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.
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.
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 both the author and Architect magazine, the journal of the American Institute of Architects, where it first appeared.
The Philharmonie de Paris, a new concert hall designed by Jean Nouvel, Hon. FAIA, opened last year. While the construction was costly and the remote location at the northeastern edge of the city remains controversial, the hall has received plaudits for its musical ambience. “From first impressions it seems acoustically marvelous,” wrote Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times. Alex Ross of the New Yorker found the sound to be “rather wonderful,” although he characterized the building itself as a “menacing presence.” The Guardian’s architecture critic, Oliver Wainwright, went further and described the exterior as “a tyrannical hulk of a thing.” Tyrannical or not, a concert hall conceived as a “thing” – a freestanding object – is pretty much par for the course these days.
The freestanding concert hall, in a plaza, on a waterfront, or in a park (the Philharmonie sits in the Parc de la Villette), sends the unmistakable message that culture is a thing apart. Today, when all urban concert halls aspire to be iconic landmarks, it’s easy to forget that they used to be designed quite differently.
PART OF THE URBAN FABRIC
The $505 million Philharmonie replaces the Salle Pleyel as Paris’ chief orchestral hall. The Salle, which was built by the renowned French piano maker Pleyel et Cie in 1927, was designed by Jacques Marcel Auburtin, André Granet, and Jean-Baptiste Mathon. The building sits on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in the fashionable 8th Arrondissement. The flat façade is cheek by jowl with the flanking apartment buildings and is distinguished chiefly by the different scale of its fenestration, its Art Deco detailing, and the bare hint of a marquee. The front of the building contains practice rooms and penthouse apartments; the 3,000-seat hall is located at the rear of the building, deep inside the city block. There was nothing unusual about this arrangement of lobby on the street, auditorium behind: Broadway theaters traditionally used a similar solution, as did the early movie palaces.
Integrating a concert hall into the urban fabric by hiding it goes back to the 19th century. In 1899, the distinguished architect Thomas Edward Collcutt, who was responsible for D’Oyly Carte’s Royal English Opera House, designed Bechstein Hall in London’s West End for the famous German piano maker C. Bechstein. The four-story Renaissance Revival façade, with its bay windows and central gable, has a similar scale to its neighbors. This is possible because the 545-seat hall is tucked into the rear of the lot, with service access from a back lane. Renamed Wigmore Hall, this concert venue remains one of the best small halls in Europe.
Urban theaters and opera houses have a long history, but the concert hall is a relative newcomer. Civic symphony orchestras were organized at the end of the 18th century, and about a hundred years later purpose-built concert halls started appearing: Leipzig’s Gewandhaus, Vienna’s Musikverein, and Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw. These large buildings were a distinctive presence, but their architects went to great lengths to integrate them into their urban surroundings. The halls followed building lines, hugged the sidewalk, avoided unseemly blank walls, and deployed an array of conventional architectural devices – arches, columns, pilasters, windows, balustrades – to soften the impact of the bulky auditoriums.
American halls of the 19th century were similarly integrated into the city. Chickering Hall in New York, built in 1875 by the Boston-based piano maker Chickering & Sons, stood on Fifth Avenue at West 18th Street. Designed by George B. Post and considered one of the architect’s best works, the brick-and-brownstone pile contained showrooms on the ground floor and signaled the presence of its 1,450-seat hall with a set of tall arches, glazed on the front and blank on the side. It was impressive but not out of place among the mansions which then lined Fifth Avenue. Chickering was soon superseded by the much larger Carnegie Hall (whose largest auditorium has 2,800 seats), designed by William Burnet Tuthill in 1891. Like Chickering, Carnegie Hall was designed to completely fill its corner lot, fitting in rather than standing out.
Another way to successfully integrate a bulky building into the smaller-scale fabric of a city street was to wrap it in something else. That is what Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan did in 1889 when they designed Chicago’s Auditorium Building. The 10-story structure occupied an entire city block. The huge hall, which was originally intended for opera, was buried behind a hotel and an office building.
