It is difficult to add anything substantial to Quatremère de Quincy’s Essai sur la nature, le but et les moyens de l’imitation dans les beaux-arts (1823)1 and Dictionnaire historique de l’architect ure (1823–33)2, for Quatremère excels in precision and comprehensiveness as well as in depth. His genius proves to be universal. Let me therefore make a case for a conscientious study of his writings and encourage genuinely original architects and artists to learn from authentic sources. Abandon yourselves, dear readers, to the pleasure of the text. Vitruvius’ Ten Books of Architecture, Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture, the Abbé Laugier’s An Essay on Architecture, Alberti’s Ten Books of Architecture, Quatremère de Quincy’s On Imitation, Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Tessenow’s Handwerk und Kleinstadt, Schumacher’s Der Geist der Baukunst, Karl Gruber’s Die Gestalt der Deutschen Stadt – these are all works of great beauty, beautiful in their ideas and concepts as well as in expression, composition and style.
The first principle of imitation would thus be to study the originals – to study them as they are in their firstness, their unprecedented novelty, without regard to what follows. Nothing is more invigorating and refreshing in times of confusion than to go back to origins. Learning is always a quest for original knowledge: “The first step we have to make is to examine, if we are allowed the term, the genealogy and relation of our ideas, the causes that have given rise to them, and the characteristics that distinguish them: in a word, to return to the origin and generation of our knowledge.”3
Origin and Originals
Léon Krier writes: “Architecture (Arche-tectonike) means literally form of origin. If this definition is relevant for the architecture of any organism and structure, it is fundamental for Architecture as the Art of Building. It is not that the principles of Architecture reach into an immemorial past, but that their origin is forever present.”4 And Heidegger argues: “Origin here means that from and by which something is what it is and as it is. What something is, as it is, we call its essence or nature. The origin of something is the source of its nature.”5
The reconstruction of architecture is not concerned with pastiche of any kind but with the rehabilitation of originality. Amid debate on the aesthetics of fragments and the poetics of conceptual and constructional inconsistency and confusion, there are imperative reasons for reclaiming the Classical ideals of integrity, harmony, beauty and reason, for questioning modern architectural production and ideology and re-establishing the validity of architecture as an artistic and intellectual discipline. This means understanding and celebrating originality as a nostalgia for origins rather than the euphoria of amnesia. Origins are of course historical and geographical as well as mythic and cultural realities returned to in truly generative fashion.
The true forms of origin are reconstituted by the process of imitation, in originals; in its constant reflection of origins imitation becomes the source of originality. Establishing a creative dialogue between origin and originals, it allows for the invention of permanence and the permanence of invention. In a context of continuity, originals themselves become legitimate objects of imitation. They represent the immense patrimony of architecture, the most genial and original inventions of mankind, accumulated through millennia of imitation. It is this compendious recollection mediated by imitation that is the essence of architecture.
However, one crucial question remains unanswered: if imitation is what is at issue in architectural invention, and if origin is the object of imitation, what then is the origin? Many writers have investigated this question of beginnings and offered a theory of origin. A comparative reading of the classic authors, such as Vitruvius, Alberti, Laugier and Quatremère de Quincy, is highly recommended in this context, but it is also fascinating to consult minor authors and historians to study the history of beginnings and so search, in Joseph Rykwert’s words, for “the memory of something which cannot but be lost”.6 Let me offer some comments on this question, basing most of my reflections on the authority of the ancient authors. Architecture is without a model in nature. There is no “natural house” or “natural city.” The invention of architecture is not an instinctive reaction to being in the world. Architecture is not a survival issue. In the beginning, man found shelter in the places that nature offered. Later, these different places were synthesized in the invention of architecture. Forms, spaces, materials and natural laws were all assimilated to each other in this immediate confrontation with nature. Nature thus stands at the beginning of architecture. The sky, the sun and stars, the elements, geology, the flora and fauna, elaborate structures and complex shapes, and last but not least, all those natural shelters which existed as part of the natural world long before man appeared: nests, caves, hives, shells. This enormous complexity, diversity, contrast and plurality in nature has always stirred man’s imagination and emotions, as well as his philosophical and scientific curiosity. Is it this too that lies behind the longing that informs architecture? Man must have sought very early on to materialize and symbolize his relationship with nature. Does architecture not finally achieve the reconciliation of man and the universe in conceiving of itself as perfected nature, hallowing both man’s home and the homes of his gods?7
The Imitation of Nature
Quatremère de Quincy writes: “It is nature itself in its abstract essence which is taken as a model. It is the order of nature which becomes its archetype and genius.”8 If origin means the construction of the universe, the building of the world, there will be an original model (not for architecture directly, but for imitation) in nature. “Creation means the repetition of the original creation,” writes Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane.9 This original creation is defined as the “transformation of chaos into cosmos”. To capture the essence of nature – the universal principles of cosmic order and harmony – is the goal of imitation. Imitation thus becomes the creative process that synthesizes universe and nature into temples, houses, palaces, monuments and cities. Architectural invention through the imitation of nature means then the original and imaginative synthesis of constructive, formal, harmonious, functional and ecological principles inherent in nature. “This order which in Nature is hidden and implicit, Architecture makes patent to the eye,” writes Sir Geoffrey Scott.10
The famous “primitive hut” is but a metaphor for the origin of architecture in nature. It is, however, the most radical and inspiring way of exploring the nature of architecture, emphasizing the mythical character of origin. What we reconstruct with the primitive hut is beyond archaeological memory; it itself becomes the original paradigm for architecture, the poetic evidence of archaic memories. The primitive hut is a mythical, philosophical and artistic reconstruction, an original model that can be imitated and thus illustrates the very nature of architectural invention. Quatremère de Quincy’s discussion of the little rustic hut is elaborate and complex. His model evolves from the cabane symbolique or the primitive timber construction defined as an allegorical prototype, through its refinement by analogical imitation of the human body. Architecture finally equals nature and becomes the rival of its model.
Imitation, Copy and Pastiche
This reading might be somewhat confusing to those who do not differentiate between copy, pastiche and imitation. Imitation is a truly inventive and creative process that combines the seriousness of true scholarship, the talent of true art, the intelligence of true inventiveness, the skills of true craftsmanship and the imagination of true creativity. Its object is to create something new in recreating an original model. Imitation is the reconstitution of an original, whereas a copy is merely the reproduction of a precedent. They are thus fundamentally different in intention, artistic and intellectual process, and result. Imitation is based on the critical, selective and inventive process of a living tradition, whereas the copy is concerned with the mechanical and literal replication of originals. Imitation addresses both essence and form, whereas a copy is interested only in appearance. Imitation is not concerned with similitude or dissimilarity: it has a much more profound understanding of originality, invention and what architecture is and has always been in its nature and form; its concern is to get to the essence of things and in doing so to reflect on the character, type and style of its own productions.
A pastiche is a partial and imperfect copy, a simplified reproduction of prominent stylistic and compositional elements that lacks, however, the rigor and discipline of a true copy. Although a copy is interested only in appearance, it is a reproduction requiring the seriousness and skill of the craftsman, whereas pastiche is not so much interested in appearance as in the impression of appearance. For the pasticheur, anything is good enough to recreate impressions (there are, of course, true and false impressions, good and bad pastiches). Imitation in architecture deserves more attention in contemporary discussion. Architecture is expressive of civilization and its condition, articulating memory and defining time and place. Architectural critics have been very quick to condemn authentic traditions, but if more critical interest and attention were now given to the study of traditional architecture and its practice of imitation, then its superiority in design and building, its modernity in ecological and socio-cultural terms and its success in building a beautiful, comfortable and durable world would certainly no longer go unacknowledged.
Architecture has to depend on tradition, appropriated through imitation. Neither Zeitgeist nor genius loci can be grasped by individuals or groups still immersed in them, without benefit of historical distance. Too often, these poetical concepts are used to ground narrow historical interpretations and speculations. Any project, in any historical period, necessarily deals with time and place and expresses its contemporary or modern situation. Both time and place transcend the limitations of the present and engage the complexity of history and mythology. Tradition is history with a project, not history as undifferentiated description of the past. It refers to the intelligence and creativity of past generations, as well as to memory – of the past and of the future. Imitation mediates actively between traditions and reconstruction. It contributes to the constant enrichment of architecture and urbanism with new originals. It is concerned with the nature of things, their true appearance, and it re-establishes economy, propriety and beauty as the first principles of architecture. Imitation actualizes the modernity of tradition in the context of reconstruction in which ecological, economic, humanistic and cultural concerns are intelligently integrated.
1 Translated as An Essay on the Nature, the End and the Means of Imitation in the Fine Arts, London: Smith, Elder, 1837. 2 Some chapters translated in The Historical Dictionary of Architecture of Quatremère de Quincy: The True, the Fictive and the Real, introd. and trans. Samir Younés, London: Papadakis 1999. 3 Jean le Rond d’Alembert, “Discours préliminaire” to Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie raisonnée des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers. 4 Demetri Porphyrios, ed., “Léon Krier: Houses, Palaces, Cities”, Architectural Design Profile 54, 1984. 5 Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language,Thought, 1971, trans. Albert Hofstadter, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001. 6 Joseph Rykwert, On Adam’s House in Paradise, Cambridge, Mass. and London, England: MIT Press, 1983. 7 See Alberto Perez-Gomez, Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science, Cambridge, Mass. and London, England: MIT Press, 1983. 8The Historical Dictionary of Architecture of Quatremère de Quincy. 9 Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1959. Author’s translation from the French version, Le Sacré et le Profane, Étude Poche, 1988. 10 Sir Geoffrey Scott, The Architecture of Humanism; A Study in the History of Taste, 1914, New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.
ANDREW BALIO: Among America’s music schools, Rice University’s Shepard School of Music is one of the standouts, up there with Curtis, Yale, and Julliard. And both Julliard’s and Yale’s areas of greatest growth are in the sphere of early and sacred music, a remarkable investment in looking back in to our distant past and traditions. It’s interesting how classical music is actually growing in this sense: we’re rediscovering all this repertoire that deserves our reconsideration. Mr. Greenberg, what sort of music do you attend?
ALLAN GREENBERG: I love music. As a teenager, I was fascinated by the different interpretations that two conductors, equally eminent, could bring to the same piece of music. I would collect six or eight versions of the same symphony or concerto or opera and just sit and compare them for hours, trying to understand the nuances, and I’d follow with a pocket score. I went through the usual changes of mind as your comprehension grows, but I always had a special preference for opera. I was taken to see Rigoletto with Tito Gobbi, who came to South Africa with some Italian company. I was nine or ten and I was mesmerized by the spectacle, by the arias and their beauty, by the characters. I just loved that world.
The first time I went to Europe – when I was nineteen – I heard Otto Klemperer conduct all nine Beethoven symphonies. At the time he was my favorite conductor, and I sat through all of them. I heard a number of them by Bruno Walter and the young Italian conductor who used to conduct the Philharmonia in London and I loved the human voice. It became my instrument of focus, particularly the female voice in Mozart. When I was in London I saw a lot of opera, but I thought, of all opera, Mozart was the beginning and in many ways the end. He encompassed the whole world. He could do comedy, he could do tragedy, he could do farce, with profundity. He made opera fun. You laugh even when you don’t understand the Italian. It was said that after the premiere of Don Giovanni the little boys who were delivering milk the next morning were whistling his tunes in Prague. Off and on, my musical interest has been opera.
My tastes have become really quite broad, but it’s still opera that I love. So when I got the job to design this opera house, it was like a dream come true. And the fact that they wanted a 600-seat opera house – the same size as in Mozart’s time – was perfect. I think there is a limit to the size of an opera house, or there should be a limit. I think the Met with 3,200 seats is stupid. The stage is so gigantic, even for Wagner – a lot of parts of The Ring have three people singing on the stage, and they’re lost. I don’t know what the correct size is for an opera house, but I think it’s around 1,500 people.
AB: That’s the optimal size for a concert hall too. That seems to be the sweet spot for acoustics, if you ask an acoustician, someone like Yasuhisa Toyota.
AG: For me, great opera – the work itself – is a miracle because you are taking two elements that are totally incompatible – the libretto (the story which takes time to evolve – drama needs time to evolve), and music – and you marry them. One note, just a change of key, and you’re in a different mood, from sad to happy, happy to sad, somber to elated. So you have this sort of thing that goes on and on. The marriage is accomplished through the genius of the composer, and the medium is the human voice. I don’t think there’s anything harder to write in music than an opera.
I have always felt a kinship with architecture because in architecture you have form, which grows in your brain, and then the function – 250-square-foot kitchen, three bedrooms of 80-square-footage or whatever – and it is very clinical. Relationships between these elements are pretty straightforward, and you can write them all down, but how do you make a great building out of that porridge? It’s like making an opera out of incompatible elements. Form has imagination, functional organization – it’s fairly rational. So, I’m a really happy camper designing this building.
AB: You also did a humanities building for Rice a decade ago, a similar type of commission. They wanted more traditional architecture. Can you talk about that a bit? Usually universities have the idea of the future that they want to be part of, and they consider architecture as a big way of being perceived to be on this cutting edge, as embodying these notions of progress. Interestingly enough, Rice is embracing traditional architecture, overall.
AG: When I did my first building at Rice – I started in about 1997 or ’98, and the building was finished in 2000 – the president was deeply involved in choosing architects and the character of the campus. The president, like the trustees, was very conservative. He loved the old campus and wanted to continue it. His point of view was very straightforward: This is a university. The order projected by its campus is in fact the best reflection of the university’s character. A campus should reflect the character of the institution, and they designed their building on the notion of continuity: that this is an institution that has operated with changes but without any breaks, without any reduced focus on scholarship, on truth and justice, and on all the other verities that are part of the study of a university.
That has changed. The university since then has tried to be more, has shown broader tastes, and has a greater interest in having modern buildings on their campus. I was excused from that because the trustees decided they wanted to have a hand in choosing the architect for this opera house. So they walked around the campus and settled on the two buildings they liked the most and interviewed two architects. I was one of them, and I got the job. But there is a lot of tension on campus about what character new buildings should have. They’ve tried very hard to keep the same materials, control the heights. It’s a very, very pretty campus although there are some not-great buildings on it, but even those are not as bad as they could be, looking around at other campuses.
AB: Before designing this opera house, you’d been attending operas and concerts as a music lover. Had you been designing opera houses in your imagination?
AG: No. Wanting something and not getting it can be really disappointing, so I never allow myself to think about a particular project until I sign a contract. You have to do that, otherwise it can be disappointing.
AB: So you came into this project prima facie. Did you give a proposal for it before being chosen?
AG: They asked me how I would go about designing this building, what did I think were the key aspects of the problem. I talked about the need: the fact that the campus serves as a mirror of the university’s self-image and of the image it wants to project to the public, and I thought continuity is really important in this. I cited Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard – the old campus at Harvard – and Yale, and I think they agreed with that. I also talked about the need to listen to your client: that an architect needs to understand that most clients come to the architect with a dream – a dream of an opera house, a dream of a home, a dream of something new where wonderful things will happen, where family will be more cohesive, where the quality of family life will improve.
This opera house will hopefully be part of a major rebirth of interest in opera in this country. We try very hard to do that because all our work comes by word of mouth. Most architecture magazines won’t publish classical buildings, so word of mouth is really important. We strive to leave a trail of happy clients behind us. I talked about that and about the need to listen because the qualities – the constituent ingredients of dreams – are not easy to formulate and understand. I need my clients to think of what it is they want and whether or not what I’m doing actually does that for them. We’ve done lots of drawings and 3D renderings, and eventually there’ll be models. So hopefully this will work for the client. I try to explain to them the fact that an opera is this miracle: between your daily life and the moment you pull up and park your car and get out and walk to the opera house you are experiencing the same thing Alice in Wonderland experienced when she fell down the rabbit hole, going from one world to another world, from a world of reality to the fantasy world of the Queen of Hearts. Jack did the same thing climbing the beanstalk – from life on earth to this miraculous realm in the sky where he had to defeat the giant. So the building has to serve as an architectural overture to the opera. It has to get your mind prepared for this.
The opera house at Rice has a certain character that both relates it to and separates it from the rest of the campus. At the far end of the campus, the east side, you have an entry gate and the oldest building on the campus, and as you go straight all the way down the main access you eventually end at the opera house. It’s a great position.
As you approach the building you realize that this is not quite the same as the other buildings at Rice, and when you open the doors you’re in this large, barrel-vaulted, top-lit space with coffers and light streaming down. It’s a big space. The university is going to use it for fund-raising dinners, small concerts, different events – someone could lecture in it while people are dining. There are many uses for this foyer. Then you go up a major staircase that splits in half – and you go up different levels through different staircases. Each level changes in character and in height and in color. When you open the first doors into the opera house you’re in a realm of unusually bright and vibrant colors, colors you don’t normally see in the world around you: bright reds, yellows, blues, et cetera. All but one balcony level has a view back into this hallway, this big entry lobby. To get from the entry lobby to the opera house itself you have to go through a sound-and-light box, which prepares you. These transitional spaces are all treated differently on each side, so the outside is always different from the inside. You always know where you are, you always come out and see the pattern – it was this way on one side, now it’s that way on the other side – so you know that’s the way out. These spaces wander a little bit. That was sort of intentional, but I wanted it a little more ordered than it is. We had to cut the budget at some point so we squeezed the spaces. They’re a little higgledy-piggledy, but it’s okay. They’re quite tight, so you go through these things and feel compressed and want to get out and then you get to the end of the sound-and-light box, you open the doors, and you’re in the opera house.
