Moving a Masterpiece to La Guardia Is a High-Wire Act


For more than 50 years, “Orpheus and Apollo,” the constellation of gleaming metal bars conceived by the sculptor Richard Lippold, graced the grand lobby of Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall like two friendly gods floating in space. It hung on steel wires from the ceiling until 2014, when it was taken down for safety concerns. This midcentury masterpiece has now, against all odds, been reassembled at another New York landmark — La Guardia Airport.

“Lippold said if this is ever taken down, they won’t be able to build it again,” said Alberto Quartaroli, director of the Richard Lippold Foundation. But Humpty Dumpty could be put together again, after all.

The five-ton sculpture sparkles from the ceiling of the new glass-enclosed Atrium Business and Conference Center at La Guardia — connected to Terminal B’s arrivals and departures hall — that opens on Thursday to the public. (You don’t need to go through security to see it.)

“Orpheus and Apollo” has been given a second life thanks to the outcry of preservationists, a negotiation between Lincoln Center and the Port Authority, and the tremendous effort of engineers, conservators and installers aided by 3-D technology to recreate the intricate sculpture in the absence of the artist, who died in 2002.

“Is it a win?” said Sean Khorsandi, executive director of the neighborhood preservation group Landmark West, which led the charge to have “Orpheus and Apollo” returned to the site for which it was designed at Lincoln Center. He said that keeping the sculpture in New York is better than some alternatives, but by severing it from the building, “we split the baby.”

Before his death, Lippold worried about the future of his site-specific work, originally commissioned by the Philharmonic’s architect Max Abramovitz to complete his new building. The installation stretched 190 feet wide and 40 feet high and resembled two mirrored and abstracted figures reaching out to each other — an ensemble of 188 Muntz metal bars suspended at complex angles midair from 444 stainless steel wires. Lippold strung up the dense web himself, meticulously affixing wires to eyebolts anchored in the ceiling of the concert hall’s glass atrium. (In his prime, Lippold, a self-taught sculptor who trained in industrial design at the Art Institute of Chicago, was the go-to artist for collaborations with architects from Philip Johnson to Walter Gropius.)

Lippold had reason to be concerned. After years of rumors about its deterioration, the sculpture was dismantled in 2014 because of fraying wires and corroded metal, and sent to a storage facility in New Jersey. The artwork faced an uncertain future as Lincoln Center was gearing up to reimagine its concert hall.

By 2019, at the end of the schematic design phase for the renovation of the building, now David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center determined that rehanging the massive sculpture was inconsistent with creating a more flexible ceiling rigged for speakers and lighting to support its expanded programming goals, according to Peter Flamm, executive director of the Lincoln Center Development Project.

“This was a design decision, it was a choice,” Khorsandi said. The 2019 renovation announcement prompted Landmark West to apply to the Preservation League of New York State’s Seven to Save program. “Orpheus and Apollo” was chosen as a 2020-21 endangered site.

“They don’t normally handle art but we were able to make the argument that this architectural installation was a physical part of the building,” Khorsandi said.

There was precedent. Lippold’s ethereal cloud of slender bronze rods hovering over the bar of the former Four Seasons restaurant (now the Grill) in New York’s Seagram Building was deemed essential to the architecture in the Landmark Preservation Commission’s 1989 designation of the restaurant as an interior landmark.

But it never got that far. Trying to find a solution that could preserve “Orpheus and Apollo” for New York public space, rather than see it leave the city, or perhaps fall into private hands, the architecture critic Paul Goldberger — who was consulting at the time with both Lincoln Center on their architect selection for Geffen Hall and the Port Authority for the redesign of La Guardia — recognized that the airport’s Atrium under construction had similar proportions and transparency to the concert hall’s lobby. The Port Authority was receptive.

“Lincoln Center had a sculpture in search of a space and the airport had a space in search of a purpose,” Goldberger said of the Atrium, originally intended to connect Terminal B to the AirTrain (a project ultimately shelved by Gov. Kathy Hochul). With the sculpture as the centerpiece of this new gathering spot with a mezzanine lounge, Goldberger feels it is “entirely consistent with what Lippold intended, which was to enliven an architectural space, to have people moving around it.”

Opinions differ. In his article for the Hudson Review on the new Geffen Hall earlier this year, the architecture critic Joseph Giovannini wrote: “The instant they were removed, the sculptures conceived for the space lost their intrinsic meaning.”

