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The redesigned David Geffen Hall in New York City, on Oct. 12.AMIR HAMJA/The New York Times News Service

Can a building be cursed? At David Geffen Hall, the home of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, that word keeps coming back. Since the hall opened in 1962, it burdened the orchestra with acoustics that were weak on bass, bright on brass, and – after multiple renovations and endless tuning – impossible, apparently, to fix.

Now the curse has lifted and Canadian architects assisted in the exorcism. The hall at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center reopened this month after a US$550-million gut renovation. The designers, including Toronto’s Diamond Schmitt Architects, have cleared out the sonic demons in a design project that blends technical expertise with sensitive urban design and some lively splashes of ornament and colour.

Just before its Oct. 8 opening, I stepped onstage with Gary McCluskie of Diamond Schmitt. The orchestra was settling in for a rehearsal, timpani rumbling, arpeggios tumbling from a harp.

“There is nothing of the old hall here,” McCluskie explained, gesturing out toward the house’s beechwood walls and multihued sense. “There was a long design process, and in the end we decided to carve out everything. The stage is moved out into the room, and the audience wraps around the stage.”

This captures half-a-billion dollars of construction and half-a-century in architecture and acoustics. The old hall was shaped like a very long shoebox, a model which was in vogue in 1962. Now it is closer to a “vineyard,” in which seats and balconies surround the orchestra. In the process the hall shrank from 2,700 to about 2,200 seats, gaining in intimacy. Even from the worst seats in the house, you can both hear and see what happens on stage. New technical systems allow amplified sound and video to be integrated seamlessly, with adjustable acoustic dampening.

This highly prestigious project took a long time – and yet went surprisingly quickly. In 2015, Diamond Schmitt won a design competition to revamp the hall together with the smooth-talking English designer Thomas Heatherwick. The Philharmonic’s then-president called Heatherwick “a visionary guy,” and noted Diamond Schmitt’s extensive experience with concert halls.

Heatherwick’s critical stock has taken a precipitous dive, and in the end his firm was pushed out. Diamond Schmitt remained, with acousticians Akustiks and theatre designers Fisher Dachs Associates. Then the orchestra added another set of architects: Tod Williams Billie Tsien, a small New York firm known for its emphasis on craft and colour.

Then COVID-19 sped up the process dramatically. In 2020, the Philharmonic called a meeting with the architects that meant “one of two things,” McCluskie recalls. Either the project was going to be cancelled, or moved up. It was the latter, prestissimo: Lincoln Center wanted to be in construction within six months. The architects stepped up and it got done on budget and far ahead of schedule. (When there’s blood in the streets, build a concert hall.)

The designers’ sensibilities blend well. Paul Scarbrough of Akustiks, with whom Diamond Schmitt has collaborated several times, said the designers applied lessons from beloved 19th-century European halls. “We’ve studied the patterns of ornamentation in those classic halls,” Scarbrough said, “and used those to determine the degree of articulation we need. Then Gary and his team have expressed it in a contemporary architectural language.”

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'Waves' as deep as 10 centimetres scatter the sound.TODD HEISLER/The New York Times

The hall’s walls are clad in panels of solid beech, cut into scalloped patterns following Akustiks’s specifications. “Waves” as deep as 10 centimetres scatter the sound, performing the same acoustic role as columns in a 19th-century hall; flatter sections reflect sound more directly.

Visually, the hall recalls Diamond Schmitt’s Four Seasons Centre in Toronto and Montreal’s Maison symphonique. The honey-hued beech is the dominant theme, and McCluskie suggests it evokes the wood of a violin. “The hall itself is an instrument,” he said. Horizontal bars of brass, meanwhile, evoke the slide of a trombone.

So how does it feel? This is not a trivial question. The experience of being in a concert hall is shaped by light, colour, the proximity of others – what experts call “psychoacoustics.” A hall “is really about evoking emotion, and that’s not true for very many types of buildings,” McCluskie acknowledges.

Here, too, there is good news. Diamond Schmitt’s interiors tend to be dull. Like many contemporary architects, they generally aren’t much interested in colour, texture or variety of material. Here they are in conversation with architects Williams and Tsien, who have escaped that professional straitjacket of greige.

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Fabric designed by Williams and Tsien on the hall's seats.Mary Altaffer/The Associated Press

The hall’s seats are decorated in a Maharam textile, custom-designed by Williams and Tsien, that depicts rose petals falling against a royal blue background. The same fabric appears on the walls of the lobby, its blue spilling up onto the ceiling as well. “We use the petal theme as a way of signalling that the building is not neutral,” Tod Williams said in an interview. “It’s alive.”

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The petal theme carries through the building.NINA WESTERVELT/The New York Times News Service

In some smaller rooms, twinkling lights in a blue ceiling evoke the shimmering of a night sky. This humanistic, even flamboyant vibe provides a welcome contrast to the staidness of the hall.

And with a full house on a Friday night, it worked spectacularly well. As the orchestra performed a friends-and-family tribute concert, the hall felt friendly and intimate. To my architecture-critic ears, the tonal and dynamic range of the orchestra came through beautifully.

It’s worth noting that all these internal changes are largely invisible from outside. The outer architecture, by the architect Max Abramovitz, remains intact. It combines neoclassical colonnades with the sculptural Modernism of Le Corbusier, all in a wrapper of Roman travertine. In the 1960s, the critic Ada Louise Huxtable dismissed it as “retardataire fussiness and aesthetic indecision.” Now it is historic in its own right.

But important changes make the hall more neighbourly. A new entrance lounge faces the busy traffic on Broadway; a new, glass-walled performance space, imagined by Williams and Tsien, also overlooks the street; and the restaurant now has its own entrance from the plaza. All of this is common-sense urban design, correcting the oversights of midcentury planning without destroying the very strong vibe that the site retains.

The Art Gallery of Ontario launches a major expansion with ‘super-subtle’ architecture

When the hall first opened in 1962, Lincoln Center was the leading example of a new genre: the multivenue performing arts complex. It was built on a site created by destroying a whole neighbourhood of tenements, known as San Juan Hill. This social history is the subject of a composition for orchestra by the jazz trumpeter Etienne Charles, which the Philharmonic played in its first concerts this month.

But the model of a performing arts centre as an acropolis, isolated from the city around it, is also being revisited. Lincoln Center was a model for a number of complexes in Canada including Place des Arts in Montreal (1963) and Ottawa’s National Arts Centre (1969). Each of those has undergone renovations. Now Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts could be rebuilt; Toronto’s government has just announced a design competition.

These moves tend to be interventionist. Diamond Schmitt redesigned the NAC in 2017, and, I think, tore up the original building rather too aggressively.

Lincoln Center shows another way. The complex rebuilt its public plazas with playful interventions by architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Now you can climb a grassy mound on the roof of a small restaurant and peek in at Geffen Hall from the top – watching, as I did, theatre staff prepare for a big crowd to pour in on Friday night. The hall felt in concert with the city. The curse is gone, but the soul of the place remains.

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The New York Philharmonic rehearses on Sept. 19.TODD HEISLER/The New York Times

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