This is modeled on the little opera house in the palace at Versailles, by Ange-Jacques Gabriel, France’s greatest architect. I was interested in it because it’s made of wood, and from the time it opened, everybody who heard opera in it remarked on the quality of the acoustics. It’s a beautiful space because normally the horseshoe-shaped balconies sit one on top of another, sort of a vertical wall of balconies. Here they get bigger as they go out, so the space is expansive and opens out, so the higher you get the more air you have and the better the view of the stage. So it’s really exciting, doing this.
AB: It sounds wonderful. You mentioned that a building can either relate to what’s there or it can stand out. What do you think is the right balance for a cultural institution? Orchestra halls of the last 20 years are generally erring on the side of sticking out; they impose what you might call a spaceship type of construction and plop it down in human settlements. These institutions are hoping such venues will command great attention and generate interest because of a piece of architectural sculpture.
AG: The French philosopher Charles Péguy said Homer is new and fresh every day. Read The Odyssey or The Iliad; it’s never old. What is old is the latest newspaper. The problem of these buildings that draw attention to themselves is that nothing ever happens in them to justify that amount of attention. There’s always a dialogue between the people who use the building and what goes on in the building. There are some buildings that are quite laid back. Think of Rockefeller Center in New York. That’s a commercial building, a complex of offices, yet the space in it has been designated by generations of New Yorkers as the single major civics space in the city. That’s where the big Christmas tree goes and so on. It’s a very laid-back space. So I think it’s better to err on the side of modesty and focus on producing quality activities inside the opera house, rather than creating this strange spaceship and having mediocre performances in it.
AB: They would argue that you don’t have to make a choice between either. You can have superior performances in an outlandish concert hall. As we speak, this very week, the Hamburg Elbe Philharmonie is celebrating its opening. Have you had a chance to look at that hall?
AG: No, but I’m thinking that the one example of a concert hall that stands out and that actually works is in Los Angeles, Frank Gehry’s building. I heard Dudamel, who I think is an interesting conductor, there. The acoustics are wonderful. But downtown Los Angeles is the most barren, empty, unappealing space in the entire city, devoid of any character, until you stumble on this crazy efflorescence of human imagination in the middle of the city. It’s like the largest sculpture ever built. But the inside of the concert hall is quite laid back. It uses vineyard seating, which was invented by a German, Hans Scharoun. I’ve been inside the Elbphilharmonie, heard only a small part of a concert. I can’t say I spent enough time in that hall to form an opinion of it. The outside is a little disappointing. But Gehry’s building is his masterpiece, because it has this dialogue with this dreary city: “Guys! Life has more to offer! Look at me!” But they both are lucky, they’ve got a good orchestra and a good conductor, at least when they have him. I think it all depends on context, but I think ultimately the continuity is more important, and there are very few situations – certainly Rice is not one of them – where the spaceship would be comprehensible, would have a point.
AB: Our organization, Future Symphony Institute, is more concerned with smaller communities. We know that New York and Los Angeles will be fine; they’ll figure it out, regardless. But when you look at these smaller towns that become larger cities and can now sustain an orchestra – an opera company might be a stretch – they plan on spending $150–200 million on a new concert hall. What happens if they look to Los Angeles?
AG: A mistake, yes. I mentioned this at one of my interviews, maybe with the music school. I believe the great opportunities the little opera house offers is to the school system of Houston. I think music should be a major component of high school education because of the mind’s development that listening to music requires and that happens as you listen to music. I think that the imaginative component, the fantasy component in opera, is also desperately needed in this sad world we’re building for ourselves. I think all these little communities are a place for the rebirth of opera. The past and the present in opera can have a rebirth, but I think the key is little concert halls, little opera houses which feed the community. The high school orchestra may not be the New York Philharmonic, but it doesn’t matter.
AB: One of the things we’re most concerned with is the envy or inferiority complex that makes smaller places, when they look at what’s going on in the big cities, think they have to replicate something really large. My hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, for example, has a 2,250-seat hall. Of course, it’s rarely full. It didn’t need to be more than 1,200 seats. That would have been plenty for our town. Then we’d have full houses.
AG: Better small and full and a long queue of people waiting to get in.
AB: Initially planners think more seats, more money, but it never works out that way. The cost of running this huge building is crushing. I’ve always felt that traditional architecture offered the possibility of a more cost-efficient home for a symphony orchestra. Ultimately they’re cheaper to run, they don’t require these giant machines. What happens is that we think people will relate to us more if we build a spaceship than if we build a Boston Symphony Hall, which would be pretty easy to build.
AG: I think you can sacrifice a lot of the electronics for a good basic hall and focus on the musicians and the music teachers and the connection to the community, because you want your audience to come from around the place, not from far away. Opera in New York is too expensive to be a local experience. New York has become a ghetto with a golden key. It does have local people going there but nobody else can afford it. There are no ordinary people left living in New York, just the very wealthy. Young people live like sardines in an expensive apartment in order to pay their rent.
AB: You’re touching on a sore spot for classical music and that is these widening gaps of economic classics. What can the role of architecture, of the concert halls, be? Your hall sounds very inviting, but what can we do in terms of architecture? Generally speaking, the concert hall’s foyer is something we’re very interesting in. What can we do in terms of design that will make people feel much more welcome and comfortable in an environment that’s meant to take them into another world, generally a world of the past?
AG: It can be a much more elementary version of that, a much simpler version. I know most little towns probably want a 500-seat auditorium. I’m a big proponent of music and art as part of a learning curriculum – art, with the imagination, and music with its connections to mathematics, to emotions, and voice. I think that’s really the key.
AB: Putting it back together. We’ve broken off into specializations so early in life. Traditional knowledge was a oneness: an architectural side, a musical side, a linguistic side, a rhetorical side, all in one body of knowledge. That’s certainly fragmented now.
AG: I lived for a while in Paris and Copenhagen, and I don’t know why we impose four years of college on students in the United States. Growing up in South Africa, I graduated at sixteen, going on seventeen, and I went straight into architecture school. When I was twenty-one and a half, I was finished with education. I got a job and earned my own living ever since.
AB: I’ll tell you why: during the Clinton years they pointed out that the outcome for people who’d gone to college was better than for people who didn’t go to college, therefore everyone ought best go to college.
AG: Outcomes in the United States where everybody goes to college, but the outcomes compared to England, Canada, Australia – I don’t know. If you go into medicine, and you specialize, you’re a student until you’re in your thirties. Why should somebody who’s going to play violin in an orchestra go to college for four years, although he or she will be studying violin?
AB: It’s vocational training, and they sweeten the deal by giving you a bachelor’s degree. We musicians criticize conservatories as trade schools, as if having a vocation is a lowlier calling than attending a university. It’s entirely fair to have vocational schools. Vocational training is highly desirable, especially since most everyone seems to want to enter a vocation when they graduate.
AG: Mozart never went to school, he didn’t study composition, had no degree from any institution.
AB: He went into the family business. His father taught him. If his father been a tailor, he’d have taught him to be a tailor.
AG: The same is true of the architects who built the ancient temples in Greece and Rome. Michelangelo was a stonemason; Andrea Palladio was a plasterer. All the greatest architects in the world started life as a tradesperson, or in the nineteenth century working in an architect’s office and learning the trade there through an apprenticeship system. I don’t see what’s wrong with that. The four-year B.A. is just a question of snobbery.
I had an experience with a building project in London, which in the end never happened, but I had an office here and I wanted to open a little office in London. I could send people there and do whatever we had to do and come back, but I didn’t want to be double-taxed. So I went to a big Washington law firm, surrounded by Ivy League lawyers, specialists in international taxation, and I outlined my problem. I never heard from them. Three months later I was in England complaining to an American architect there. He said, “Allan, you’re wasting your time. Go and see this law firm in England,” and wrote down the name and address. I had an appointment the next day. And when I got there, a partner and his assistant listened to me and said, “This is easy. We’ll deliver a letter to your hotel tomorrow morning and that’ll tell you what to do.” So I got this one-page letter pushed under my hotel door at seven thirty in the morning, and it said, “All you have to do is have your people in this office space you’re renting move their desks at least an inch every twenty-nine days so you’re not permanently anywhere. They can swap desks, so they’re in a state of flux.” This worked perfectly. I called the American law firm and said, “What should I do?” and they said, “We’ve been collecting case studies and we’ll send them to you.” I got this pile of paper and I said, “Frances, I’m not a lawyer. It’s your job to read through this crap and tell me what you think and what I should do. I got your bill for $15,000 and I’m not paying it.” I wrote her a letter that said, “See the attached. This is why I’m not paying you,” and I enclosed the English law firm’s letter and the bill for 500 pounds, which was outrageous for half an hour’s work, but it didn’t have the element of craziness, for nothing, just copying. That was the end of it. I never heard from them again. Two lawyers in London, big office, went from high school to law school, and they were much better lawyers than the Americans. They could even think clearer.
AB: They were going straight for a solution rather than a process that they could bill you for.
AG: I’m a big fan of the apprenticeship, going from getting into your professional realm as soon as possible.
AB: That’s the way I did it.
AG: What instrument?
AG: You’ve got lots of rivals in the jazz world.
AB: They’re welcome to it. I love playing symphonic music. I’m playing Beethoven’s Seventh tonight at Strathmore. That’s heaven for me.
AG: There are trumpet concertos.
AB: It all started with the Second Brandenburg Concerto, which is treacherously high. Bach’s Christmas oratorio and the B minor Mass have tremendous trumpet parts. Other composers shortly after Bach were writing these clarino parts, very high. All the harmonics at the top of the register were close together so you could play scales. There were hundreds of these Baroque concerti. They were always up and down the scale, so there were limits, but there were some that were quite beautiful. Haydn wrote a tremendous concerto for the very first chromatic trumpet, a very clumsy keyed bugel. Hummel wrote one right after that. Then we had a long drought through the Romantic era. Composers had us play fantastic parts in the orchestra but nothing in front of the orchestra as a soloist. We only developed because of the cornet playing in bandstands of America. That tradition is tremendously vast but it’s always a very simple theme, with increasingly more complicated variations. The cornetists were among the higher-paid musicians of the nineteenth century. They were like prize fighters. You’d go to see dueling cornetists in the park.
AG: Like black college bands where they have dueling drummers.
AB: Right, it was more of an athletic event. And there was often an athletic aspect to opera where performances were treated more like a sports competition. I like that part of music too: trying to outdo each other. That’s a big part of jazz, but jazz is nearly dead. It’s largely thanks to the efforts of Saint Wynton Marsalis that it’s not. He deserves to be canonized. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know if the rest of them could have held on. It’s been utterly abandoned by the population that birthed it. The only stable job there is to be had is at Lincoln Center and state-funded European big bands such as Runfunk houses. Jazz at Lincoln Center has that beautiful Rose Auditorium. Musicians do very well there, or well enough, but I don’t know any other place, except France for example, which will pay jazz musicians just to exist. If they have a lean month, they’ll get a stipend.
AG: Honky jazz has never been much. I don’t think jazz is white man’s fodder. African rhythms you get in your mother’s milk. I think of people like Dave Brubeck. But if you listen to white rock ’n’ roll, the beat is like a metronome, whereas black music, the rhythm is never stable. That’s why it’s alive. Its demise is beyond belief.
AB: It speaks of many things. There are tremendous lessons to be mined from such a great art form that was born here and should have kept going but somehow didn’t.
AG: It’s not much different from classical architecture. In the 1930s, when a lot of German refugees came here and brought the idea of a socialist architecture with them, Harvard appointed Walter Gropius as dean of the architecture school. Harvard started propagating modern architecture. It’s odd that this architecture, which was the vehicle of the trade unions in Europe – it was the driving force to create decent housing for workers – was adopted by the millionaire class in the United States, by the Rockefellers at MOMA. The course of architecture was totally changed.
AB: I feel strongly that classical music as a performance culture, when we know that most of what we do is play old music, will be better off playing within the walls of traditional architecture.
AG: Are there any great or really interesting and good classical composers today?
AB: Yes, there are. The problem is that we’re in the midst of a cold war between performers and composers. We don’t trust composers, and audiences definitely don’t trust new music. There are very small audiences for something new. Most experienced concert goers are afraid they’re going to be tortured, on principle. We taught them they would be tortured by torturing them. It’s not that people can’t compose, and the few good composers there are write beautiful music for the sake of itself. Some of them found employment in Hollywood. Great composition lives on in films. That’s where the money is right now. Erich Korngold came from Europe and did great film scores. But many of the others who are writing nice tonal music, which is the analog to traditional architecture, are quite beaten down – beaten with the “originality” or “innovation” stick. They’re told their music is derivative, not innovative or original. It gives them nervous tics because they’re just writing from their hearts. Nobody pays them for it. We don’t have a good royalty system in place.
AG: My son-in-law is a musician. He used to teach at USC in Los Angeles; now he teaches part-time at San Francisco Conservatory. He plays just about any instrument. He makes his living writing music for video games. They don’t pay that well. He works really hard and gets small music jobs for movies. He used to do a fair amount of work for George Lucas, so I know how hard it is to find an outlet for your energy.
AB: That’s where classical music is now. It’s doing very well, but it could do better. I think getting the architecture right would go a long way to build support for our art form. Certainly during that forty-year period after the war they built too many horrible concert halls – even Avery Fisher Hall is a wreck. Los Angeles, before they got their masterpiece, had Dorothy Chandler auditorium, which was awful. The list goes on, and this is a weight that holds down the art form.
AG: I know this business of torture. I was invited by a friend to Lincoln Center to the Chamber Music Society. We went and had a really nice time, but after the intermission, they have to insert some new piece of music that they had just commissioned which was unlistenable. It was really an insult to this audience. However long it was, it was too long. I sat through it and tried to find what this piece of music was supposed to be about. I have a high tolerance for discomfort. I sit listening to public radio in the afternoon to these musicians who repeat the same tone again and again – repetitive – and all of this other music, but this I couldn’t deal with and I never went back. The fact that the musicians or the organizers of this concert felt that they had a moral duty to give new music an audience without asking whether it’s worth finding an audience for this music in the first place I took as a major insult. It’s as if they didn’t think very much of their audience. They didn’t think the audience had the capacity to choose so they chose for them. Mozart wrote a concerto for French horn. I heard a French hornist at Rice University play it. It was astounding. It’s not an easy instrument, not a lovable instrument, but it was beautiful, just extraordinary. But you’ve got to respect your audience, and the Chamber Music Society doesn’t. They think their job is not to provide musical enjoyment for the audiences but to educate them, and that’s guaranteed to lose your audience.
AB: Do you find that’s true in the architecture community?
AG: Yes. They’re always coming out with new buildings, and it’s always the stupidity of the public that is to blame for the fact that nobody loves them.
AB: That’s my point about concert halls, that it’s life or death for orchestras when we go so far out on a limb for a concert hall that’s meant to be the capstone for the career of a particular architect, really just a huge statement. The hall isn’t meant for people. It’s a conceptual work of art meant to be talked about in magazines or garner industry awards.
AG: Same in architecture. I have a question. What is the difference between a good eighteenth-century opera and a musical, like Porgy and Bess or Oklahoma!, which has a story – it’s an opera really. What’s the difference? Quality of music?
AB: It’s the line between beauty and kitsch.
AG: Is Oklahoma! kitsch?
AB: That’s a very good question. For some people it could be kitsch. It gets close to kitsch, it runs along the fence to kitsch, it reaches over the fence. I like Oklahoma! and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone liking Oklahoma! but it’s not Lehar’s Merry Widow, to compare to something light. Merry Widow is arguably superior to it. You’ll discover the difference in the craft, in the orchestra parts, in the quality of melodies, even when plots are comical. It’s the phenomenon of McMansions. They’re using the same language as traditional architecture except the proportions are all off. Crappy renderings, sort of grotesque, most definitely kitsch. It strikes your eye immediately as kitsch. I go bike riding a lot through the Maryland countryside and see beautiful old estates; some are just beautiful, simple farmhouses. These were not highfalutin people, but they built a nice home. Then there’ll be a similar home built ten years ago by a developer, and it just hurts the eyes. Even though I’m an armchair architect, it’ll be so kitschy and abhorrent to me, I have to ask myself, why? It has columns, windows, shutters, a gabled roof. Why doesn’t it work? That’s the same problem with Broadway. It mimics the real thing but it takes so many shortcuts and often pushes things too far in terms of what it’s asking of the listener. It says, you have to feel this now. They tend to overstate their cases. Also, in opera the message is, these feelings really matter. In Broadway musicals, it’s more like none of this matters. It’s sort of nihilistic. We’re laughing at drama itself, pain itself. It’s important to learn to laugh. We can laugh at ourselves and laugh at life, but these things do matter.
