Any one who did not experience the Upper West Side in the late 1960s, when Lincoln Center was nearing completion, or who has forgotten, might read Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet. There was an apocalyptic feeling in the air—more palpable than anything the Bush administration tried to conjure up— as one negotiated panhandlers, muggers, hippies, and refuse, as one made one’s way up and down Broadway. These public phenomena have not vanished, but New York had reached a peak of dysfunctionality, and western civilization seemed to be self-destructing at a fierce boil: cities were decaying around the country, reading and writing seemed doomed to obsolescence, tv was king, and a lot of people were worried about the cultural partnership of drugs and music. In a few sentences, Bellow conjures up what all this felt like on the street. Exposed glass walls seemed no more than an invitation to vandals, and check points were beginning to appear in the seedy lobbies of public buildings.
The public part of Lincoln Center, which was already finished, tried all too hard to emulate Rockefeller Center as an urban landmark, and in design the Palazzo della Civilta Italiana in the EUR, but it seemed frigid, ugly, and vulgar. The fountain in the piazza between the New York State Theater, the Metropolitan Opera, and Philharmonic Hall invited minor mischief—the sort of thing drunken Americans do in Rome—but it failed to humanize the exposed space, which was especially dire as cold winds whipped through it in January. New Yorkers weren’t ready for open urban spaces yet, but, as bigger and even less hospitable spaces were opened up around the World Trade Center, they began to colonize them. The more business-like parts of Lincoln Center, still under construction, were by nature and function private spaces, and hard, brutalist façades seemed an entirely appropriate gesture. Juilliard was among those private spaces, and, if one attended a public event (They were also many private ones.) in Alice Tully Hall,the approach was an entirely different experience from, say, going to hear the New York Philharmonic. One entered the old Alice Tully Hall rather ignominiously through a squat entrance lobby, which was buried under a platform, itself dwarfed by a mountain of classrooms, practice rooms, and offices. Raised up by gallows-like piers, the Juilliard School was totally divorced from the street and the hall—a monolith of heavy, brutalistic forms—the work of Pietro Belluschi, a distinguished Italian-born architect who emigrated to America at a young age and was trained here.