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"Our designs grow seamlessly out of an existing space, tapping into its DNA, but giving it an entirely new image and public resonance," says Charles Renfro, partner in the New York-based architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro. In 2009, it set the standard for how to break down the walls between public and private space. Two of its high-profile New York debuts—High Line park, built atop an old rail line, and Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall—kept even the most highfalutin tastemakers buzzing.

The firm's Lincoln Center revamp, to be rolled out over the coming year, opens the enclosed stone complex to the city, giving passersby a behind-the-scenes look at the space where more than 10,000 people work and study every day and making it theater itself. A large, swooping lawn will double as a roof for the new glass-enclosed Hypar Restaurant. "It's as if we sliced out a chunk of Central Park and moved it three blocks," Renfro says. "It feels like you're in a valley between two hills."