AG: I think you make a lot of sense, but I think there’s a place for light opera.
AB: You think of Franz Lehar, or Fledermaus, which is hysterical. The craftsmanship of Fledermaus is incredible. Or look at Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, which is very funny.
AG: What about Rosenkavalier? That does verge on farce. Is that an operetta or an opera?
AB: Comic opera!
AG: Movies bridge that gap better than music. There’s a series of fabulous comedies, remarriage comedies. Marriage of Figaro is really a remarriage, because the count reconciles with the contessa. I’m thinking of movies like Bringing Up Baby, Monkey Business. There’s a professor of philosophy at Harvard who’s written a book about these movies. If I can remember it I’ll send it to you. I think you’d really like it.
AB: Do you know Roger Scruton? He’s a Senior Fellow for our organization.
AG: Yes. He’s a really smart man.
AG: What do you think of this? My daughter and I are always sending each other pieces of music. (plays Susannah McCorkle singing “The Waters of March”) The lady who’s singing it died quite young. Her name is Susannah McCorkle. The guitarist is Brazilian.
AB: Notice how she’s using her voice. She’s on the edge of talking, then falls into a bit of a song.
AG: The rhythm is a samba. She somehow uses her voice to pick up that rhythm.
AB: It’s wonderful to be able to explore these things, discover all the feelings. That’s the wonderful thing about music. We discover ourselves.
There are certain books that make ideal beginning points for very broad subjects: Taruskin’s monumental Oxford History of Western Music and Berlioz’s or Strauss’s treatises on instrumentation come to mind. Victoria Newhouse’s Site and Sound1 is one of these. It achieves the status of essential reading by both its focus and its scope, chronicling the concert hall’s origins in the ancient Greco-Roman amphitheaters, its flowering in the ornate baroque opera houses of Europe, and its most significant modern incarnations, touching on their roles as both ideological battlegrounds and testaments to our shifting attitudes towards art and, more specifically, classical music. Her book carefully outlines the challenges, the successes, and the failures of the historic and – especially – the modern opera house or symphony hall. Together with its successor, Chaos and Culture2, Newhouse’s books should be the starting place for anyone responsible for the conception or realization of a new concert hall or cultural center anywhere in the world.
Her books lay the foundation for any serious discussion on the topic of concert halls by covering the vast but essential ground and by surveying the lessons experience inevitably offers us. But they also, most interestingly, broach some of the subjects about which the classical music world, either reluctant or else remiss, largely fails to discuss. And it seems to me that these are precisely the most important discussions we could be having. This is the purpose of my work at FSI – to propel these conversations – and I wonder if Newhouse didn’t plant some early seeds in my mind. For example,
People on foot, not automobiles, are now the focus of plans for the inner city. Historic plazas and dense commercial streets have become the model for pedestrian zones in city centers throughout Europe, and the trend is beginning to take hold in the United States. Planners have come to realize that superblocks and broad, sunken plazas deferring to monumental buildings have deadened the street life essential to a lively urban environment. …Rather than siting several cultural institutions in one place, contemporary designs return to the earlier practice of locating concert halls and opera houses in different parts of a city – as the first Metropolitan Opera House and Carnegie Hall (William B. Tuthill, 1891) were in Manhattan, and the Royal Opera House (Edward Berry, 1858) and the Royal Albert Hall (Francis Fowke and H.Y.D. Scott, 1871) were in London.3
Her observations are both insightful and timely. They could have been the basis for our recent Seaside Symposium, which brought the most prominent thinkers and the basic tenants of New Urbanism together to consider the problem of concert halls in the context of community. In the space of one page in her book, Newhouse hits two gigantic problems that almost never show up on the radar of the boards and builders envisioning tomorrow’s concert halls. But they are issues very much known to the New Urbanists – who also know just what to do about them. The fact that these issues are so often entirely overlooked by our institutions of classical music here in America, and that the worlds of New Urbanism and classical music are so completely disconnected, makes Newhouse’s piercing analysis and her very direct challenge seem to me quite remarkable.
I had another such moment when we sat down to speak in person at her home in Manhattan. Our conversation began, naturally enough, with some remarks about the Met.
VICTORIA NEWHOUSE: The Met’s financial problems were first written about in the New York Times. I wrote to Peter Gelb, whom I know, and I said that the only way you’re going to solve these problems is to tear down that house, which is almost four thousand seats – just a couple seats under four thousand – and build something half the size or less than half the size because you’ll never in this day and age fill that, even in New York. I’m going less and less to the Met, and I’m going more and more to places like the National Sawdust, Poisson Rouge, Roulette – and these are small, as you know, very small venues. I believe National Sawdust has something like just two hundred seats – maybe just under – anyway, it’s extremely small. Roulette has maybe four hundred or so. Poisson Rouge I can’t tell you. …I am convinced that these very large concert halls – I would say anything over fifteen hundred seats – are a thing of the past. I just don’t think there are audiences to go to them. And I think that’s one of the problems. I dread going to the Geffen, the former Avery Fisher Hall. I find it so unwelcoming, it’s so enormous. One has no sense of intimacy there whatsoever.
ANDREW BALIO: I’m so glad to hear you say that because in your book you document the largest venues, but what we’re finding in our work is that what makes classical music special to people is its intimacy.
AB: And what’s missing in people’s lives is intimacy. We spend so much time in these giant buildings – shopping malls, monstrous office complexes, big box stores. Classical music should bring people together in a more social, intimate way. We’re hoping to design the whole concert experience from the beginning to be smaller. In fact, we have an initiative we’re working on called Slow Music. It’s about shrinking the scale, bringing classical music into the human scale.
VN: I couldn’t agree more. What they’re doing at the Geffen, they’ve announced an architect and an interior designer who are going to either totally renovate the hall or tear it down and start from scratch.
AB: They’re not allowed to tear it down because now it’s historic. It’s going to have to be a gut job.
VN: They’ve already done that once, you know; they gutted it once. They should be building two – at the very least – smaller halls in that space. There’s no market for these big concert halls anymore.
And of course, again, I have to marvel at Newhouse’s insight. In a world dominated by international corporations, daily commutes on ten-lane beltways, and the nonstop, frantic pace of our ubiquitous technology, we long for something small, human, knowable, and intimate. The boutique hotel, the farm-to-table restaurant, the local business: they’re all making a huge comeback. And it’s the easiest thing in the world to understand why. We’re looking for the antidote to our outsized, automated, and numbers-driven world. Classical music is the perfect antidote, but not if we continue to present it in the way we do now. We can’t expect people to file into halls the size of Walmart, assigned a number as the only thing by which they’re identified as a seat, and then to sit there, elbow to elbow with perfect strangers that they’ll never get to know, without even the smallest hope that someone will bring them a glass of wine or a coffee – or even smile at them – for at least the next several hours. It’s no wonder our halls are looking empty.
AB: How does it make you feel when you go into a half-full auditorium?
VN: I think it’s very depressing. I won’t publish an empty hall in my books; I won’t publish an empty opera house. I think to see a picture of an empty hall is very unsettling. I feel the same way when I go into an actual venue and it’s half empty. It’s a downer.
AB: Absolutely. This is the frustration in our work. They say we have a half-full house and somehow we failed rather than saying we arbitrarily scaled the whole operation too large. We have this industrial approach to concert music that we took in the last century when we wanted to make everything bigger, like sports stadiums. But the symphony doesn’t operate the way football does. They criticize the art form itself because we have a half-full house. We say the house is too big.
VN: How do you handle the problem – if you have a smaller hall – of finances for the musicians? How do you make ends meet?
AB: An orchestra in the United States generally gets only one-third of its operating funds from ticket revenue. Two-thirds come from donated revenue. So the economic imperative is both consistent, repeat ticket sales and a compelling mission to attract philanthropic funds. We’re trying to make the case for building concert halls smaller, as you said, and increasing the valuation of the concert experience – if people value it much more, they’ll pay and donate much more. But even if we elevate the ticket prices in the top tier, we’ll always set aside a certain number of tickets for people of lower income – could be the music students, the youngsters. This is a way of price structuring that has been going on forever. There’s a method to it and the wealthy know they’re offsetting the costs of the other people and everybody’s happy. Let’s say the demand goes up, which would be a wonderful thing: you have a small hall, so you play more concerts. Most orchestras aren’t playing enough concerts – or not as many as they could – and they wish they could offer more concerts that would sell. In our work at FSI we focus on the difference between price and valuation. Believe it or not, orchestras have been trying to push their prices down, assuming that price is the determining factor. But for things beyond the necessities it doesn’t work that way. When a concert costs less than a movie eventually people come to value a concert less than a movie.
VN: There are a lot of free concerts in New York. I’m sure you know that.
AB: What does that do? It may teach people that the value of a concert is free. You have a few wealthy people who are paying because they think this is a public good.
This is a model based on 100% philanthropic funding. And it’s all well and good until the philanthropist moves on. The fact of the matter is that orchestras need a better, more resilient model – one based to some extent on a realistic understanding of market forces and, most importantly, of human nature. What they need is something that will allow them to help themselves – to earn their own way – as much as they can, to insulate them against the whims of philanthropic fashion and the kinds of top-down government control and populist pressures that threaten the orchestras of Europe. We see a great need for careful research and the application of tried and tested market principles to the management of the nonprofit symphony – and a reevaluation of the predominant ideological principles that are pretending to be business principles. But a large part of making our orchestras viable is going to be developing the foresight and restraint needed not to hang an albatross around their necks by building halls that are too expensive to operate and maintain. And Newhouse has thought a lot about that.
VN: People don’t think beyond the bricks and mortar. They don’t think about programming, maintenance. My latest book, Chaos and Culture, touches on just this problem. Writing my last book [i.e. Site and Sound] about opera houses and concert halls, I became aware of how incredibly complicated the process of building a venue for music is – with the whole problem of acoustics, circulation in terms of how people move in and out of it, and all the different problems. So I’ve written a book about the process of building a cultural building in Athens, Greece. It’s an amazing project. It cost over eight hundred million dollars. It’s totally financed by a private foundation: the Niarchos Foundation. It consists of a small opera house – fourteen hundred seats – and the national library, which they desperately needed because their national library has extraordinary treasures – Byzantine and Medieval manuscripts.
They have the same problem because the deal they made with the Greek government before the global economic crisis was that the day it was finished they would turn the key over to the government and the government would run it. At that time, in 2007, the government said, yes, they would be delighted – they were thrilled to have a very expensive, very beautiful building designed by Renzo Piano. They would be very happy to run it; but a lot happened between then and now and they have no money to run it. The same problem as everyplace else: here they have a beautiful building and no money to run it. Of course the foundation will step in and help them out, but I don’t think they’re prepared to do that forever.
AB: Our cultural institutions expect the demand for their programs and resources to support these things – and just the opposite can happen. That’s what is dooming our high culture. The high arts are being saddled with these structural costs, and we never, ever get out of this ditch.
VN: There’s a chapter devoted to the major aspects of building this kind of a building. Really my inspiration for the book – the reason I wrote the book – is to alert people in cultural organizations about the problems: how difficult it is, how time consuming and how expensive and how complex. I have the feeling that so many of these boards jump into construction projects without having any idea what they’re getting themselves into.
AB: That’s exactly what happens. They keep deferring to “experts.” Other people step in – and it’s often driven by the architects, who have agendas and want to make a big statement, or else it’s the client who wants it to be all things to all people, which is usually not possible. The acoustician is often the last person who gets a chance to weigh in. In the case of Disney Hall, unfortunately, the acoustician, Yasuhita Toyota, did not get to “own” the interior of the hall, the concert performance space. As the musicians tell it, it did not turn out very well acoustically, even though it’s a cool place, visually. This happens a lot, where the architect creates all these issues. It’s a big challenge for a local philanthropist, for example, who is going to put down ten million dollars to kick off a concert hall project. First he has to inform his strategy. And there’s nothing – other than your book, actually – that gathers and distills the information into the wisdom of lessons learned. Instead they have information presented to them by all these different interests – usually vested interests. That why it’s so wonderful that you’re doing this.
VN: You might be more interested in the final chapter, where I compare the building of the Cultural Center in Athens, which went very smoothly, practically on time (– of course, it’s a little late – they all are – but it’s almost on time, almost on budget – it went very little over budget), with some other projects, like the Paris Philharmonie. As you know, it was tremendously late, tremendously over budget. Another one is the Herzog & de Meuron’s Elbaphilharmonie in Hamburg. Also Peter Eisenman’s thing in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. I make those comparisons to show how this was exceptional. The rule is rather the opposite. But these guys in Athens, having gone through all of this so beautifully, now have the same problem as all the others.
And indeed, it was the growing realization that many of the problems facing our symphony orchestras are shared not just among symphony orchestras but with businesses, institutions, and pursuits in so many different fields and so many different places that prompted me to begin my work at FSI in the first place. Too many mistakes are repeated unnecessarily because the lessons we should have learned from them are not being collected and disseminated – because we have too much invested in them to call them mistakes in the first place, and because too many of us don’t think to look outside of what has become for us our silo.
My work starts with the search for experts, often outsiders, who are examining these problems afresh – and sometimes in surprising, seemingly disparate fields. Victoria Newhouse was one of my first finds. And she’s been thinking about some of these problems for a long time, as part of a very big picture. That makes her work exceedingly important.
VN: There’s a lot to think through. …Alternative venues like Poisson Rouge or National Sawdust: that’s the future.
AB: Small, intimate – smaller scale. We’re seeing this contraction in so many things. All these things we’ve tried to supersize. They don’t sustain themselves. We need to pull people back in. Classical music is actually built on chamber music. The size of the symphony orchestra as an expression of classical music reached an apex at the end of the romantic period in the early 20th Century. Chamber music, the piano recital – they’ve been pushed off into other places. They’ve become their own separate world. I’d like to bring them together so that a thousand-seat concert hall could also have every night of the week different things. Most importantly, we’d be developing the depth of our audience’s experience. They could have a membership to the local symphony hall, and they could be enjoying this constant diet of music, learning our vast canon, and doing it in an environment of gold-standard hospitality – where they’re not just a face in a crowd, but a friend at an intimate gathering of friends. That’s what we’re envisioning.
1 Newhouse, Victoria. Site and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera Houses and Concert Halls. New York: The Monacelli Press LLC, 2010.
2 Newhouse, Victoria. Chaos and Culture: Renzo Piano Building Workshop and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens. New York: The Monacelli Press LLC, 2017.
3 Newhouse, Victoria. Site and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera Houses and Concert Halls. New York: The Monacelli Press LLC, 2010. Page 99.
So, why would a research institute focused on the future of live classical music be here with you in Seaside today to talk about architecture and urbanism? The most obvious answer relates to the fact that orchestras have to have concert halls: architecture and urbanism address the questions of Where and How we build them. Those are some pretty big and important questions, and would themselves be enough to bring us together here today. But our interest in architecture and urbanism actually goes much deeper than that – and it’s what brings us specifically here and not somewhere else – like, say, New York or Atlanta.
We certainly didn’t know, when we began to study the problems of orchestras and their concert halls, that our work would lead us here. But we knew for sure that there was something wrong and that orchestras are fighting uphill because of it. And if our orchestras are struggling to keep a foothold in our communities, our communities are struggling to keep music around, too. Perhaps the fight is most visible in our schools, where music education is always either endangered or extinct. But we also see it every year in the towns across America that lose their orchestras to insolvency and neglect. Something is out of balance and all the usual answers and solutions offered to fix the problem just aren’t working.
So we began to dig deeper. We began to question not just the usual answers, but the usual questions, too. That led us to some surprising places, and we started to notice something remarkable: that the challenges facing orchestras and classical music today are not unique to them! In fact, we have a lot to learn from a lot of other fields and disciplines when we look at them in fresh new ways. Some of the lessons we find are cautionary tales, and some are important comeback stories that inspire us with hope and a real vision for the future. The stories of modern architecture and urbanism are both of these things.
If those of us in the world of classical music will look closely, we will see in the mistakes and failures of modern architecture and urban planning the reflection of our own mistakes – the ones we are still enthusiastically making every day, without any thought to the idea that they might be, in the end, mistakes. And they are significant errors because they represent our fundamental assumptions about human nature, our understanding of the ways we relate to our built and natural environments, and our attitudes towards tradition and the past. We compound our problems with every decision we base on these misunderstandings.
On the other hand, the spectacular successes of New Urbanism and the revival of classical architecture provide us with a real model of recovery. And this is perhaps the most important and deepest of lessons to be mined here: the triumph of places like Seaside teach us something very important about human nature and values, about what changes, and about what endures. And we hope that together this weekend we can all begin to hash out the place for music in our communities and how best to build them together.
But before we get to the part about Where and How we build concert halls, let’s take a moment to consider the Why. What is the “end” of the concert hall, the ultimate purpose for which it exists – the telos, if you will? As you can imagine, that’s a very important place to start. The Where and How will have to relate to the Why. And we have broken that answer into three components to present you with today.
