Lincoln Center for the performing arts, which you may also know as the Metropolitan Opera of New York, is one of those buildings that catch your attention as soon as you lay an eye on it for its simple yet majestic design. But, if you get to know a bit more about it, you will soon realize there is much more than it is appreciated at first sight.
Here are a few things you didn’t know about Lincoln Center.
1. NOT THE ORIGINAL OPERA
There is no doubt Harrison’s Opera is the reflection of the most splendorous time of opera, accessible to all and hosting a prestigious program that attracts 800,000 every season. But there was a time when the Metropolitan opera was only a meeting point for the high-class society of New York.
The old Opera House opened in 1411 Broadway in 1883. It was a Renaissance design built on brick and steel and, even though it may have looked way less impressive than the version you can see today, it still had an archway just like the one that shapes the main façade nowadays.
But the lack of popularity is what ended with this construction which, once denied a landmark designation, was demolished in 1967.
Image caption: Old Metropolitan Opera
2. A DIFFERENT SKYLINE FOR NEW YORK
New York’s Landscape would not be what it is nowadays if things had gone as planned at first. The Lincoln Center would be taking up one of the most iconic sports in Manhattan, the land in which today sits the Rockefeller building. But the Great Depression of 1929 changed all plans, forcing the withdrawal of the project that set up the new Opera there. Who knows how the Met Opera would have looked in there, sharing architects with the actual Rockefeller Center?
A few years later, the project was established in the Westside, as a part of a bigger urban renewal plan that intended to bring some value for an area that had been especially affected by the crisis.
Image caption: Rockefeller Center Building
3. A SET OF 44 DESIGNS
You probably know the struggle. Re-designing is just as much of the project as it is the original planning, if not more. This happened to Wallace Harrison, whose design process for the Lincoln Center included no less than 44 different options and took over 10 years.
Some of the hand-sketched renders by Hugh Ferriss show the monumental aspirations of the architect, who even dreamed of a Berninian design that resembled the great St Peter’s Square. But dreams had to be scaled down as he was not alone in this process.
Image caption: A preliminary Wallace K. Harrison design for the new opera house at Lincoln Center. Rendering by Hugh Ferriss (1955).
Image caption: An early Wallace K. Harrison design for the new opera house at Lincoln Center. Rendering by Hugh Ferriss (1956–57)
4. A PACT BETWEEN STYLES
A few more starchitects were involved in the design of the surrounding buildings, so Harrison had to come to terms with Philip Johnson and Saarinen’s requests, amongst others, whose styles differed greatly from his big-scale plans for the Opera.
The final design compromised the ideas of each architect, resulting in an eclectic construction that looks traditional and bold at the same time, leaving a mixed signature of some of the most renowned architects of an era.
Image caption: The Met Opera
5. THE PERPETUAL ELEMENT
From the very first Metropolitan Opera building to the final construction, there is an element that has remained unmovable: the arches. They have been present through every possible version of the building, and represent now a key role in the look of Lincoln Center. Five distinctive arches raise 30 meters above the ground level, taking up 9 overground stories and giving the building a monumental character.
Image caption: Metropolitan Opera House
6. WHAT LIES BEHIND THE FAÇADE
The first thing you can see when looking through the archway on the east façade is a set of symmetrically displayed expressionist murals. The two famous art pieces by Marc Chagall are inspired by Mozart’s music, in concordance with the building’s program. The Source of Music and The Triumph of Music are the two custom-made, 10-meter-high paintings that star in the Opera’s hall.
The success of them has recently crossed the seas, serving as inspiration for an exhibition at the Philharmonie de Paris. Le Triomphe de la Musique, named after the original painting, explored Chagall’s work, who painted the Met’s murals whilst in the French capital.
Image caption: Marc Chagall working panels of the Metropolitan Opera, NY – The Triumph of Music 1966
Image caption: The Metropolitan Opera House’s Marc Chagall mural, The Triumph of Music.
7. AN ARTS-SUPPORTING PROGRAMME
With the main façade itself being about art, you may not be surprised to discover there is more than just the murals about art in the building.
Mostly unknown to the usual musically-driven visitors, Lincoln Center hosts a visual arts program as well, with Gallery Met curated by Dodie Kazanjianon based on the ground floor and displaying its exhibitions through all the main public spaces.
8. AN ONSITE PRODUCTION
Even though the main storage space is located outside the actual building (because could you imagine all the sets for every play that has ever taken place at the Met fitting in just regular basement storage?), the Opera is home to a workshop for every industry behind the development of a show: from a wig production space to a costume atelier, including a carpentry workshop to build the background sets and even its armory. So, when you get to see a play on stage next, be aware of all the work that is invisibly going on past the boundaries of the stage.
Image caption: Metropolitan Opera Backstage
Image caption: Metropolitan Opera Backstage
9. A HIGH-TECH STAGE
Not only are the sets excessively big, but they are also heavy enough to make it impossible for them to be transported traditionally. So how’s the whole play taking shape, then? The answer is a whole design of technologically advanced platforms moving through the three directions in space. Just like that, a whole assembled set can be brought up and down a lift directly to the stage, and a truck can go down vertically a few levels inside the building to unload the shipment directly in the storehouse.
Image caption: Metropolitan Opera House stage elevator
Image caption: Metropolitan Opera House Backstage
10. NOT JUST A CLASSICAL OPERA
Despite what you may think, Lincoln Center is not only about opera. It is, in fact, one of the most popular venues in NYC and hosts many events of different kinds. Of course, the greatest operas of history are played on the Met’s stage, but if you fancy a jazz concert or are invited to a prestigious gala you are likely to step into the building too.
Image caption: Met Opera New Year’s Eve