Richard Perry/The New York Times
Lincoln Center’s new Claire Tow Theater sits on top of the Vivian Beaumont Theater.
The new Claire Tow Theater, perched on top of Eero Saarinen’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, has been in operation for a few weeks now, and it’s a nimble addition to Lincoln Center with architectural benefits out of proportion to its size.
Devised to nest discreetly on the Beaumont’s newly planted green roof, it seats just 112 people: a two-story, 23,000-square-foot glass box wrapped inside a grille of aluminum louvers that help screen out the sun. Like a bridge, the box manages the large span between Saarinen’s giant supporting columns on either end of the Beaumont with a massive truss whose diagonal beams play off against the subtler horizontals of the grille.
The geometry is clearest at night, when the place becomes a floating jewel box above the transparent rectangle of the Beaumont’s glass base, which is topped by Saarinen’s immense travertine-clad roof, a thick slab that houses stacks of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
The architect is Hugh Hardy, a veteran designer of performing arts spaces and repurposed landmarks who runs H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture. One of his first jobs, more than half a century ago, was working for the theatrical designer Jo Mielziner, Saarinen’s collaborator on the Beaumont, helping mediate between the two of them, so he has a longstanding affinity with the theater. He told me the other day that the dream of a black box on site goes back to the era of Mayor John V. Lindsay (1966-73), who supported one there in theory — but then for years Lincoln Center had a hard time filling the 1,060-seat Beaumont and its downstairs companion, the 299-seat Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.
This was before Gregory Mosher, followed by André Bishop, became Lincoln Center Theater’s artistic director and Bernard Gersten its executive producer. (He announced last week that he plans to step down next summer.) Then the place started booming. Mr. Gersten and Mr. Bishop craved somewhere to stage small, experimental productions at modest ticket prices and entice young audiences, and for a while they rented the Duke Theater on West 42nd Street to that end. Meanwhile Lincoln Center got a makeover that didn’t include the Beaumont.
The makeover by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, now a couple of years old, has given Alice Tully Hall a new life; a sharp, smart new profile; and a hopping public space. It removed the oppressive bridge that loomed over 65th Street and in its place on the plaza in front of the Beaumont made room for a glass pavilion housing an upscale restaurant, the Lincoln. With a lawn on its tilting fun-house roof, the whimsical Lincoln, done in collaboration with Fxfowle Architects, became an instant conversation piece around town, a pointed green-and-glass riposte to the endearing monotony and cold war pomposity of the center’s stony, classicizing modernism.
With a little hindsight, though, the roof lawn has come more and more to resemble a collapsed soufflé, not quite holding up visually its end of the campus alongside Saarinen’s building.
I mention the Lincoln because, anxious as it is to be loved and to make the complex more welcoming, the new, $ 42 million Tow tries just as hard to look inconspicuous, and it ends up complementing the site better.
You can glimpse it from the fountain in the central plaza in front of the Metropolitan Opera House. Gradually it disappears as you approach the Beaumont. Surprisingly Mr. Hardy and his colleagues took a while before settling on a rooftop location. The design fits there as if providentially.
Two passenger elevators slide almost imperceptibly from the existing lobby through a gap in the library stacks. The width of the Beaumont makes room for not only the theater but also rehearsal space, dressing quarters, offices and a pocket lobby with a bar opening onto a wondrous new rooftop deck, which could become a mini-version of the immensely popular cafe atop the Pompidou in Paris, if Lincoln Center finds a way — as it ought to — to make it accessible to everyone, not just Tow ticketholders.
Two nice touches, inside: a little mobile by Kiki Smith, made of cross-hatched planks and cast-bronze birds, over the bar, and the walnut paneling and red upholstered seats that furnish the black box itself, reminding you, in case you forgot, that this is still Lincoln Center.
Saarinen’s work epitomizes the sort of sculptural integrity and monumentality that many contemporary architects aspire to, and which might seem inviolable. There was some understandable fretting beforehand by preservationists about the new theater. But architecture is not sculpture, and under the right circumstances, with a thoughtful, not wishy-washy architect, even an admired landmark by a historic figure can change.
The Beaumont turns out to be one of those cases. Mr. Hardy is that architect. And the city has a fine new theater to prove it.