The Telos of the Concert Hall
Firstly, the hall is a home for classical music and for the orchestra that lives there. This part is easy to understand. The concert hall is the oikos for classical music in any community. It is where the orchestra resides – where it makes its home – and the place from which it goes out to meet its neighbors. It is the physical presence of classical music that we are obliged to encounter daily, standing there, come what may, shoulder to shoulder amongst its neighbors as a member of our community. It is the place where the orchestra welcomes and entertains its guests and friends with the very best hospitality it can muster. The concert hall, in short, takes part in that cooperative effort of place-making that makes a community a “home” worth loving – that inspires in us what Roger Scruton calls oikophilia.
The concert hall also represents a physical connection to the classical tradition that calls it home. In the same way that our homes come to reflect us, our values, and our lifestyles, the concert hall should celebrate the history and the values from which the tradition and the great canon of music, constantly celebrated and performed inside it, arose. It must invite us to become familiar with, to know, to understand, to respect, and to love that tradition. And that’s more important than you might think – and certainly more important than many of today’s orchestras apparently think – because our orchestras depend not on the novelty-seekers that wander through their doors from time to time – or even in hordes if we’re lucky. Nor do they get by on the grants and funds set aside by government and civic-minded foundations to support adventurous forays in the arts. No, orchestras rely almost entirely on the donations, large and small, of the individuals in their communities who come to love them and the classical repertoire they are so highly qualified to present.
In today’s exceedingly troubled world, it can be a difficult thing to convince even those whose love of classical music is deeply rooted and unshakeable to dedicate a significant portion of their income to support their community’s orchestra. There are a myriad of other causes clamoring for their attention, many of which take direct aim at classical traditions. What happens if the concert hall itself repudiates or denounces the very thing the orchestra will then have to convince its guests to support once they’ve come inside? Talk about shooting ourselves in the foot!
So the concert hall must be a connection to the community in which it lives and a connection to the classical tradition which lives in it, but there is another important point to make about the telos of concert halls. And this one might be the most interesting of all: the concert hall is a place set apart, not unlike a church or a cathedral, for the encounter of something that transcends this world. And like it was for so many souls across so many generations who wore the paths to our cathedrals and churches and kneeled to pray inside them, the experience to be encountered inside the concert hall, if it is to be fully appreciated, must be approached in silence and with an attitude of maximum receptivity. As Sir Roger explains it,
You entered both the church and the concert hall from the world of business, laying aside your everyday concerns and preparing to be addressed by the silence. You came in an attitude of readiness, not to do something, but to receive something. In both places you were confronted with a mystery, something that happened without a real explanation, and which must be contemplated for the thing that it is. The silence is received as a preparation, a lustration, in which the audience prepares itself for an act of spiritual refreshment.1
And in the concert hall we all sit facing, as we do the altar in church, the same point in space in which, nevertheless, the thing we ultimately encounter appears not so much as a physical presence, but as something that moves inside our very souls.
This experience – the possibility of this kind of encounter, which connects us to each other in the present by connecting us to community, to each other in the past by connecting us with tradition, and to each other in the future by connecting us to that which is beyond this world – this is what we stand to lose if we get the telos wrong. But it’s also what we stand to lose if we get the architecture and the urbanism wrong. And too often we do just that. Too many orchestras have been following modern architecture and urbanism down a dead-end street. What do we mean by that? Well, let’s look at some of the mistakes of modern architecture and urbanism. Most of these mistakes will be familiar to those of you who work, live, and play in Seaside, but it has yet to dawn on the classical music world that these even are mistakes.
The Mistakes of Modern Architecture
The first is a problem of scale. The use of machines to assemble buildings has led architects and developers to dramatically over-scale them. This is true of the office buildings, shopping malls, civic plazas, and towers full of apartments and condos that mar our cities and send our suburbs sprawling every which way. It’s also true of concert halls. And often the scaling error spills over into vast concrete plazas and parking garages that become like desert wastelands that must be traversed before the concertgoer even gets to the front door of the hall. We feel like ants crawling across the pavement to this thing looming far above us. While all this is meant to communicate that the orchestra living there is both modern and impressive, it actually leaves us with the feeling that the orchestra does not live side-by-side with us as a neighbor would, but imposes itself on us as some cold, tyrannical machine, quite probably administered by Vogons. The orchestra is left to cast desperately about for some way to convince the community that it is in fact relevant to them while all day, every day, its own home is broadcasting unmistakably and emphatically that it’s not at all.
The next mistake, in which orchestras are thoroughly caught up (and not just when it comes to their concert halls), is the mythology of “progress.” In architecture the most basic manifestation of this idea is the use of synthetic materials just because they exist – and represent “progress” – to create an architecture that we think is, therefore, “of our time.” But the use of unconventional materials (or else the unconventional use of materials) creates new problems that have to be solved – often at great cost in both resources and finances. We end up, for instance, with need for expansion joints and “permeable” pavement. And the usable life of these “progressive” buildings becomes shockingly short. According to Quinlan Terry, a
recent American report on the life of steel and glass high rise buildings put their useful life at twenty-five years. They may last a little longer, but after 40 years or so they are often demolished, the materials cannot be recycled so they are dumped in a landfill site and the laborious process of reconstruction begins again at phenomenal financial and environmental cost. So Modern construction as a means of providing a permanent home or place of work has been a failure from conception to the grave, and more seriously, it expresses a culture that has no history and no future.2
(Which of course also speaks eloquently to one of our earlier observations about the ends, or telos, of the concert hall.) The cost to maintain these “progressive halls,” to heat them and cool them, and then to tear them down and rebuild them again soars far beyond anything that should be considered responsible or acceptable – and makes the whole project incredibly and tragically wasteful. The progressive concert hall becomes another manifestation of our disposable consumer culture. And as you know, we cannot forever maintain that way of life.
If we think that technology has allowed us to circumvent the best ideas about materials and techniques handed down to us by thousands of years of craftsmen, we also think it allows us to trump localism in our building and planning. We’re no longer restricted by soil, climate, altitude, or local resources. And so what we build in the name of “progress” is not only certain to be less suited to its environment in terms of efficiency, we can also see that it begins to look the same everywhere. Faceless walls of glass, steel, and concrete wherever we go. In the vacant reflections on those enormous glass walls, we lose the particulars and the context that make a place feel like home. Architecture as a triumph of technology becomes just a display of power and reminds us only of the ever-present triumph of the global capitalist – unrooted, wasteful, and drunk on oil.
But wait, the fantastical modern concert hall is not really about any of those things. The building materials are just the medium. The architecture of the concert hall is about artistic expression! Does that sound familiar?
Misunderstanding architecture as primarily some kind of artistic/ideological expression rather than as an art of building well is another mistake. This is the affliction of many “starchitects” and the planners who employ them. And it’s the same kind of mistake that plagues modern art and modern musical composition as well: it’s not art as skill but art as concept. And it ends up being art that has to be explained in order for us to even recognize it as art. I’m going to give you an example here, which you might know because it’s quite famous – and, honestly, because it’s so absurd that once you’ve heard it, you probably won’t forget it:
An Oak Tree is a work of art created by Michael Craig-Martin in 1973, and is now exhibited with the accompanying text, originally issued as a leaflet. The text is in red print on white; the object is a French Duralex glass, which contains water to a level stipulated by the artist and which is located on a glass shelf, whose ideal height is 253 centimeters with matte grey-painted brackets screwed to the wall. The text is behind glass and is fixed to the wall with four bolts. Craig-Martin has stressed that the components should maintain a pristine appearance and in the event of deterioration, the brackets should be re-sprayed and the glass and shelf even replaced. The text contains a semiotic argument, in the form of questions and answers, which explain that it is not a glass of water, but “a full-grown oak tree,” created “without altering the accidents of the glass of water.” The text defines accidents as “The colour, feel, weight, size…”. The text includes the statement “It’s not a symbol. I have changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree. I didn’t change its appearance. The actual oak tree is physically present, but in the form of a glass of water.” and “It would no longer be accurate to call it a glass of water. One could call it anything one wished but that would not alter the fact that it is an oak tree.”3
Really, the gimmick isn’t even clever. But, even if we grant that art as concept or gimmick might be fine for things like painting or sculptures – or whatever you’d call “An Oak Tree” – it presents us with some serious problems in the case of buildings, which must actually be used and lived in. It’s not enough for us just to call a thing a roof or a door or a lintel, it must actually be one – it must perform all the functions assigned to it as completely and perfectly as possible. Similarly, if we had to rely on this thing we’re told to call “An Oak Tree” to be an oak tree, to perform any of the functions of an oak tree – say, for shade, a windbreak, or a producer of acorns – we’d be in big trouble.
The very first function of a door, for example, is to be recognizable as one. The door is the thing we aim for on the face of any building, isn’t it? If we can’t easily find or identify the door, the rest of the building might as well be rubbish. A concert hall, too, at the very least has to be recognizable as one. We have to know where to go to find the symphony concert and then how to get into the hall once we’ve identified it. So if you build a gimmick for a concert hall and it looks for all intents and purposes like a parking deck or a giant can-opener, you’re going to have to put some effort into getting people inside – maybe you’ll have to put up one of those signs like the “Oak Tree” fellow did to explain the joke. And let’s hope that everyone appreciates the joke, because we all know the alternative is to acknowledge that one is “uncultured.” A hall like that is an ultimatum and not a good starting point for a relationship with the members of a community who actually make it a point to seek out culture.
And yet this is exactly what many orchestras are doing for the sake of architecture as “artistic expression” – and it’s compounded by the misapplication of the idea of “progress” to art. But that is a subject worthy of its own entire conference, so I’ll leave it there to be brought up another day. And I will point out only that, ultimately, this mistake is grounded in the original problem of misunderstanding the telos of the concert hall. It is not to be an artistic interpretation of a concert hall, it is to be a concert hall – which is to say it is to perform all the functions of home for the orchestra that we pointed out earlier.
The Mistakes of Modern Urbanism
How about the mistakes of modern urbanism? Again, probably something very familiar to those of you who have invested in the correction, a fine example of which we are fortunate enough to be standing in today. But let’s point these mistakes out for the sake of the classical music world who probably hasn’t even thought about them, even though the city is the orchestra’s natural habitat.
First we might point out the habit of growing by building out and up rather than by the replication of a small and entire unit – like the fractal way in which Nature grows. Quite unnaturally, our towers get higher and our cities swell in concentric circles. A new beltway encircles the old beltway and swallows up the urban sprawl between in an ever-widening blob. Then the center of the circle, the bull’s eye, growing ever more distant from its life-supply, starts to die out and becomes an empty jumble of desiccated bones leaning against the sky – those skyscrapers, or vertical cul-de-sacs as Léon Krier describes them, are abandoned for the sad strip-malls and Prozac-inducing business parks of the sprawling suburbs. I paint a depressing picture, but we all know it well.
Orchestras are making this mistake, too. Their concert halls are turning into musical mega-complexes, gobbling up multiple halls, recital spaces, and music schools into one over-scaled “machine for music,” instead of distributing smaller halls and venues and schools throughout many smaller urban centers and neighborhoods. Often they are built in the center of the city before it is abandoned, or else put there after it has emptied out in a last ditch effort to bring everyone back to the gutted downtown.
An increasingly popular idea is to put the hall in a designated Arts and Culture District. This should remind us of another great mistake of modern urban planning: the single use district or zone. Like the shopping district, the financial district, the business district, or even the wallowing housing tracts of our suburbs, the arts and culture district creates another kind of cul-de-sac. People come into them only if they’ve already made plans to consume some culture – or else entirely by accident, in which case they will probably just want to get themselves turned around and back out again. Which means that they do not encounter the concert hall as a part of the normal course of their everyday life and movements. And yet music should be a part of our normal, everyday lives. So we’re doing something wrong.
The concert hall should be there in our midst to remind us of this great thing that is always in our presence, always part of our history, our culture, and our being, and always inviting us in to partake of it. If the hall can’t do that from the corner we’ve assigned it to, then our orchestras must constantly be elbowing their way into our attentions elsewhere in our busy world. And it’s a hard task for them to remind us about the importance of music in our lives from the fringes of it. It’s a hard task to get us to focus on what’s going on in our peripheral vision and we might argue that this is a big part of the reason that music is disappearing from so many of our schools and communities. It became invisible long before it disappeared.
The Good News
Well, so far it’s been all bad news. But the real reason we’re here in Seaside with you this weekend is to talk about the good news! The good news is that architecture and urbanism are righting themselves. And both the revival of classical architecture and the tremendous successes of New Urbanism provide a model of recovery for classical music. We’re here to tell them about it.
It’s enormously encouraging, even if it’s not all that surprising, to see the impressive professional achievements and architectural accomplishments – and, indeed, the growing number – of classical architects both here and abroad. I’m thinking of men like Quinlan Terry, Allan Greenberg, Robert Adam, and John Simpson. Organizations like the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, which started out as “a small group of determined activists in New York”4 not 50 years ago, are popping up all over the country now – and thriving with actively growing and enthusiastic memberships. Architects, students, and “lay” people alike are lining up to learn how to draw the orders. Imagine that.
Three decades ago Notre Dame University began the difficult work of rebuilding an architectural education program on the principles and disciplines of classicism. That work is paying off handsomely now as their graduates are some of the most sought-after young architects to enter the field each year. And other schools are now following in the path Notre Dame bravely forged: the College of Charleston, South Carolina; the University of Colorado at Denver, and The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC are all becoming centers for classicism and tradition, eagerly pursued by a hungry new crop of students every year. Indeed, we are seeing in classical architecture something very like the current renaissance in realist artwork that has aspiring artists flocking to ateliers to study – painstakingly and for many years – under the few painters and sculptors who kept the traditions, skills, and techniques of the masters alive while the rest of the world went cuckoo for cocoa puffs.
It’s perhaps our greatest joy at the Future Symphony Institute, however, to see the triumph of the work of David M. Schwarz and his team of architects, who are building – for the orchestras who have figured a thing or two out already – some of the most beautiful and astonishingly appropriate concert halls that we’ve seen in more than a century. From his renovation and expansion of the Cleveland Orchestra’s famed Severance Hall to the new buildings he designed for Las Vegas; Carmel, Indiana; Fort Worth; Charleston; and Nashville, Schwarz’s concert halls are masterpieces and fully worthy of the priceless tradition, represented by the canon of classical music, which will call these halls “home.” We’re honored to have Gregory Hoss, president of that team of architects, here with us this weekend; and I encourage you to check out these halls if you’re not familiar with them yet. We also have with us Cliff Gayley, of William Rawn and Associates, who did the remarkable and intimate Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood and Green Music Center in Sonoma, not to mention Strathmore Music Center, where I am lucky to perform every week.
And urbanism, too, is showing signs of recovery. But it’s clearly New Urbanism that is pointing the way. This is of course the reason why we are so excited to be here in Seaside and nowhere else this weekend. I don’t know if even the visionary founder of Seaside, Robert Davis, or his team of planners and architects really knew just how successful their experiment was going to be. I have to wonder if maybe we’re fortunate that they did not because there was no greed in their motivations – and that fact has helped to save Seaside from the sins that ravage our cities and suburbs. No, Seaside was born of an honest and modest accounting of human nature and the habits of happy human settlement. And it has become a beacon and a model for towns far and wide. Communities inspired by it and founded on New Urbanist principles are springing up everywhere from the Kentlands in Maryland – not far from where I live – to Poundbury in England and Cayalá in Guatemala. And they are all, to the extent that they understand and embody the philosophy of New Urbanism, wildly successful.
New Urbanism is making its way into the often stagnant backwaters of higher education, too, with the University of Miami and Andrews University taking the lead. And while the Congress for New Urbanism is the most visible and important of the organizations formed to promote its principles, we are seeing a vigorous blooming of grassroots efforts – by groups such as the Alliance for a Human-Scale City in New York – to save our towns, neighborhoods, and cities from the devastating effects of poor planning and bad architecture. In the professional arena, New Urbanist design firms and developers are cropping up all over the nation.
And that’s because New Urbanism has given everyone – from citizens to developers to city officials – not only a reason to believe they can build something better, but also the blueprints with which to build it. It is waking us up to the memory that our cities were not always blighted canyons and our neighborhoods were once abuzz with authentic interactions between neighbors. People are investing – more importantly than money – love in their communities. It is a sign of that oikophilia I mentioned at the outset when people insist that their community be a place that is lovable: that it be human in scale, local in context, and neighborly in manner.
Classical music must find its place in this kind of love – love of home, of community, of neighbor, and of the culture that binds all these things together. In all but the most exceptional cases, our orchestras won’t survive if they don’t get this part right. They depend on love and a connection to their communities – a recognition of their relevance and of their membership in the project of placemaking – to survive. What’s more, they depend on all the small towns across our nation – and even around the world – to provide kids with the opportunity to join the marching band and the youth orchestra, to learn to play the recorder in elementary school and the clarinet in high school, to sneak into a concert hall and be blown away by Beethoven’s symphonies and Mozart’s operas (like I did as a kid) – in short, the opportunity to become our next generation of orchestral musicians who’ll go on to play some of the most astounding music ever written in some of the greatest halls ever built.
The classical music world needs to learn the lessons that Seaside has to offer – and not simply those about walkability and mixed-use, but the deeper lessons behind those, too. Because the greatest success of Seaside is what it gets right about human nature, about our relationships to each other and our built and natural environments, and about our enduring values. I believe wholeheartedly that in every community there is a place for music. And that music is a part of placemaking.