“Orpheus and Apollo” joins other major artworks stewarded by the Port Authority. A dozen contemporary artists including Sarah Sze, Rashid Johnson and Layqa Nuna Yawar made site-specific works throughout newly built terminals for La Guardia and Newark Liberty International Airport.

“We’ve begun to think of art as a signature of the Port Authority airports,” said Rick Cotton, the agency’s executive director. “Obviously this sculpture was designed for a music facility,” he added, “but Lippold has associations with flight and with space.”

A three-story wire installation for the former Pan Am building (now MetLife) is titled “Flight” (and is preserved in situ), and Lippold’s tapering 100-foot-high stainless steel sculpture “Ad Astra” stands outside the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

“We believed La Guardia to be the best solution that provided a manner to appropriately appreciate the piece,” Flamm of Lincoln Center said. It has given “Orpheus and Apollo” to the Port Authority and invested in the restoration and re-lacquering of the 188 Muntz bars before delivering them. Lincoln Center also shared a 3-D scan done on the recommendation of the conservator Marc Roussel when he dismantled the piece in 2014. He also measured, labeled, numbered and photographed every element in the process.

To create a re-installation plan, all this data was pieced together by the engineering firm working for the Port Authority to build an accurate 3-D digital model of what the sculpture looked like at Lincoln Center. “It almost became a forensics project,” said John Barry, a principal at Thornton Tomasetti. There were missing measurements to be tracked down. The laser had failed to pick up some of the wires in the spider web, with more than 20 wires emanating from single hangpoints in the ceiling.

“We were looking at photographs of each eyebolt, counting the wires and trying to figure out which metal piece they went to,” Barry said. He estimated that the work took the better part of a year “but we got 99 percent of everything.”

Then there was the issue of the ceiling being seven feet lower at La Guardia, which would have brought the sculpture to just a foot and a half above the floor. Working through a series of computer simulations, the engineers stretched the sculpture about 20 feet in width and pulled it up tighter to the ceiling, leaving an 11-foot clearance underneath that the Port Authority required.

While that sounds like a fairly big geometric change, “it’s 90 percent the same,” Barry asserted. In side by side comparisons, the new plan has a very similar shape and density to the Lincoln Center model and, at each venue, the sculpture has the same relationship to the glass facade and two entrances.

“I think it’s retained the spirit,” Barry said.

This summer, the Atrium’s ceiling was studded with 180 eyebolts and fitted with special lighting designed by Fisher Marantz Stone. The installation team led by Frank Rapaccioli, project manager at Dun-Rite Specialized Carriers, tackled the hanging of the 188 Muntz pieces, one be one, using the engineer’s interactive digital model and Excel spread sheets with dizzying columns of numbers.

It was Rapaccioli’s job to figure out the best sequence to hang each metal element strung from wires. This grew more difficult as the thicket of wires and Muntz pieces became denser — just as it had challenged Lippold, who found himself pulling cables over and under each other, making adjustments on the fly so that no wires or elements abutted.

Roussel, the conservator, was on site daily, entrusted by the Lippold Foundation to make aesthetic judgment calls. “In Lippold’s case, of course, he had artistic license to do whatever he wanted,” Roussel said. “We have to try to replicate the model as closely as possible.”

On the final morning of the 30-day installation, Rapaccioli and Roussel looked relieved. They noted a steep learning curve on the first half the sculpture, estimating that 20 to 30 percent of the elements had to be cut down and rehung because wires rubbed.

By the second half, they had reduced the redos to five percent. Rapaccioli watched as his crew of five, maneuvering around the sculpture on three rolling boom lifts, made several attempts to thread a wire through the labyrinth until they finally got a clean trajectory.

In the end, Quartaroli of the Lippold Foundation said, they “reinstalled it with great fidelity to the original conception.”

Caroline Rob Zaleski, chair of the Preservation League of New York State’s Seven to Save program, had met Lippold in his 80s when he was largely forgotten. “Would Richard Lippold be pleased with the end result?” she wondered. At the very least, she hopes his career “becomes again well recognized and other works around the country don’t meet a similar removal.”

While profoundly disappointed about the sculpture’s displacement, Anthony C. Wood, executive director of the Ittleson Foundation, which originally funded “Orpheus and Apollo” at Lincoln Center, is relieved that it was so well documented and hasn’t been consigned to storage, in pieces, for eternity.

“Putting it in a new and exciting home, where it’ll be seen by more people, is the silver lining,” Wood said. “But you don’t have to be an art expert to understand it’s going to be different. How could it not?”



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