Whitney Warren and Charles Wetmore adopted a similar strategy in 1925 when they designed Steinway Hall, another piano maker’s hall. Across the street from Carnegie Hall, the narrow frontage on West 57th Street is given distinction by a three-story limestone base with a frieze containing portrait medallions of great pianist-composers including Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt. The Steinway & Sons showrooms were on the ground floor (Steinway moved out in 2014); the 250-seat hall was on the second floor, and the upper nine floors were rented offices.
Combining a concert hall with commercial space, as was the case with both the Auditorium Building and Steinway Hall, is a strategy that might benefit financially strapped orchestras today. Instead of sinking money into iconic buildings, whose aim – not always successful – is to catch the attention of big donors and the public, it might be wiser to exploit prominent downtown locations by using air rights for income-generating uses.
FORM FOLLOWING FUNCTION
The first generation of prominent postwar concert halls, such as Robert Matthew’s Royal Festival Hall, in London (1951), Max Abramovitz’s Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center (1962), and Hans Scharoun’s Berliner Philharmonie (1963), set the pattern for future halls: freestanding object buildings surrounded by open space. The reason had less to do with the size of the hall – Chicago’s 4,300-seat Auditorium is larger than all but a handful of modern halls – than with the desire to have form follow function. Because the most important functional component of a concert hall is the auditorium, that needed to be expressed on the exterior. Most modern concert halls were windowless, so this formal strategy produced boxy or fan-shaped buildings with lots of blank walls. Later architects attempted to mitigate the deadening effect by adding colonnades (Lincoln Center), wrapping the hall in swoopy shapes (Disney Hall), or treating the surfaces (the Philharmonie is decorated with an Escher-like bird pattern). But a mammoth freestanding concert hall remains overwhelming at best, “menacing” at worst.
Recent examples of urban concert halls that are integrated into the urban fabric are few and far between. Benaroya Hall (1998), designed by LMN Architects, occupies a city block and is a low-key presence in downtown Seattle. Perhaps too low-key. After praising the acoustics and ambiance of the hall itself, New York Times music critic Bernard Holland characterized the exterior of the building as “functional to a fault,” as if the architecture “didn’t want to be noticed at all.” The building has a lot of glass, but there is nothing here that communicates, or celebrates, making and listening to music.
No one could miss the musical reference in the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall, in Fort Worth, Texas: Two 48-foot-high heralding angels sculpted out of limestone adorn the façade. Because the building is shoehorned into one of the city’s tiny (200-foot-square) blocks, the angels’ gold-leafed trumpets extend over the sidewalk. The 2,500-seat hall fits snugly into the fine-grained grid of downtown Fort Worth; like an old-time downtown department store, it has its entrances at the corners. The highly modeled architectural style, unexpectedly influenced by the Viennese Secession, allows architect David M. Schwarz, AIA, to break down the scale of what might otherwise appear a lumpish building. The auditorium is shrouded on three sides by lobbies and dressing rooms, and it is only in the rear that the blank wall of the stage tower is apparent.
Making a concert hall effectively invisible has several advantages. Not only does hiding the hall solve the problem of how to fit a massive building into a dense urban fabric, a hidden auditorium can be designed with full consideration for acoustics and sight lines, knowing that the form will not have an impact on exterior appearance. Perhaps the chief plus is that the concert hall can become a part of everyday city life, rather than existing in splendid isolation on the architectural equivalent of a cultural pedestal. At a time when symphony orchestras seek to find a new and younger audience, that might be the biggest benefit of all.
Sir Simon Rattle recently visited London with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, of which he is resident conductor. The orchestra’s ‘London residency’, during which it gave sold-out performances of all the Sibelius symphonies, was hosted by the City’s symphony hall at the Barbican Centre. During the course of his visit Sir Simon also conducted the London Symphony Orchestra, to which he has recently been appointed as music director, and indicated that he might even return to his native country as that orchestra’s resident conductor, if a suitable venue were provided. The implication is that the Barbican Centre, currently home to the London Symphony Orchestra, is not suitable, a judgment with which almost all music lovers agree.