There was a time in America when virtually all intellectual activity was derived in one way or another from the Communist Party… resulting in a disastrous vulgarization of intellectual life, in which the character of American liberalism and radicalism was decisively – and perhaps permanently – corrupted.*
—Robert Warshow (1947)
Several years ago, I was having lunch with Henry Hope Reed, the author of The Golden City, one of the most important books of twentieth-century architecture criticism. At some point, he exploded with frustration, asking “Where did all this awful modernism come from?” Frankly, I was surprised. It never occurred to me that a scholar of Reed’s capabilities and knowledge would confess ignorance about such an important topic, but he was serious. The rest of our conversation focused on a vain attempt on my part to identify the course of events that led to the destruction of the academy and the classical tradition, the rise of modernism and its spawn, postmodernism. It was too long and complex a topic to explain over lunch, especially to a scholar afflicted with a hearing impairment.
With the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989, the question lost its relevancy. But postmodernism, with its ironic, anti-American, anti-religious ideology, continued to shape Western culture. In the twenty-five years since that collapse, with two dozen emerging nations subsequently freed, little serious discussion has been devoted to communism and its liberal off-shoots. However, the tsunami of postmodern culture has not only undermined the quality of the fine arts, but deconstructed the last redoubt of American creativity, popular culture – movies, comic books, theater, music, photography, fashion, interior design. The twenty-foot puppy atop the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a plastic Christ submerged in a vial of artist’s urine, inane poetry, the decline of education, and the rejection of timeless standards of aesthetics and beauty have opened a vast chasm in American civilization. The elimination of right and wrong, beauty and craft, and the criterion of excellence have effectively dumbed down popular appreciation of values that contributed to making this nation great. In hindsight, it was American popular culture – not high culture – that more truly preserved aesthetic standards during the 1950s. Unfortunately, it was mostly teenagers who recognized the creative value of that culture. Adults, mostly parents and the critical establishment, deplored “low culture,” referring to it as trash. One exception was Robert Warshow (1918–55), a much-admired critic for the Partisan Review and Commentary.
As a young artist during the 1950s, I immediately got the point of modernism – to maintain a high aesthetic without relying on traditional narrative structure. But it required some effort to remove the crust of politics that had been applied to it during the 1930s – progressively distorting its deeper meaning and importance – by communist idealists, liberals, radicals, and fellow travelers, most notably in the arts and education. During the same period, loyal Americans responded similarly with their own political agendas.
To understand the infiltration of political ideology into American high culture, one must recall that it was the height of the Cold War. It was the period of the Berlin Airlift and the Cuban Revolution, Russia’s stealing of atomic bomb secrets, the Rosenbergs, Whitaker Chambers’s Witness, the Hollywood Ten, and Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities hearings, the banning of comic books, rock-n-roll and “salacious” movies, and the stifling of students’ expressive behavior in schools. During this time, Dr. Frederic Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent, testified before a congressional sub-committee chaired by Senator Estes Kefauver about comic books’ subversive effect on children. Wertham and other “experts” singled out the burgeoning publisher EC Comics, a small publisher that employed highly talented, creative artists and writers – many of them teenagers just out of art school, particularly Cartoonists & Illustrators in New York City. It was an unfortunate setback for American popular culture. Similar attacks were pressed against pop music, particularly rock-n-roll. Wertham and the subcommittee did not criticize the big publishers, including Dell, DC Comics and National. Unfortunately, even astute critics such as Hilton Kramer regarded comics and most movies as “trash.”
In the beginning, it was hard to separate the politics of patriotism from the Marxist propaganda that seeped into every aspect of American life, undermining the pillars of society, mores, religion, and patriotism. Those who opposed the infiltration of propaganda, especially in the arts, mass media, movies, newspapers, television, and radio, included stalwarts such as Hilton Kramer, T.S. Eliot, Lionel Trilling, Norman Podhoretz, and Midge Dector. It seemed to me, even as a student, that the issue was not solely a political matter, but also aesthetic. Later, postmodernism would leave a gaping hole in American cultural and civic life with its unrelenting attack on aesthetics, beauty, and sacred iconography.
It was no coincidence that, during the subsequent fifty years of the Cold War, it was not possible to create a successful memorial for Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the National Mall. One proposal for four towering, white-concrete, monolithic slabs drew the outrage of the Roosevelt family. Plans for the memorial were put on hold for decades. The installation of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982 restored interest in projects for the Mall. The controversy over appropriate styles has yet to be resolved, however. In 1997, President Bill Clinton dedicated the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, created by American sculptor George Segal. The artist’s approach was to literally pour wet concrete over living models, let it harden to the point that it could be removed and made into casts. So grotesque was the outcome that many websites devoted to the memorial avoid reproductions of the statues, focusing instead on the memorable words uttered by Roosevelt during his administration, carved into blocks of stone framed by small waterfalls. Half a dozen modernist-style memorials, some even worse, have since been installed on the National Mall.
The problem is not limited to the memorials’ ugliness, but includes the mundane, meaningless themes and iconography used in honoring the great people and heroic events we mean to celebrate. In contrast, the success of Maya Lin’s Wall and Frederick Hart’s Three Soldiers at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is based on the themes of honor and respect to those who served. The beauty and gravitas of these works derive from their intent. The FDR Memorial resembles a cartoon park designed by Jeff Koons. No doubt someone at this moment plans to contract Koons to create a future memorial. Recent doubts about Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial call into question whether postmodern artists can create fitting memorials.
During the 1950s, neither Russian dictators nor patriotic Americans were all that interested in aesthetics or civic beauty. The City Beautiful Movement of the nineteenth century was over, and their primary focus was political and ideological. The Cold War – occasionally hot in places such as Korea, the Middle East, Central America, and Africa – was a distraction from cultural events. The communists promoted narrative realist paintings, which gave an unrealistic picture of the revolution of Lenin and Stalin. Americans, to the degree that they paid attention to the arts, accepted modernism, if only to prove to the world that American art was more progressive than fascism, Nazism, and communism. An old joke shared among artists at the Russian Academy (who were well trained in traditional academic skills): if you painted dour Soviet life as you saw and experienced it, you were sure to be sent to a slave camp in Siberia. Modernist abstraction was dealt with more harshly. The abstract, Constructivist artist Kazimir Malevich was sent to the Gulag prison to be “re-educated.” When he emerged, tortured and disheartened, this great artist was ordered to paint scenes of smiling peasants with brand new (nonexistent) harvesters, while millions of farmers in the Ukraine starved. During Glasnost, under Mikhail Gorbachev, abstract artists were tolerated as long as all the money derived from sales to the West were turned over to the government. For a while, they did a thriving business with Western collectors, even though modernism in the West was dead by the 1970s. The corruption of the art market continued, fueled by the rapacious business market and hundreds of modern art museums, galleries and art departments at U.S. universities.
American Arts Quarterly(AAQ) has long followed the decline of Western modernism and the need for a new vision to spark a renaissance in all the arts. Ironically, Russia – or what is left of the Soviet Union – finds itself in a similar bind. In June, Radio Free Europe broadcast that the Russian government had created a major new agency, the Directorate for Social Projects. Its first national conference was held in the city of Krasnadar, on the Ukrainian-Russian border, near Crimea, which Russian military forces had just invaded.
According to the Russian website, monitored by Radio Free Europe, the directorate will be controlled by the Russian President. Its mission is to strengthen “the spiritual and moral foundations of Russian society” and to improve “government policies in the field of patriotic upbringing.”† The ministry will be under the direct control of the Russian President. Interestingly, the core of this proposed revival of Russian culture, which is especially focused on youth, does not include communist propaganda, but pre-revolutionary values. Its purpose is nationalistic: the reclaiming of ancient Russia’s spiritually and aesthetically rich heritage and culture. Commentators on Radio Free Europe said the new agency could prove instrumental in filling the ideological vacuum left by the Soviet collapse, to correcting mistakes made under the regimes of Lenin and Stalin. Sadly, the present regime, socially oppressive and aggressively militaristic, seems ill-suited to the task.
In the years after World War II and the Cold War, we ignored the task of revitalizing American culture and education. During the 1990s, I served on the President’s Committee for National Standards for American Education K-12. Its members were composed primarily of business people and professional educators who had never heard of the word “renewal.” Traditional visual-art education and skills were shunned. The report, National Standards for Arts Education (1994), was prepared and published under a grant from the Department of Education, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and authorized by Congress.
Today, we find ourselves in another race with Russia and the Eastern nations, most obviously economic but, more crucially, cultural. We face two obstacles: much of American cultural history in the twentieth century was shaped by left-wing and liberal values; and the cognoscenti, the business community and government have been indifferent to the great decline in American standards and values, especially in education. Too many young people are falling into functional illiteracy. As Weird Al Yankovic sings in his brilliant pop music parody “Word Crimes”: “Your grammar’s errant … you’re incoherent.” Does anyone appreciate the irony that it is the inheritor of the communist empire, a former KGB officer of the Cold War, who seeks to “restore national pride, promote patriotism and strengthen the spiritual and moral foundations of Russian society”?
Our nation was founded on the ideals and rights promoted by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and those principles evolved through the growth of American culture. The primitive tiny group of independent states and territories – not yet a nation – gave birth to the architecture that distinguishes our nation’s capital. The painter Benjamin West (1738–1820) and Thomas Jefferson, as architect, initiated the patriotic, neoclassical style that not only inspired American art, but influenced the evolution of the French Royal Academy – from the eighteenth-century Rococo style to the neoclassical spartanism of Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), which prevailed until World War I. President George Washington wrote to Gouverneur Morris that he believed virtue, the arts and humanities were permanently interconnected, and that Americans should act accordingly.
AAQ has devoted so much time to the failures of postmodern art that clutter museums, universities, and our public and civic spaces, that I will spare the reader further jeremiads on my part, except to note one important issue: the future of the National Mall. The monuments of the last sixty years (with the exception of Maya Lin’s Wall and Frederick Hart’s Three Soldiers, both part of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial) have been artistic and thematic failures, detracting from the gravitas and sacredness of this hallowed ground. On a brighter note, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama during a ceremony at the White House in July. BAM is noted for eclectic film series, including classic American movies that highlight the twentieth century’s most important art form, which grew out of the American popular culture. As he handed the award to the academy’s president, Karen Brooks Hopkins, the president remarked: “The moments you help create – moments of understanding or awe or joy or sorrow – they add texture to our lives, they are not incidental to the American experience – they are central to it. They are essential to it.”‡
Throughout our history, American culture has been fueled by creative anti-establishment energy. But that spirit of rebellion found a counterbalance in deeply rooted respect for traditional values, in a taste for direct storytelling and humor, and in community and civic pride. We have a healthy skepticism of officialdom, and any attempt to engineer much-needed changes in the arts through dogma and censorship will fail. But cultural institutions and the government can support and foster the individuals and groups that, for the last few decades, have worked to reclaim skills, communicate with an aesthetically engaged public, and promote beautiful and meaningful public spaces. In the best American tradition, that enterprise should encompass both the fine arts and pop culture – a powerful antidote to totalitarian agendas.
*Robert Warshow, The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Popular Culture (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1962), p. 33.
† Radio Free Europe: Radio Liberty, “Putin Creates Agency to Restore Russia’s National Pride” (June, 2014).
Sed me Parnasi deserta per ardua dulcis raptat amor.* —VIRGIL
Perhaps our modern world is not so far gone as yet, but it is easy for us to imagine the painful longing in Petrarch’s heart as he stood on the Capitoline Hill in Rome on Easter Sunday in 1341. Looking around him at the cultural desolation of a land and its people ravaged by war, famine, civil unrest, epidemic, and economic collapse, he was nevertheless so sure of his vision, so inspired by his love of something greater than his self or his time, that the words he spoke that day come down to us as the first manifesto of the glorious Renaissance:
Someone then might say: “What is all this, my friend? Have you determined to revive a custom that is beset with inherent difficulty and has long since fallen into desuetude? And this in the face of a hostile and recalcitrant fortune? Whence do you draw such confidence that you would decorate the Roman Capitol with new and unaccustomed laurels? Do you not see what a task you have undertaken in attempting to attain the lonely steeps of Parnassus and the inaccessible grove of the Muses?” Yes, I do see, oh my dear sirs; I do indeed see this, oh Roman citizens. “Sed me Parnasi deserta per ardua dulcis raptat amor,” as I said at the outset. For the intensity of my longing is so great that it seems to me sufficient to enable me to overcome all the difficulties that are involved in my present task.†
There in the ruins of an ancient Roman Empire, Petrarch accepted his crown of laurels – the first offered a poet in over twelve long centuries. The tradition was all but dead. The age was indeed dark. The slopes of Parnassus were dauntingly steep and deserted. But from somewhere beyond the shroud of gloom that enveloped him, the Muses called to Petrarch and he followed, inspired by the love and the sweet longing of one going home.
It is easy for us to imagine because our modern age seems to be dimming before our eyes. We are reminded at every turn that the world is a new and alienating place, unfit for the traditions that evoke some past and irrelevant golden age or a society we no longer recognize. We discard or neglect the Canon’s great works when it is easier to do so than to dig for the treasures hidden therein; what is difficult or laborious to understand is sacrificed for the sake of accessibility to the modern mind. Like Petrarch we marvel that
This age of ours consequently has let fall, bit by bit, some of the richest and sweetest fruits that the tree of knowledge has yielded; has thrown away the results of the vigils and labours of the most illustrious men of genius, things of more value, I am almost tempted to say, than anything else in the whole world….‡
We allow our great cultural institutions to fall into disrepair and disrepute because, as we strip them of their reverential traditions and their arduous canon, we also strip them of our reasons to cherish them. We call them before the tribunal of public opinion to justify their very existence, as if we can no longer see through the smog to the heights of Parnassus, lonelier than ever because we have forgotten that it is even there. We attempt to chain the Muses to the machinery of our modern malaise, as if we do not remember that they exist to show us the way to transcend that malaise, to find our way home again, by way of that steep and difficult climb, to the bosom of art and learning.
It is easy for us to imagine that someday our symphony halls will be ancient ruins and the source of a painful longing for those who remember the wasted Muses, or who sift through the rubble for what was lost. We can even hear the howls of those who proclaim that it should be so, and we mourn the actions of those who obviously believe it. Yet, there are many more of us who recognize Virgil’s description of a deep and ardent desire because it urges us, too, to persevere against all difficulties in the name of the symphony orchestra. This is the mission and the purpose of the Future Symphony Institute: to orchestrate a new renaissance for live classical music, to ensure that the dawn breaks on symphony halls that rise like polished temples in our midst rather than like ruins on abandoned hilltops.
To circumscribe this immense task, we created seven initiatives that describe and focus our efforts. The first two are of a philosophical nature. We must, firstly and perhaps most fundamentally, reframe the way we understand and communicate what is being overlooked because it is immeasurable and immaterial – namely, the principle value of the symphony orchestra to society. By doing so, we not only orient our institutions with respect to mighty Parnassus and the dawn of a new renaissance, but we also arm them with an answer for the cynical tribunals who mercilessly impugn their relevance and their mission. Our second initiative focuses on the critical role of the orchestra as an educator – not just musically and not just of children, but in the way that high culture has always been that which teaches us what it most profoundly means to be human. We must build the foundation for and design the structure of this meaningful role for the orchestra – so critical and inspiring in an age that is increasingly digital and impersonal.
Some of our goals will require extensive and scholarly research. This will certainly be the case for each of the following three initiatives. Most immediately, orchestras need a concrete system by which to understand and quantify their audiences – one that goes beyond the limits of their usual and failing marketing methods. They must learn to identify their patrons not as demographic statistics but as human beings driven by internal aspirations and motivations that do not necessarily correlate to physical characteristics. They must find the real reasons people come to love the symphony, why they feel the sweet longing that urges them to our concert halls. The field of psychographics presents us with a way to understand and measure these drives – a more meaningful way for orchestras to relate to and reach their audiences, both actual and potential. Secondly, with a proper psychographic system and the research that supports it, we can construct a bridge between casual attendance and eventual connoisseurship. Much energy today is wasted on efforts to bring the uninitiated into the audience – wasted because there is no effective plan to make the uninitiated into the convert. And this is far from the only case of mislaid efforts. We must take the time to thoroughly and critically evaluate the oft-repeated theories and measures that have neither adequately explained nor delivered orchestras from their troubles. Much of the dogma that assails our orchestral institutions – and informs their failing policies – has not been tested by scholarly research, and doing so is our next critical initiative.
Finally, if our first two initiatives are entirely theoretical, our last two are purely practical. To begin with, it is essential that we develop a new architecture for our symphony halls – specifically, one that emphasizes the relevance of the symphony orchestra to its community. The trend of late is to erect halls that, frankly, resemble something from another planet; and when we look upon them, we feel a predictable sense of estrangement – a hesitance to approach what we have difficulty recognizing as human. The new halls must remedy this error and present themselves as neighbors and friends, both outside and inside where the offering of hospitality must equal the expectations of today’s cultural consumer. But among the most challenging of our tasks is the initiative we list last here: the development of a blueprint for future union policies and relations. In today’s business climate it is becoming increasingly clear that unions must understand their stake and their opportunity in shaping change before it is forced upon them. Change is as enduring a feature of society as is our need for traditions that endure change – indeed, that transcend and transform it.
