The Lincoln Center is the tightly clenched sphincter of New York’s tux-n-pearl cultural scene. Born of a collaboration between demigod planner Robert Moses and John D Rockefeller, the complex’s piazza – modelled by Philip Johnson on Michelangelo’s design for the Campidoglio – unites the work of several architects in an ensemble that put the post into modern well avant la lettre (and is creepily reminiscent of Mussolini’s Esposizione Universale di Roma).
But though the Center has a hotline to the past, it doesn’t talk much to its neighbours: it’s haughtily raised above Columbus on steps, and turns its back on Amsterdam with a brutal wall (even worse, it was dumped on a black and Puerto Rican neighbourhood in order to ethnically cleanse an area with irresistible real-estate potential).
What can be done about this edifice? Diller Scofidio + Renfro recently completed an intervention in its fabric, adding fig leaves here and there to try and cover up the naked power on display, but this project suggests going even further and reprogramming the rear of the complex as a school. Dissolving the strict hierarchy of its blocks into a Smithson-style matt building, the complex is broken up into three basic elements, which the designers call ‘corridors’, ‘units’, and ‘nodes’.
Counterintuitively, the corridors are the main teaching spaces, a refunctioning that emblematises this attempt to set the static in motion, transforming education and space at the same time. The rooms, on the other hand, house structure and services, and nodes distribute resources between the two.
After this process of re-education the centre learns to open up: passageways become running tracks, classrooms sprout unexpectedly between existing services, and indoor gardens and outdoor teaching spaces complete the process of disintegration by intermingling interior and exterior space.
As a generation, the GAGA cohort is remarkably and refreshingly at ease with tackling the notion of working with existing buildings, and see the city and its structures as an open ground for creativity eschewing the Modernist paradigm aiming to construct new buildings on a continuous tabula rasa landscape. Here, the terrain of the Lincoln Center is an open ground for activation and spatial proposition, elegantly counterpointing the heroic architecture it sequesters in its wake. In a confident exploration of reprogramming, the project encourages us to question what is to be done with these recent relics without destroying them, with a proposition that offers a redefined notion of school. And graphic representation is reprogrammed too, with perspectival sections and plans of the 1960s and ’70s reclaimed to become occupied stages upon which small children and technical explorations around the theme of retrofit, and the kit of parts of flexible architecture channels both mass production DIY furniture and the future of bespoke, pre-cut-to-order architecture.