group meets here on Friday nights. Inside, a scattering of café tables and sofas, and a small restaurant, are all accessible during the day — an opportunity for visitors to sit alone in silence and watch boats glide by, peruse posters of upcoming performances, or meet for lunch. On performance nights, when the staircases start to fill with ticketholders, it becomes nearly impossible to tell which visitors are here for a performance, and which are here to watch the sunset. This is not a building that only theatergoers know to visit. It provides spaces with enough ambiguity and presence to play a variety of roles in the lives of everyday citizens — and each visit gives passersby a glimpse of another possible role it might play in their future.
The Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, a home for jazz and contemporary music completed in 2005 and designed by 3XN, lies along a still developing riverwalk, about a kilometer from Amsterdam’s main train station. Three glass curtain wall facades rise five stories tall, displaying a set of terraced platforms that wind through the airy interior and provide access to the auditorium. The light wood floors and delicate railings accentuate the immense views to the River IJ. The building is open to all during the day, though few people come here without a specific reason: the relatively remote location can feel distant from the city’s other cultural institutions. Over time, the staff has begun programming these platforms with events during daytime hours. Instrument-specific tradeshows, ping pong tournaments, and small business conventions not only bring daytime visitors to the building, but intentionally invite people with interests beyond jazz and contemporary music. The Muziekgebouw leverages its public spaces — less laden with the gravitas of art music than the auditorium — to build a relationship with a new set of citizens outside of its usual audience.
A handful of institutions in London have also made a concerted push to reach all taxpayers that contributed to their state funding with a three-pronged approach: increased touring productions, investment in streaming productions, and renovation projects that pull new visitors into their previously exclusive homes. At the National Theatre, for example, a project dubbed “NT Future,” led by Haworth Tompkins, was completed in 2015. Denys Lasdun’s original 1976 design for the institution’s three-venue home placed the two largest theaters — and their public spaces — on axes that oppose each other by 45 degrees. The resulting foyer spaces were a “fourth theater,” where audience members would mingle. This most recent renovation leveraged the calculus that went into sculpting that experience for nighttime audiences by reprogramming the entirety of the “fourth theater” for a wider array of functions throughout the day. Seating, cafes, restaurants, and a bookstore are now found throughout the interior sequence and spill out onto the nearby pedestrian walk along the South Bank. Art classes frequently populate the moveable poufs in the theater’s central foyer, while other visitors stop in for a quiet tea with a newspaper or browse the bookstore. On the uppermost levels, remote workers and National Theatre employees find quiet nooks with tables and chairs steps away from the doors to the Olivier Theatre. When this already active space periodically fills with intermission crowds, the full breadth of reasons to visit this building is put on display.
Across the Thames, a similar project designed by Stanton Williams and completed in 2018 connects two new entries to the Royal Opera House via a new daytime foyer. The entrance to the new public sequence fits comfortably next to both luxury purveyors and souvenir stands on Covent Garden, while the 19th century edifice by Edward Middleton Barry that houses the auditorium now shares the Bow Street block with a more approachable glass shopfront entry to the revamped public space.
Anchored by a café and gift shop on the ground floor, three stories of the building offer public routes, lined with seating, outfitted with the dark woods, metals, and plasters one would expect of an opera house. During their lunch hours, office workers have nestled the space into their daily routines. Lingering on the secluded sofas that line the terrace with food from home, they are rewarded by a sweeping view of Covent Garden and glimpses through a window into the costume shop. Groups of retirees meet for quick sandwiches at the ground floor cafe and within view of archival photos, posters, and Royal Opera employees holding informal meetings. All the while, a steady stream of curious visitors wanders in one door and out the other. It’s now possible to both window shop and stay a while.
Whether reaching out into the city or drawing a casual visitor up through the building, these European halls provide a liminal zone between performance and daily life. These examples productively illustrate how a performing arts building can serve those outside of its typical audience, and even provide routes for these visitors to gradually expand that relationship via glimpses of all the experiences that the building offers. The benefits of these pairings can be both social and financial — as noted by Alistair Fair in Play On: Contemporary Theater Architecture in Britain, London’s National Theatre was able to keep its ticket prices in check as a result of the financial success of its daytime concessions. For similar institutions in New York City, steered by their nonprofit boards rather than public funding, this mentality offers clear lessons. By giving more segments of the population a wider array of everyday encounters with these buildings, leaving them with a richer knowledge of what occurs inside, performing arts institutions stand to answer calls for greater inclusivity and financial stability with more nuance and staying power.
On a humid August evening this summer, conductor Louis Langrée was soon to take helm of the Mostly Mozart Orchestra for one of his last performances with the ensemble, and a crowd was settling into the LeFrak Lobby for a simulcast on the 50-foot screen. As the concert began, so did a wide array of possible encounters with performance, all in the same space. A lone woman in a black dress and heels sat at rapt attention a mere five feet from the screen, a glass of red wine cradled in her hand. A man leaning against a column to her right faced away from the screen and fervently swung his hands along to the score. Small groups of friends, seemingly unaware of the simulcast, lingered in the space, laughing and chatting, and occasionally attracting glares. Concessions were flowing, and all the while, revelers dancing along to an outdoor concert in the plaza came in to use the public restroom — momentarily breaking the acoustic separation between both spaces, and pausing for a moment to take in the competing performance on their way. The many ways in which performing arts institutions exist in the public imagination were on full display here, indicating the varying degrees of comfort, engagement, and entertainment they can provide to a diverse set of individuals — as well as illustrating the potential for a second or third visit to foster a different experience. Similarly rich interactions might happen here outside of performance hours. These and future facilities stand to benefit from teasing out ways to engender those experiences. These are spaces that might feel both welcoming and “unparalleled” to any New Yorker who may wander in, freshly agitated from confronting one of the city’s small indignities — but pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a bit of unexpected fanfare.
All photos by Timothy Carey
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.