It is a common criticism today, as it was in 1341, that to look “backwards” is to look upon something old and decrepit, outdated and dilapidated. Time for us moves only forward, and so paradoxically, while our civilization grows old, it is our past that we label as aged and the day itself as eternally young. It is taken without question that the inevitability of change means and perhaps requires that we do not repeat the past, but any student of history or of its successive civilizations can prove for you otherwise. And so here we say, again, with Petrarch, the Father of the Renaissance,
I am moved also by the hope that, if God wills, I may renew in the now aged Republic a beauteous custom of its flourishing youth.§
And over his shoulder we see our vision. We, too, are urged by a sweet longing that will not be deterred by the challenges or the times that face us. In our sights are the heights of Parnassus, and the dawn of a new renaissance. The fulfillment of both the youthful glory and the incandescent future of the symphony orchestra, the new renaissance is, like the one so long ago, the birth of a present more glorious than what came before it, but entirely dependent upon its rich and heroic past. And posterity will reap the bounteous and beautiful rewards.
* “But a sweet longing urges me upward over the lonely slopes of Parnassus” (Georgics III, 291-292). Mount Parnassus, rising above Delphi in Greece, was the home of the Muses of Greek mythology, and in literary references it symbolizes the source of art, literature, and learning. It derives from the same root as the ancient Trojan word for a house.
† From Petrarch’s Coronation Oration, translated in Ernest Hatch Wilkins, Studies in the Life and Works of Petrarch, Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy, 1955.
‡ Petrarch, in a letter to Lapo da Casiglionchio, 1355, translated in Richard M Gamble, The Great Tradition: Classical reading on what it means to be an educated human being, Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2009.
§ From Petrarch’s Coronation Oration, translated in Ernest Hatch Wilkins, Studies in the Life and Works of Petrarch, Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy, 1955.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of both the author and Architect magazine, the journal of the American Institute of Architects, where it first appeared.
I first became aware of the Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo because of a chair. I was researching Eero Saarinen’s furniture for my book Now I Sit Me Down (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016), and I came across one of his earliest chairs, designed in the late 1930s in collaboration with Charles Eames. The two young men – Saarinen was 28, Eames was 31 – were working together in the Bloomfield Hills, Mich., office of Saarinen & Saarinen, a partnership recently formed by Eliel Saarinen and his son. The chair was intended for a new concert hall that the firm was designing in Buffalo.
I was recently in Buffalo and had a chance to visit the hall. Not surprisingly, the chair was no longer in use – few public seats last 75 years. Nevertheless, I found several survivors in the musicians’ lounge. The striking design, which uses one piece of lightly padded, molded plywood for the seat and back, was obviously influenced by Alvar Aalto’s molded wood furniture of that period, yet for two novices it remains an impressive accomplishment.
I came to Kleinhans for the chair, but I stayed for the architecture. Not widely known, this building, which opened in 1940, is remarkable in several ways. To begin with, unlike most urban concert halls, it is not downtown but in a leafy residential neighborhood, surrounded by large, freestanding homes on Buffalo’s West Side. The hall faces a 500-foot-diameter, landscaped circle that is the prominent termination of one of the parkways that Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux laid out when they re-planned the city in the 1860s; the other end of the parkway is anchored by H. H. Richardson’s monumental Buffalo State Hospital.
Olmsted and Vaux’s circle is the key to the Kleinhans partis: a drumlike curved chamber music hall echoes the circular shape; the main hall, a larger curved volume, extends to the rear; the lobby, serving both halls, is situated between. Nothing could be simpler.
An Understated Throwback
We have become used to concert halls that make big bold statements: the looming sculptural forms of the Philharmonie in Paris, the metallic sails of Disney Hall in Los Angeles, the giant glass barrel vault of the Kimmel Center for Performing Arts in Philadelphia. The Kleinhans is curiously elusive. Approaching from the circle, one catches glimpses between the trees of a small drum embraced by a curved walkway and a reflecting pool. No windows and no entrances – there are two in this axially symmetrical building – are visible, just the drum and the pool. The main entrance is on the side, and it is a bit of a surprise since it is dominated by a long concrete canopy that, while structurally elegant, resembles a bus shelter. Mundane but useful; it was raining hard the day I visited, and I thankfully ducked under its protective cover.
The exterior of the Kleinhans is brick. No structural high jinks, no fancy coursework, just multicolored Ohio Wyandotte brick, a rather rustic material that Eliel Saarinen had used extensively at the Cranbrook School in Michigan. A bulky, windowless, brick building sounds like an awkward fit in a residential setting, yet fit it does. The scale of the large hall is reduced by stepping-down emergency stairs that anticipate the exterior stair in Aalto’s Baker House; the walls of the chamber music hall – the drum – are enlivened by large panels of buff Mankato limestone. The regular spaces between the panels resemble pilasters and, combined with the reflecting pool, suggest a classical rotunda. Think Pope’s Jefferson Memorial.
Inside, the lobby is a 50-foot-wide arced space with curved walls, rounded details, and sinuous stairs leading down to a restaurant and bar in the basement, and up to the second-level lobby. This upper gallery is suspended by steel hangers from the ceiling, leaving the lower lobby column-free. My guide, Ted Lownie, of the local firm HHL Architects, has served as Kleinhans’s house architect for two decades, and he speculates that while the exterior shows Eliel’s hand, the lobby seems to be Eero’s work. Just before joining his father, the younger Saarinen worked for Norman Bel Geddes, the industrial designer responsible for tear-drop-shaped cars, swooshy desk lamps, and curvaceous exhibition pavilions. Bel Geddes is considered to be one of the fathers of streamlining, and his influence on the Kleinhans lobby is unmistakable. It’s even apparent in the rounded upholstery of the lobby seating, designed by Eero and Charles.
On one side of the lobby, five full-height wooden doors swing open to reveal the chamber music hall. The walls of the hall, like the doors, are zebrawood, and curved rosewood screens flank the raised stage; the floor is oak and the molded ceiling is white plaster. The decor, as in the lobby, is modernist, but unlike so many buildings today, it is neither over-detailed nor merely celebrates precision. Lighting fixtures are mostly hidden, and the space is illuminated by recessed wall spots that reflect light off the rippled ceiling. Technology is kept in the background; you could call this Low Tech.
“A Joy to Play In”
The ultimate test of a concert hall is the main auditorium. The acoustics of Kleinhans are somewhat controversial, because the reverberation time is relatively short, which today is considered suboptimal by many acousticians. On the other hand, musicians have generally praised the hall. Sergei Rachmaninoff, who performed in Kleinhans shortly after it opened, considered it “one of the best acoustical arrangements in this country.” The violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz called it “a joy to play in.” I attended a Joshua Bell concert during my visit and to me the music sounded clear and precise.
But perhaps I was influenced by the architecture. It’s rare that a room takes one’s breath away – this one does. There is none of the distracting techno-clutter that you find in so many modern concert halls; no suspended sound reflectors and chandeliers, no banks of spotlights, no sculptural wall treatment. The softly modeled plaster ceiling and the subtly shaped wooden walls lead the eye to the stage. There is no proscenium to separate the audience from the musicians. We are all together in this serene space.
Eliel Saarinen was close to music – and to musicians. In Finland he had known Jean Sibelius and Gustav Mahler, and he was friends with Serge Koussevitzky, the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Koussevitzky, who recommended Saarinen for the Kleinhans job, had commissioned him in 1937 to plan the orchestra’s summer home at Tanglewood in western Massachusetts. As he did in the Tanglewood “Shed,” Saarinen used a fan-shape for Kleinhans, which is a very large hall – the original capacity was 2,800, recently reduced to 2,400 to provide more comfortable seating. But because of its shape all the seats in the steeply raked auditorium, and on the large balcony, are close to the stage. Significantly, new seating and carpeting – both matching the original – are the only notable changes to the hall in 75 years.
An impression of warm intimacy is heightened by the light-colored wood paneling – primavera, the same wood that Mies would use in the Farnsworth House. The paneling is better described as wallpaper, because it is actually a paper-thin wood veneer on a linen backing that is glued to the plaster wall. Randomly spaced sound-absorbing panels are faced with perforated sheets of asbestos-cement, painted to look like primavera. Not form follows function, but form follows the demands of the human eye.
Because Eero Saarinen went on to become famous and is today better remembered than his father, there is a tendency to emphasize his involvement and, indeed, the streamlined lobby does anticipate his TWA terminal. But Kleinhans shows all the marks of a mature and seasoned designer, and while Eero was undoubtedly precocious, he was only four years out of school when he started on the building. At Kleinhans, Saarinen père took the lead. “Until his death, I worked in the form of my father,” Eero later explained in an interview.
Kleinhans was Eliel Saarinen’s first major American commission outside Cranbrook. By the time that the concert hall was designed he had moved away from the decorative Modernism of his earlier buildings, but the textured brick, the tapestry-like stone panels, the “quilted” wood paneling, even the use of symmetry, mark Kleinhans as a outlier to the then-recently christened International Style. (Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson had pointedly left Eliel Saarinen out of their International Style exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in the early 1930s.) During the following postwar years, as architecture moved in a determinedly functionalist direction, Eliel Saarinen’s brand of Modernism would come to seem passé. More’s the pity.
While Klienhans includes some Art Moderne touches, and its lobby shows the influence of the then-current fashion for streamlining, its privileging of the tactile and the visual reflects Eliel’s considered humanism. In his book Search for Form (Reinhold, 1948), he wrote, “the reasons for strength and weakness of form cannot be found in the turmoil of life, but in man himself.” Not that Kleinhans ignores the “turmoil of life” – this is a technically advanced building. The spaces are fully air-conditioned; deep steel trusses span the concert hall; hidden I-beams support the hovering cantilever of the balcony; a large portion of the stage acts as an elevator and lowers to accommodate extra seating or an orchestra pit. Yet Saarinen never allows his technological legerdemain to intrude on the musical experience of the hall. That’s part of his humanism, too.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of David M. Schwarz, who first published it in Parchment, an online collection of writings about architecture by the members of his firm. We encourage you to look through the firm’s portfolio, particularly to see to the most beautiful, thoughtful, and relevant concert halls being designed and built in America today.
Before pursuing the question of what it means to design contextually, we need to make sure we are on the same page about the term context. The dictionary shows it to mean “the circumstances, background or setting where a particular act or event occurs.” As far as architecture is concerned, the context is usually thought of as the site or neighborhood and the particular event is the building itself. To really get the best sense of what this means, close your eyes and think of a particular place, say the neighborhood where you live. A film strip of images likely unfolds in your mind, detailing the sights, sounds, and smells you associate with that place. By contrast, when describing a place as being without context, we mean that a particular site is lacking clearly visible and definable character. But is that all there is to context?
When seeking design inspiration, we often find ourselves facing this interesting conundrum: how can the design address the physical attributes of a context–the prevalent building types, commonly-found palates of materials, and oft-occurring architectural styles–as well as the ephemeral attributes of context, history and lore of the city or region, and the goals and aspirations of the particular community. Think again about your neighborhood and some other attributes likely enter into your film strip. Do you not also see memories, events (historical and otherwise), and even particular people? And, if you’ve lived in a place long enough, maybe you’ve taken this a step further in your mind by incorporating something aspirational, like an idea of what that place or context should or could be.
We are often asked to strike a delicate balance in our designs to improve the site while doing so in a way that fits within the already established context. Understanding context means more than delving into architectural guidebooks or looking at surveys and photographs of a site. It means that we have to go beyond the immediate boundaries of a building plot and look at the larger influences of a neighborhood, a city, or even the region in which a project is located. And when all of that study doesn’t reveal a particular feel or vibe, it likely means we haven’t dug deep enough. We need to look farther and wider to discover the context. This further study often requires talking to people in the community, looking into the history and tradition of the particular building type we find ourselves designing, studying users’ behavior, and asking users about their motivations, desires, and expectations. Above all, determining context requires a level of deference and curiosity.
Why does any of this matter? It matters when a designer wants their work to be relevant to the owners, users, and communities their buildings will serve. Context, in all the variants described here, has always been a major influence on our work. Our firm cut its teeth doing projects in Washington DC’s many historic neighborhoods and, in so doing, we had to develop a deep understanding and appreciation for the physical contexts of these well-established places in order to be successful. [In the interest of full disclosure, the firm’s early body of work was all completed before I came here, but it is nonetheless what drew me here in the first place.]
Fast-forward to today and a current project I do know quite a bit about: the Gaillard Center in Charleston, South Carolina. You might readily ask, what is it about the context of Charleston that could present a problem? It is, indeed, a perfectly lovely historic city, comprised of many elegant, older single-family, detached houses set amid gracious gardens and woven together by beautiful tree-lined streets. It is, seemingly, a well-defined context. The problem is that our project, technically a renovation and expansion of an existing 1960’s-era municipal auditorium, is a huge building (over 260,000 SF) and larger than anything Charleston has seen constructed in some time.
The Gaillard, both in its original and expanded forms, is an enormous intrusion into the City fabric. The original structure was very much a product of its time–an act of urban renewal (several historic homes were torn down and parts of Charleston’s quirky street grid were changed to accommodate it) expressed as a modernist edifice intended to look ahead rather than to the City’s past. While the old Gaillard grew outdated, both aesthetically and functionally, the community’s views of itself and goals for its future evolved; with the new Gaillard the community now chooses to celebrate its past, instead of ignore it.
Faced with expanding an already-too-large building, we found an opportunity to fashion the additions using discrete and articulate massing that breaks the bulk of the building down into pavilions, hyphens, towers, and bays. The massing is then complemented with a layer of detail and ornament that is friendly, meaningful, scale-giving, and inspired by the historic forms of Charleston’s most beloved buildings. No, all of these things won’t make the new Gaillard Center disappear, but they will help this new building to fit within the community and the context of the City of Charleston.
What to do when that larger context either doesn’t exist or isn’t well-defined? Look harder. And, when you look harder and the aspirations and ephemeral context appear to be different from the physical context that is there, you may just have to build it yourself. Designing with this particular attitude towards context does not mean we will arrive at one universally perfect solution every time if we follow this formula. We will, however, most likely be assured of arriving at a building that will be relevant to, embraced and even loved by, the greatest number of people who will see it, visit it, or touch it on any given day. This result, to me, is a major benchmark of success for our projects. Remaining relevant to the communities where I work is very important to me and what keeps me interested and engaged on any given day.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of its author. It first appeared in Saturday Night (December, 1994) and was subsequently reprinted in Mysteries of the Mall (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015).
The most talked-about Canadian work of architecture of the last decade is located not in Canada but in France: the new Opéra Bastille in Paris, designed by the Toronto architect Carlos Ott. From the beginning, the Opéra Bastille was the subject of lively controversy. For one thing, critics were skeptical about the whole idea of a new opera house because Paris already had two venues for lyric performances, the Opéra Comique and the famous Paris Opera, also known as the Palais Garnier. The Garnier, an 1875 Second Empire building, does have some technical drawbacks, but it is widely admired and loved. There were also those who maintained that the new opera had been built in the wrong place, that it should have been located where Pierre Boulez wanted, as part of the new music complex at La Villette, rather than being shoehorned into the cramped and awkward site of an old railway station in a working-class district, beside the Place de la Bastille.
However, other than town-planning considerations had led to locating the new opera on this historic spot that every year is the site of a popular street festival. When the idea of building a new opera house had been proposed to the government in 1981, it was argued that the Palais Garnier was an old-fashioned, elitist institution and that there was a need for a more progressive opéra populaire, hence the symbolic (cynics would say public-relations) import of the Bastille site.
The idea of a people’s opera probably appealed intellectually to the socialist president Mitterrand, even though he is not known to be an opera lover, but the concept is a mushy one. It’s true that French opera could do with a boost – it does not currently rank high with the French public – and since 1945 the Paris Opera has slipped from the first rank to mediocrity. But would a new hall really make a difference? Wouldn’t that be like trying to save a corporation from bankruptcy by building a new headquarters? And just because the Palais Garnier has chandeliers and gilt, does that really make it elitist? After all, in Italy, where opera has a mass following, it’s presented in neoclassical buildings like Milan’s La Scala, which was inaugurated in 1778, or Venice’s La Fenice, which opened in 1792. In any case, judging from the international celebrity of star opera singers like Beverly Sills and Luciano Pavarotti and the prominence of opera on public television, opera – that is to say, classical opera – is arguably the most popular of the fine arts. This raises another contradiction: the proponents of a “people’s opera” have argued that it would present a more modern repertoire and would not rely on the international star system, yet it’s precisely the nineteenth-century operas and the superstars that the general public desires.
