Remaking a Classic

To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, Lincoln Center embarked on a major overhaul of its sixteen-acre campus on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, with architect Heidi Blau ’80 and landscape architect Signe Nielsen ’72 leading the massive project.

by Jane L. Levere ’72

When renowned landscape architect Signe Nielsen ’72 took on the massive job in 2004 of transforming the exterior spaces on the campus of New York

Heidi Blau ’80, architect.
Architect Heidi Blau ’80

 City’s venerable Lincoln Center, her vision for one section of the grounds started with a simple request from Peter Martins. The ballet master in chief of the New York City Ballet asked for a “special smoking area for dancers outside the stage door,” Nielsen said.

She did him one better than that. Nielsen’s final design for the space outside the David H. Koch Theater resembles a 3,500-square-foot “urban forest,” brimming with thirty quaking aspen trees, elegant granite benches, and plenty of shade. It’s a perfect spot for visitors and performers from the theater to gather, relax, socialize, and, yes, smoke.
Ben Gilmartin, a senior associate at the architecture firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who worked with Nielsen, said her idea to fill the grove outside the theater with quaking aspen trees reflects her keen sense of using the landscape in aesthetically beautiful yet practical ways. When mature, the dense grove of trees will produce a pleasing gray noise with the rustle of their leaves, naturally screening out the surrounding noise of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. They will “create shade acoustically,” Gilmartin said, making for a more inviting and useful space.
Nielsen “brings a keen aesthetic sense and deep knowledge of the technical character of plants, their color, texture, and puts a palette together once we come up with ideas together,” he added. “She’s not put off by challenges, and weathers the difficult building culture of New York City with very good grace.”
Turns out, Nielsen wasn’t the only Smith woman to play a significant role in the $1.2 billion project to refurbish Lincoln Center, which marked its fiftieth anniversary in 2009 and is the country’s largest performing arts center and home to the Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic, and Jazz at Lincoln Center, among others. Heidi Blau ’80, a partner at New York–based FXFOWLE Architects, served as the project director, overseeing the redevelopment of many of Lincoln Center’s buildings and public spaces.
Nielsen and Blau, who collaborated on some aspects of the project, had the same mandate: refurbish and redevelop the center’s sixteen-acre campus—which extends from West 59th Street to West 66th Street—and create a place that is physically and psychologically welcoming and relevant for the next fifty years. That meant renovating and expanding the Juilliard School, overhauling performance spaces, creating easier access to buildings, adding a restaurant, and maximizing the use of outdoor spaces—all without disrupting a single performance. The project broke ground in 2006 and work is ongoing, but much of it has been completed. Among the most noticeable changes are the opening of a new entrance to Lincoln Center’s campus along Columbus Avenue; new jazz and dance studios and a new lobby, box office, and black-box theater at Juilliard; and a complete renovation of Alice Tully Hall, including a new, three-story, all-glass lobby and gathering space, as well as a totally refurbished auditorium featuring curved moabi wood paneling that is embedded with LED lighting.
Signe Nielsen ’72, landscape architect.
Landscape architect Signe Nielsen ’72

Nielsen’s work is reflected in lush new landscaping around the campus, including slopes planted with trees, ferns, and seasonally blooming bulbs alongside new ramps that provide access, from Columbus Avenue, to the campus’s central plaza. Across the plaza from the Vivian Beaumont Theater, a bosque of trees has been redesigned and replanted, and now features new precast concrete benches as well as a grove of thirty London plane trees growing in a layered structural soil cells system covered with a surface of stabilized stone dust.

Perhaps one of the most striking features of Nielsen’s design is the green roof atop Lincoln, the campus’s new restaurant. Shaped like a saddle, the roof has eighteen-degree slopes and is covered in a swath of lawn that dips down at its southwest corner. It was designed with not only the environment in mind (the roof saves energy by regulating temperatures and absorbing storm water) but also comfort, with plenty of room for people to plop down and relax. According to Nielsen, they can use the roof to “watch concerts, sunbathe, picnic, and hang out.”  
For her part, as project director, Blau led and managed a large team of engineers, designers, and specialists and also collaborated with Diller Scofidio + Renfro on the redevelopment plan. According to Ron Austin, executive director of the Lincoln Center Development Project, Blau was “the mother of the project, from the technical perspective. She was the tip of the pyramid; everyone followed her lead. She’s tremendously talented. Her discipline keeps us all marching to the same drumbeat.”
Already, the expansion of the Juilliard School and the reimagined Alice Tully Hall have received widespread recognition by the design and academic press. Although this recognition is nice, Blau looks at the Lincoln Center project as an opportunity to improve the urban experience for all visitors who enjoy the campus. “It also was a tremendous learning experience, with the technical requirements of performance spaces, acoustics, lighting, and sophisticated systems for the plazas, pool, and trees,” she says. “What is great about this project and architecture in general is that we explore spatial ideas and challenge assumptions, so we are always continuing to learn.”
Similarly, Nielsen took on the Lincoln Center project because it fit firmly with her belief in the power of landscape architecture to transform communities and bring people together, a philosophy she has been following since she started in the field more than thirty years ago. One of the goals of Lincoln Center’s redevelopment program is to open its campus and encourage more interaction among artists, teachers, students, and the public. “The whole premise of my career has been in public landscapes,” she says. “My work at Lincoln Center is consistent with everything I believe in, making something the public can enter into without paying.”  
Not surprisingly, both Nielsen and Blau are quick to note the profound role Smith has played in their lives and success in two professions that traditionally have not been overly accepting of women. Nielsen, a government major, points to the skills she acquired at Smith as being vital to her current work. “The fundamental thing Smith taught me how to do was write, how to articulate ideas, because we have to sell ourselves verbally and in writing as well as graphically,” she says. “Smith gave me two out of the three.”
Blau, who studied studio art and spent her junior year at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York, credits Smith’s liberal arts approach for instilling in hera deep desire for continued intellectual growth. “A liberal arts education is based on exploration and critical thought, which is a great foundation for architecture,” she says. More than that, though, Smith “gives women the confidence and understanding that we can do whatever we set our mind to.”
Jane L. Levere ’72 has been a New York-based journalist most of her career, initially on staff and as a full-time freelance writer since 1995. She contributes to the New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Travel & Leisure,, the Huffington Post, and many other publications.
SAQ Winter 2010-11