If Parisians were lukewarm to the Opéra Bastille, it might also have been because of a growing sense of exasperation. It was not merely a question of the building’s cost, which the government now admits was not $540 million but at least $775 million. The Opéra Bastille was ill-starred from the start. In 1984, for two months, Jacques Chirac, the right-wing mayor of the city of Paris, refused to grant a building permit for the left-wing president’s new opera house. In 1985, the newly appointed artistic director, Jean-Pierre Brossmann, resigned, apparently unwilling to bend to one of the exigencies of a people’s opera – fewer rehearsals and more performances. In July 1986, the building site was shut down completely for two weeks; political wrangling had broken out again between Chirac, newly elected as prime minister, and Mitterrand, and it threatened to scuttle the opera completely. In 1988, Mitterrand won a second term as president, the socialists were returned to power, and a plan to build a reduced version of the Opéra was revived – it remained to complete the building for its opening on Bastille Day, July 14, 1989, the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Then, in January 1989, the Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim, who had been named artistic director only two years before, was abruptly fired; his programming ideas had been judged too “elitist” (Barenboim had proposed Mozart!). His dismissal caused an international stir: prominent conductors such as Herbert von Karajan, Zubin Mehta, and Sir Georg Solti said that they would have to reconsider their association with the Paris Opera; Pierre Boulez, the director Patrice Chéreau, and the singer Jessye Norman (who was to sing at the inaugural) all resigned in protest. “What’s the difference between the Titanic and the Opéra Bastille?” went a Parisian joke. “The Titanic had an orchestra.”
Well, the Opéra didn’t sink, and it did acquire a new conductor, albeit not a famous one: Myung-Whun Chung, a young Korean-American previously best known as the younger brother of the violinist Kyung-Wha Chung. But Parisians were still not satisfied. I had the feeling that what most disturbed the people I talked with about the new opera house was the architecture itself. On this there was general agreement: the Opéra Bastille was too big for its site, it was an awkward composition, it lacked style and grace (Le Monde had called it “a rhinoceros in a bathtub”), it was, in a word, moche – ugly.
I went to see for myself. There is no question that the site chosen for the new opera is too small. The Place de la Bastille, a historic spot but not a very attractive urban space, lies between the Marais, a seventeenth-century quartier that has recently been restored, and the twelfth arrondissement, a gritty, working-class neighborhood. The massive Opéra in this residential landscape resembles a beached supertanker. The chief feature of the main facade facing the Place de la Bastille is a colossal curved wall, partly of glass and partly of stainless steel panels. The main entrance is located in the middle of this wall and is approached by a large exterior staircase. The staircase, as well as a forbidding square arch sheathed in black granite, is slightly askew to take into account the commemorative Colonne de Juillet in the center of the circular Place de la Bastille. (The column commemorates the Parisians who fell in the popular uprising of July 1830, which led to the downfall of Charles X, not the destruction of the notorious prison, which occurred in July 1789.) From the Place, the building stretches back along the rue de Lyon for more than two hundred meters, an undistinguished collage of columns, office-building-type glazing, and blank walls, interrupted by a curved volume that marks an experimental performance space that is as yet unfinished.
So tight is the site that there is no space from which the new building can be seen to advantage, except perhaps from the base of the column, were one courageous enough to brave the hazardous traffic. To make matters worse, the main facade of the Opéra is partially obscured by a small, undistinguished building housing a brasserie. At the time of construction, historians believed that a nineteenth-century building on this site had originally been a seventeenth-century neighbor of the Bastille prison. This turned out not to be the case, but by then the building had been torn down, so a replica, based on an old engraving, was built in its place.
What about the architecture of the Opéra? Carlos Ott has described it as “a functional project which is not essentially aesthetic.” Indeed, as much as such a thing is possible, Ott has reduced the aesthetic experience to a minimum. This is a building in which everything that is not granite is stainless steel, everything that is not white is black, and everything, absolutely everything, is obsessively arranged according to a square grid – the window mullions, the seams of the granite slabs and the stainless steel panels, the joints of the paving, even the supports of the railings. The same graph-paper motif and the same palette, if one can call it that, are continued in the interior.
The lobbies are located immediately behind the curved glass wall and take advantage of the view in a manner common to many modern concert halls like Place des Arts in Montreal and Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto. But neither of these buildings enjoys much of a view. At night, the homely Place de la Bastille achieves a magical quality with its spotlit column topped by a gilt Hermes, and Ott’s chief architectural conceit becomes apparent: to establish a dialogue between the building and the square by emphasizing the transparency of this huge building. I hadn’t much liked the Opéra during the day, but nighttime improved it; if not magical like the Place, it at least managed to appear dramatic.
The heart of an opera house, at least for the audience, is the hall itself. The greatest constraint on the design of any performance space is its size: the greater the number of seats, the more difficult it is to achieve visual and acoustic intimacy. Some postwar opera houses, like Berlin’s Deutscher Oper, which was built in 1961, have limited their capacity to fewer than two thousand seats, which happens to be about the size of La Scala (2,015) and the Palais Garnier (1,991). At the other end of the scale are enormous modern halls like New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which can accommodate 3,800 persons. At 2,700 seats, the Opéra Bastille steers a middle course. Although there are several tiers of loges, the layout, unlike the horseshoe-shaped La Scala or the Palais Garnier, is predominantly frontal, with two steep balconies.
I attended a performance of Arthur Honegger’s dramatic oratorio, Joan of Arc at the Stake, a moving if necessarily lugubrious work, whose gloomy atmosphere was heightened by the sight of drably attired actors and singers slogging across a stage that was covered ankle-deep in what appeared to be mud. The music, however, was glorious, and with an expanded orchestra and an eighty-five-voice choir it easily filled the cavernous space. From the first balcony, where I was sitting, the stage was far away, but the sound was good, at least to my amateurish ears. (I have been told that there are some acoustical blind spots among the front rows in the orchestra.) I asked Arthur Kaptainis, the music critic of the Montreal Gazette, what he thought of the acoustics. “The Opéra Bastille has what you could call a modern sound: clear but not especially resonant,” he said. “I thought that the sound lacked warmth,” he added, “but perhaps that’s a psychological reaction.”
What Kaptainis was referring to is the cool decor: the walls covered in gray granite and black wood, an undulating ceiling of white glass, and seats upholstered in black fabric. It’s true that decor matters little when the lights are out, but an opera house should not merely function as a background to the spectacle; it should create an atmosphere of anticipation. To say that “the place looks like a gymnasium,” as the soprano June Anderson remarked after singing at the opening, is perhaps ungenerous, but the interior of the Opéra is distinctly impersonal – imperturbable and sleek in a corporate-boardroom sort of way, which perhaps reflects the architect’s previous experience managing projects for a real estate developer.
The Opéra Bastille is obviously intended to be a modern rethinking of the traditional opera house, but in turning away from la grande cuisine bourgeoise of the Palais Garnier, Carlos Ott has eschewed nouvelle cuisine and instead has provided the Parisian public with the architectural equivalent of bread and water. Moreover, because many of the details are crude and the workmanship is sloppy, the bread is not even a crusty baguette; this is American-style sliced bread.
If truth be told, American style, or at least American expertise, is what the jury that picked Ott’s project as one of 3 finalists from among 756 entries in an international architectural competition thought it was getting. According to Michèle Audon, director general of the state body that oversaw the Opéra Bastille project, several of the jurors voted for the Ott project assuming that its anonymous author was the renowned American architect Richard Meier, to whose retro-modern style Ott’s entry did bear a superficial resemblance. (Meier has since built the Parisian headquarters of a cable television company; the result suggests that a Meier opera house would probably have been just as monochromatic but carried out with a lighter touch than Ott’s unwieldy design.) In fact, Meier had entered the opera competition but was eliminated in the first cut, together with other architectural stars such as Charles Moore, Kisho Kurokawa, and the Miami firm Arquitectonica. As designers often do, these architects had taken liberties in interpreting the competition program. The French bureaucrats who had originally promoted the idea of a modern people’s opera and who were advising the jury were having none of that. The bureaucrats had written a 423-page competition program minutely describing the new opera (including a schematic plan of the building), and they expected it to be slavishly followed. That is what Ott – and he alone – had done.
In the end, the French got what they wanted: not the most beautiful opera house in the world, but the biggest (despite its smaller seating capacity, the Opéra Bastille complex is three times larger than the Met) and technologically the most advanced. The French continue to have an abiding faith in new technology – which they often invent with considerable skill – and what is most innovative about the Opéra Bastille is not the architecture but the engineering. More than half of the Bastille site is taken up by enormous backstage facilities, which include not only a rehearsal hall, a mobile orchestra pit, a turntable, and a mobile stage that is also an elevator but also eleven ancillary scenery stages on two levels, joined together by an automated system of motorized trolleys. The purpose of all this space and machinery is to permit the rapid rotation of different operas: while one is being performed, another can be in rehearsal, and scenery for a third can be made ready on the lower level. It is a marvel of engineering, and despite some opening-night mishaps it all does appear to function as intended.
Whether such complexity is really required in an opera house is another story. Moving scenery around at dizzying speeds was supposed to provide a larger repertoire and a more varied program – a different opera every night, as many as 450 performances annually! But, as Maryvonne de Saint-Pulgent, a French journalist, points out in her fascinating account, Le syndrome de l’opéra, in 1990 Parisian concert halls were trying to sell twelve thousand tickets nightly to an opera-going public that barely exceeded thirty thousand persons, each of whom would have had to go to a concert three times a week to keep the halls full. Hugues Gall, a Frenchman who was the director of Geneva’s Grand Théâtre, called the Opéra Bastille “the wrong answer to a problem that doesn’t exist.” (Now the wrong answer is Gall’s problem, too; earlier this year, he replaced Chung, who was fired as music director after months of well-publicized wrangling with the Opéra’s chairman.) There are already signs that in practice the people’s opera house will not function in a manner much different from opera houses in New York, Berlin, or Milan, except that so far it has presented fewer operas and fewer performances. After a 40 percent price hike in 1990, the price of a ticket is as expensive as it had been at the Palais Garnier; there’s an increasing reliance on stars (the leading role in Joan of Arc at the Stake was taken by Isabelle Huppert, a popular film actress); and the second season included The Magic Flute – pace Barenboim.
The Met, La Scala, and Covent Garden are merely opera houses – the Opéra Bastille is a grand projet. The Big Projects – there are nine of them – refer to a series of monumental architectural works in Paris undertaken by Mitterrand since his election in 1981. Mitterrand, the impact of whose presidency on the city has been compared to the grand siècle of Louis XIV, is an enthusiastic builder of somewhat erratic taste whose ambition vastly exceeds that of his immediate predecessors. Charles de Gaulle rebuilt Paris after the war but added little that was new except the donut-shaped Maison de la Radio, a broadcasting center; Georges Pompidou built highways along the Seine and replaced the market of Les Halles with the Centre Pompidou, which today, paint peeling and steel rusting, resembles an oil refinery more than ever; and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing converted the vast Gare d’Orsay into a polyglot museum of the nineteenth century. So far, in addition to building the new opera house, Mitterrand has moved the Ministry of Finance out of the Louvre and into a new building, renovated the Louvre itself, and endowed Paris with something called the Arab World Institute. At La Villette, on the northeast edge of the city, he has had built a music center and a park of architectural follies, and at La Défense, in the northwestern suburbs, he has erected an office building in the shape of an arch, a modern counterpart to the Arc de Triomphe. Construction has recently begun on an enormous new national library, a controversial building that will add over $1 billion dollars to the $3 billion that has already been spent on the grands projets.
If ever there was an argument against the hoary notion that each generation must feel an obligation to make its own distinct architectural contribution “symbolic of its time,” the Big Projects is it. With the exception of I.M. Pei’s elegant glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre, and some of the historic restorations at La Villette (which were begun by Giscard), Mitterrand’s grands projets are not great architecture. The grandiose library will resemble four half-open books, a banal and simpleminded concept; the Parc de la Villette is a collection of silly-looking pavilions set amid arid landscaping; the new Ministry of Finance is an exercise in the kind of monumental modernism that has long been discredited elsewhere; and the bombastic government office building at La Défense is less like a triumphal arch than a huge, marble-clad coffee table. Unfortunately, Mitterrand is not Louis XIV, or rather, his architects haven’t lived up to the standards set by Claude Perrault’s east front of the Louvre, Jules Hardouin-Mansart’s Dôme des Invalides, and André Le Nôtre’s Tuileries Garden.
Or even to the standards of Charles Garnier, the designer of the old opera house. Garnier, like Ott, came out of nowhere to win an architectural competition for a new opera house and likewise did so at a tender age – both were thirty-six – and with little previous experience. Garnier also had to navigate the treacherous shoals of French politics in order to see his ideas realized, although it took him somewhat longer – thirteen years compared with Ott’s six-year odyssey. But Garnier’s was a different time. His opera house included innovations such as a cast-iron roof structure and an unusual foundation, but these were hidden behind a marble architecture of eclectic richness. In the nineteenth century, going to the opera was chiefly a social occasion, and Garnier devoted considerably more space to sumptuous, mirror-lined lobbies and a grand staircase than to the hall itself. Technical efficiency was given distinctly second place: the backstage areas are spartan, and a quarter of the seats have an inadequate view of the stage. Nevertheless, it is a building that, while it was criticized at first, eventually captured people’s affection. “I remember being disarmed by the warm, comforting acoustics of the Palais Garnier,” recalls Kaptainis. “The sound, at least in the good seats, was magnificent.” Perhaps one day, the Opéra Bastille, too, will evoke such sentimental reminiscences – time can be the architect’s best friend – but I wouldn’t count on it.
The much-loved Palais Garnier was merged with the Opéra Bastille, and following a complete restoration it is used for ballet and occasional operas, especially seasonal favorites such as La Cenerentola. As The Wall Street Journal observed, audiences “tend to dress up more for performances at the Garnier than at the 20th-century granite and glass opera house at Bastille.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of City Journal, who first published it in the Autumn 2000 issue of their magazine.
It’s time to start thinking hard about tearing down Lincoln Center and building up a new, much better one – an architectural masterpiece that will signal New York City’s miraculous recovery over the last decade and its renewed confidence that it will be the capital of the twenty-first century as it has been of the twentieth. To start that rethinking, this issue of City Journal offers plans by leading architects of what a new Lincoln Center could look like. The dramatic differences among the schemes, all of which are classical but each of which envisions the arts complex in a new and original light, suggest what a range of possibilities for improvement exists. Any one of the three would be splendid, a major enhancement to the city in many ways.
A pipe dream, you say? Consider this: Lincoln Center is in terrible physical condition, requiring, according to its management, $1.5 billion – yes, billion – to repair it. Its travertine marble facing is melting away like sugar in Gotham’s polluted air; its flimsy modernist architectural construction needs major restoration, in a hurry. That $1.5 billion would go very far toward paying for a completely new complex of buildings. And were it spent to restore the current complex to its original condition, the same underlying structural problems would almost certainly require another gargantuanly expensive restoration only three or four decades in the future. So every future generation will have to pay for Lincoln Center all over again.
If Lincoln Center were an architectural treasure – even if it were only acoustically and technically a superb machine for presenting the performing arts – the huge cost would make sense. But tearing it down is no desecration. From the time the building first went up, architectural critics have dismissed it as mediocre, and music critics have rated its sound as nothing special, even after Avery Fisher Hall’s endless and expensive acoustical remodelings and the New York State Theater’s current, desperate experiment with electronic amplification, to the derision of opera lovers.
In fairness, Lincoln Center is a triumph of city planning, its symmetrical layout and formal, fountain-adorned plaza an embodiment of the City Beautiful urban vision advocated by such turn-of-the-last-century architects as McKim, Mead, and White and Richard Morris Hunt and realized most fully in the 1892 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. New Yorkers like the plaza; even if they deprecate the individual buildings, they take pleasure in the formal, ceremonious, celebratory public space the ensemble forms.
It’s a city-planning success in a more down-to-earth way, as well. Parks Commissioner and Gotham planning czar Robert Moses first envisioned the Center in the mid-1950s as a lever to uplift the entire Upper West Side of Manhattan, then in deep decline. New York had first permitted single-room-occupancy residences in 1939; 15 years later, an influx of the poor living in such SROs and in rent-controlled apartments, including thousands of new immigrants from Puerto Rico, made observers fear that the Upper West Side was fast decaying into a permanent slum, dirty, crime-ridden, and fear-inspiring. Time has proven Moses right: the building of Lincoln Center, creating a real sense of place with its graciously proportioned outdoor room, was the first in a series of events that led to an emphatically revivified section of the city, with businesses flourishing and property values skyrocketing in a wide swath around the complex and stretching many blocks to its north. As then-Center president John D. Rockefeller III put it, the complex was intended as “a new kind of city therapy.”
But as architecture, oh dear. The Center was deplorable, as critics recognized from the start. Despite the mountain of money lavished on it, despite the vast expanses of travertine, despite its almost endearing anxiety to look monumental, it looked cheap and cheesy. Philip Johnson’s New York State Theater presented to Columbus Avenue – the ceremonial front of Lincoln Center – a blank wall, as if, having run out of ideas after he’d finished with the front, he had tacked up travertine like sheetrock around the rest of the building. Inside, while tiers of galleries rising above the atrium lobby turned the audience itself into a festive spectacle during intermission, critics complained from the start that the galleries looked like a maximum-security prison in their metallic angularity, especially since the whole soaring space culminated in an unadorned ceiling that again seemed testimony to architect Johnson’s mental exhaustion.
Max Abramovitz’s Philharmonic Hall, renamed Avery Fisher Hall after the hi-fi magnate gave $10 million toward the gutting of the acoustically challenged structure and reconfiguring it so that it sounded adequate and the musicians could hear one another, [and subsequently renamed again after David Geffen gave even more towards redeeming the hall] gives the concertgoer the sensation of being in an extremely upscale shopping mall, all its adornments failing to disguise the plain concrete box it really is. Its low-ceilinged lobby and workaday escalators create a sense of placelessness that makes you wonder as you ascend if you will emerge into a food court dominated by Wendy’s and Domino’s Pizza. But no: instead you emerge into a space dominated by Richard Lippold’s appalling “sculpture,” composed of giant copper and zinc alloy blades suspended from wires like the sword of Damocles and looking like a tort suit waiting to happen.
As for Wallace Harrison’s Metropolitan Opera House, architecture critics couldn’t resist the comparison with Miami Beach hotels, and they observed that two giant blank walls almost right up against the glass facade necessitated the huge Chagall murals to cover them, like colossal “Hallmark Chanukah cards,” as Lincoln Kirstein dismissed them with Olympian asperity. At least the design as built was better than an earlier version, in which the five great arches on the facade resembled the toes of a giant foot.
Most critics, as the individual buildings opened between 1962 and 1969, charged that they failed because they weren’t modernist enough. In fact, the reverse was the case: they were insufficiently traditional. As it was, the architects of the three principal buildings fell between two stools. As they attempted to cling to their modernist principles while at the same time making a nod toward the tradition of classical architecture, they created a kind of proto-postmodernism: modernist buildings with some traditionalist doodads tacked on. Lacking postmodernism’s smart-aleck “irony,” though, these buildings really are nothing but kitsch – sentimental and insincere evocations of something meaningful, without any understanding of, or passion for, the underlying ideal. So perhaps the best critic of the complex was Lyndon Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird, who at the Opera House’s opening gushed: “Ah have an impression of red; Ah have an impression of gold; Ah have an impression of chandeliers.” Crude impressions of bygone elegance, shreds and patches of tradition, is what Lincoln Center’s architecture is all about.
The instinct of these architects to make at least a gesture toward classicism was understandable. As the managers of the Metropolitan Opera correctly perceived, classical architecture was the appropriate style for the entire complex – real classical, not stagey pastiche. Lincoln Center was to be an acropolis for New York; in a secular city, it was to be a shrine for the arts, a testament to man’s capacity to imagine and represent an ideal world of beauty and harmony, of self-discipline in the service of an ideal, of the communal celebration of man’s spiritual nature and noblest aspirations. To use for this purpose the architecture that the Greeks invented to build temples makes perfect sense. Lincoln Center, moreover, was to be a living museum of our cultural and artistic inheritance, where we prove every day that the masterworks of our ancestors – of Handel and Mozart, Verdi and Wagner – speak to us just as movingly and meaningfully as to their contemporaries of the human spirit, its yearnings and ideals. Why not, then, clothe it in the architecture we inherit from Palladio and Michelangelo, from Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren – another living tradition? Finally, what could be more suitable than the architecture of democratic Greece and republican Rome for a project that, like such great New York public spaces as Central Park and Grand Central Station, was to be a gathering place for all New Yorkers?
Understandably, the men of the late fifties and early sixties would have found it hard to take this course. Modernism wasn’t just architecture’s prevailing orthodoxy but indeed its sole dogma. Established architects of the era spoke with reverential familiarity of “Corbu” and affected his little round glasses. They believed that modernism was the only possible style that spoke to the present and the future. To us, half a century later, modernism is beginning to look tired and dated. The boring grid-wrapped boxes that fill our cities are so alike and uninspired – just look at the New York Times’s recently published photos of proposals for its new office building – that it’s hard for us to understand why modernism’s champions defended this style as original. Today, too, as the hierarchical corporations that built their headquarters in this style have flattened and decentralized their management structures, the modernist grid that expressed that structure looks as dated as Charles Bluhdorn’s Gulf and Western or Hal Geneen’s ITT. To us today, the modernist grid speaks not only of soul-deadening, anti-individualist technocratic bureaucracy but of something much more sinister – of the totalitarianism of the central planner, who sees the Big Picture into which the mass of mere individuals must fit for their own good, whether they like it or not.
Today we are quite unembarrassed about finding the Beaux Arts skyscrapers of lower Manhattan inspirational, with their wealth of classical details and sophisticated traditional vocabulary – infinitely preferable to the dull mechanical boxes that the last 50 years have crowded into the city. If given the choice, most of us would prefer the classical limestone buildings that lined Park Avenue in midtown at mid-century to the glass and steel structures that replaced them, and we’d take the Flatiron Building, with all its lively humanity, over even the best of the modernist creations, Mies van der Rohe’s chilly Seagram Building, with its doctrinaire uniformity of light fixtures and window blinds. Today’s New Yorkers love the restored Grand Central Station and Public Library reading room and the grand new Greek galleries in the even grander Metropolitan Museum. This classicism is the architecture of Gotham at its pinnacle of twentieth-century greatness; it is the fitting style for New York’s moment of twenty-first-century greatness, as well.
This is an extraordinary epoch in the city’s history. A degree of public order and civility and safety reigns that longtime New Yorkers thought we’d never see again. Businesses both small and large are flourishing. New Yorkers have created vast amounts of wealth by financing the corporate restructuring that has retained American industrial supremacy and by establishing Internet businesses that hold out the promise of future prosperity. A restored and reclaimed Bryant Park and Central Park are indices of the city’s recovery, both civic and economic. And so great is the turnaround that our own turn-of-the-millennium tycoons are moving back into the mansions that the Gilded-Age magnates built but that only institutions have been able to use for most of a century.
Even so, New Yorkers have the sense that we can never really equal the extraordinary inheritance we have received from our Gilded-Age forebears. As we glide up the Metropolitan Museum’s grand staircase, we can’t help thinking that we could never again build something as magnificent. We could never replace Penn Station, which our own era barbarously destroyed, along with the many other ingenious lovely things that are gone.
But why not? We have the wealth. The grand classical style belongs to us and is our city’s defining idiom. We have shown, in Kevin Roche’s excellent but little-heralded 1993 addition to the Jewish Museum, that we have the technical skill to build as beautifully in stone as our ancestors built. So why not build a monument like those sketched out in the plans that follow, financed by our modern Medicis? Why not build a Lincoln Center that will last for centuries and testify that we knew how to conceive a city and build it as splendidly as any great urban civilization did?
To build this way is not an exercise in Disneyland nostalgia, as the champions of modernism and postmodernism would charge. One of the astonishing qualities of the classical idiom is how it lends itself to continual renewal and reinvention. No one could say that Stanford White or Charles Follen McKim or Edwin Lutyens were not both of their time and original, even while they took their places in the great tradition that Vitruvius first codified in Roman times. Who would mistake the Century Club or the buildings of Columbia University as belonging to any other era than around the turn of the twentieth century, for all their correct and utterly confident classicism?
So too with the plans that follow. Each one interprets classicism in its own twenty-first-century way. Each conceives of the urban space in a different way, with Quinlan Terry hinging the Center organically to the grid of the city by means of a triumphal arch and a tempietto, and Robert Adam similarly enlarging the Center’s space by creating a Lincoln Square where none now exists and, in the process, making some sense out of the confusion of the crossing of Columbus Avenue and Broadway. Each one of these schemes is designed to last; each one declares that New York confidently takes its unique and original place in the great procession of Western civilization.
To suggest such a course is naturally to invite others to come forth with their ideas, too. Such a vision of possibility is bound to fire many fertile imaginations. Some will come to the defense of the existing complex: it’s hard not to feel affection for a place where we’ve all spent so many happy and uplifting hours over more than three decades. Almost certainly, the New York Times’s Herbert Muschamp will come forward to suggest a postmodernist scheme: one of Frank Gehry’s giant titanium coprolites, say, or some slick pastiche by Christian de Portzamparc, whose one or two classical details – stage-set simulacra, really – always make you wonder why the property owner couldn’t afford the real thing. These will look dated as soon as built, however.
Why not build instead something that real New Yorkers, not just the elites, will love, and that will show our posterity – and us, too – that we can build for the ages?
The proposal for the redevelopment of New York’s Lincoln Center is for a group of new buildings in the great American Renaissance classical tradition. The buildings would be in Indiana limestone in load-bearing masonry and therefore built to last for many generations. This is in contrast to the buildings currently occupying the site, which are already suffering from the familiar problems associated with frame construction.
The new principal buildings of Lincoln Center are grouped around a new public square in a similar position to the existing plaza. The square is approached along an axis from Central Park through a new triumphal arch announcing the main entrance. To the left and right are the new Theater and Concert Hall; these are based on Roman basilica and bath buildings with their expansive vaulted interiors. Facing the square directly is the new Opera House, based on a Roman temple with a giant Corinthian portico. A cross-axis passes through this portico and leads to gardens to the north and south.
The arrangement of the site sets up a variety of views of different buildings, in the tradition of Picturesque planning. Two circular temples are placed at opposite sides of the site, linked by a visual axis running diagonally across the main square. These temples are intended for a wide range of outdoor performances. The remaining buildings are a theater and new premises for the Juilliard School, built around a courtyard.
The proposals would add to the collection of great classical buildings in New York, which includes City Hall, the Metropolitan Museum, and Grand Central Station. This would therefore be a powerful display of twenty-first century classicism, a statement of defiance against the construction of flimsy and ephemeral modern buildings. In this way, the new Lincoln Center would represent a rich investment for the enjoyment of present and future generations.
Lincoln Center is a curiosity. It is as if modernism lost its nerve and, bankrupt of any vocabulary for civic building, turned to crude classical planning and the distorted vestiges of columnar arcades. Now, even its concrete structure has let it down. There is no credibility left. New York deserves better.
The cartoon version of Michelangelo’s Piazza di Campidoglio, with the inevitable fountain in place of Marcus Aurelius, has none of the subtlety of the hilltop original, with its trapezoidal space and elliptical paving. The entrance plaza sits up and apart from Broadway and creates a barren precinct that ignores the possibilities of one of the few avenue intersections of Broadway that elsewhere create such great spaces as Union Square or Madison Square. The block-wide avenue to Central Park that was proposed in the 1950s failed, and now the whole complex is a monument to the bankrupt dreams of ordered modernity that seemed to offer so much in the years after World War II. With a new start, something more than a cultural ghetto can be handed back to the city.
Why enter the complex from the center of the block? Other than the lonely triangle of Dante Park, there is no logic, except for a misunderstanding of axial planning. Lincoln Square, another lonely triangle, is at least closer to the 66th Street subway station. If we were to combine it with the bare space in front of the Juilliard School, and with a new plaza at grade on the southwest corner of Columbus Avenue and 65th Street, we would create a significant new urban space.
An expanded Lincoln Square could give a more public face to the Vivian Beaumont Theater and Avery Fisher Hall. The design of these buildings, individual and imposing, would add to the sum of the new space and give an identity barely offered by the blank face of the Juilliard School or assisted by the cold commercial buildings across Columbus Avenue.
Diagonally across the new plaza, a distinctive new tower and a view of a massive Doric portico show the way to a large square at the heart of the block. In contrast to the public gesture of the plaza, this square is a pedestrian sanctuary from the clamorous roads outside. All the public buildings bound the new square. The Doric portico announces the entrance to the Metropolitan Opera House. A long Corinthian loggia flanks the south side of the court and leads to the New York State Theater. The Vivian Beaumont Theater and Avery Fisher Hall form the other sides of the square, and a rotunda gateway opens onto a relocated Damrosch Park.
Any suggestion of the monotonous repetition, grinding symmetry, and crude axiality of the original are scrupulously avoided in the buildings and spaces. Great spaces do not always have major entrances exactly in the center of each side. When buildings have different functions, they can have different characters. Classical architecture has an epic history; it has looked across the endless variety of the centuries, and there is no limit to invention. All the excitement, sophistication, and nobility of this tradition should be made available to New York in this, its cultural center.
And why should culture be purged of commerce? Culture belongs in the throng of the multitude and thrives on the wealth of the people. Space made only for refinement runs the risk of sterility and exclusion. The addition of apartments and commercial buildings to Lincoln Center will add not only vitality and daylong activity to the space but also will enhance the value of the real estate.
The apartment tower has as its plinth the blind fly tower of the Metropolitan Opera House. Elevators rise to a public rooftop garden and restaurant and to the entrance to the apartments. Further elevators link the roof to Damrosch Park by way of a circular tower. On Columbus and 62nd Street, a low office building acts as a corner link between Avery Fisher Hall and the New York State Theater.
What an opportunity would be lost if the crumbling Lincoln Center were just to be patched up for the same cost as starting again. Since it was built, we have re-learned forgotten lessons about civilized space and civil architecture. Now is the time to create great monuments to the civilization that is America.
The elevation to Fountain Square shows, from left to right, the Opera House Tower apartment building, the Metropolitan Opera House, the Rotunda gateway to Damrosch Park, the Vivian Beaumont Theater, and the new bridge to the Julliard School.
The view from Fountain Court looking southwest shows the New York State Theater, left, and the Opera House, right.
The elevation to Columbus Avenue shows, from left to right, the Quadrant office building, the subway entrance, Avery Fisher Hall, and the Beaumont Theater.
The view from Broadway, looking southwest, shows Avery Fisher Hall at the left, the Beaumont Theater at the right, with a portion of the new Lincoln Square in front of it.
Michael M. Franck, Arthur C. Lohsen, James C. McCrery II
Lincoln Center was built at a time when architects believed that the present was so vastly different from the past that the past no longer had meaning. The atom had been split, polio cured: no problem seemed too great for the application of cold, scientific reasoning. Modern architecture was an expression of that attitude, and Lincoln Center was a collaborative effort of the most notable modernist architects of a generation.
While it was noble that the designers loosely followed the urban form of Michelangelo’s Campidoglio in Rome, Michelangelo’s subtleties make Lincoln Center pale in comparison. Our proposal builds upon the legacy of Lincoln Center – or at least upon the Campidoglio model that inspired it.
Our buildings come out to Columbus Avenue. Their facades hold to the street edges; their great porticos embrace the street and sidewalk approaches. The difference in elevation from the street level to the courtyard level enabled us to create a grand staircase that spills onto Columbus Avenue, connecting the entire complex to the city. The New York State Theater and Avery Fisher Hall, twins, define and contain the plaza. The plaza facade of the twins follows more closely the Campidoglio example through the simple gesture of angling the facades – a device that further defines and contains the plaza. The main halls of each of these buildings open onto the plaza, and two-story arcades along the north and south sides of the plaza shelter small cafés, which enhance the celebratory character of a quintessentially urban space.
The Metropolitan Opera House, both central and removed, sits upon its pedestal above the plaza but is also a full participant in the formation of that space. The composition of the facade brings scale to the building and to the plaza. Large panels on the front facade, similar to those on the Columbus Avenue facades of the twins, will frame banners promoting current and forthcoming events, and a temple-like front portico serves as the ceremonial entry. The friezes and panels on all the buildings invite inscriptions commemorating great composers or conductors.
The plaza – its character and shape defined by the architecture of the three buildings that contain it – is unlike any other urban space in New York. Arcades and stairs ensure a pedestrian flow in and around it, making people central to its drama, and the obelisks, statues, fountains, pedestals, and flagpoles that enliven the space provide places for people to gather.
The complex along Amsterdam Avenue again holds to the avenue’s edge, participating in the endeavor of all great urban architecture: making good streets. The buildings house retail spaces along their Amsterdam Avenue side, with offices above. To the north of the Opera House, the new home to the Vivian Beaumont Theater and Library is arranged in a manner that encloses an exterior garden intended for outdoor musical performances. The south facade of the Opera House incorporates the proscenium and stage for a new outdoor amphitheater.
The new Lincoln Center would be much easier to visit. A three-lane drop-off at grade would be sheltered by the porticos at the New York State Theater and Avery Fisher Hall. Four entrances lead down into a parking structure beneath the entire site. Loading docks are likewise below ground, removing such eyesores from the pedestrian’s realm. A smaller, graceful bridge replaces the virtually unused brutal concrete structure that now connects the plaza to the Juilliard School, opening 65th Street to light and air.
The architecture of the new Lincoln Center is classical – an architectural language shared by all of Western society, developing over thousands of years and capable of dynamic development in the present and future. It is founded on the human form and has human scale, even in the largest of buildings. It is an architecture of curves, of shifting shadows, of subtlety. It seeks, unashamedly, to be harmonious and beautiful.
Classical architecture is physically and stylistically durable. Most buildings today are built to last 25 years before major renovation or replacement. Classical architecture employs solid materials and construction methods that have been developed and improved over millennia to shed water and hold buildings together. That means that our children will not have to rebuild what we leave them. Fifty years from now, our grandchildren will be evaluating our decisions, as we are now evaluating the original Lincoln Center. Should we not leave behind us an embodiment of the timeless values of humanity?