Built in the 1970s in the brutalist style by the firm of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, and attached to a housing complex of jagged concrete towers, the Centre is surely one of the ugliest buildings in the City of London, and one that lies athwart a once beautiful pattern of mediaeval streets as though dropped there by the Luftwaffe. It is approached from the Barbican Underground Station via a long tunnel with bare concrete walls, in which the roar of traffic makes all conversation impossible. At the far end of this tunnel a concrete platform rises from the street with the promise of an entrance – but leads only to a blank concrete wall. After a search around destroyed street corners the entrance is eventually revealed, and takes the form of a fissure in the cliff of concrete, leading downwards into Nibelheim. Glass doors and blank walls open at last onto a vast cave without orientation, in which visitors are entirely dependent on signs to direct them. You can wander in this shapeless space for many minutes before discovering the concert hall, which you enter through obscure doors in occluded corners. In its narrow concrete amphitheatre you can then listen to music whose beauty is such a reproach to the surroundings that you are not surprised that the acoustics seem designed expressly to muffle the sound.
The Barbican Centre is not the only offensive concert hall in London. The pattern began with the Royal Festival Hall, designed by the modernist Sir Leslie Martin for the South Bank of the Thames as part of the Festival of Britain ‘renewal’ in the 1950s. Like the Barbican the Royal Festival Hall is a concrete shell, disconnected from its surroundings, and dependent on a work of clearance that has left nothing standing of the pre-existing urban fabric. Because it can be reached by a footbridge from the comparatively unspoiled North Bank of the river the Hall remains connected to the life of the city, and has given rise to its own community of washed up Bohemians, who congregate in the untidy downstairs bar. For all that, its obtrusive form and dead acoustic have for half a century prompted Londoners to ask themselves whether concert halls have to be visitors from alien planets, and whether there might not be a way of continuing what was once the accepted custom, of building them as part of the city. The Royal Albert Hall is in no way out of place on the edge of Kensington Park, and the beautiful Wigmore Hall is just another terraced house in Wigmore Street. Could we not build like that today, so that the concert-hall is restored to its rightful place – the place that it should share with the theatre and the restaurant – at the centre of urban life?
Two obstacles lie before that commendable goal: modernist architecture, and the architects who design it. From the outset of the Modern Movement it has been dogmatically assumed that the form and situation of a building is determined by its function, and that the interior of the building is therefore what matters. Maybe the exterior should express the function, or maybe it should in some way stand out from its surroundings, so as to announce that function or (preferably) to declare the genius and originality of the architect. But it is the thing that goes on inside the building that matters, whether or not it is integrated into the surrounding life. Hence, when the building performs its original function badly – with a dead acoustic, as at the Barbican and the Festival Hall –people become painfully conscious of its alien character. The acoustics of the Albert Hall are by no means perfect. But who objects to it? With its Pantheon dome, its classical orders and its terra cotta frieze it is a smiling presence in the life of the street and the park. For that reason it is also adaptable. You can use the Albert Hall for reunions, dances, lectures, stage performances as well as for concerts, and if ever people ceased to need a concert hall on the edge of Kensington Park it would surely serve almost as well as a University auditorium, a mosque or a temple to some future deity.
But here is where we have to reckon with the other great obstacle to building an acceptable symphony hall in a real city, which is the modernist architect. When Adolf van Gendt began work on Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw in 1883, he was working on open pasture outside the city. But he built in the accepted classical style of the day, as though designing a city hall, with walls that could line a street without oppressing it. In due course the city grew to meet his building, which now stands proud amid classical and baroque facades, a citizen among citizens. Around the hall has grown a lively quarter of the city, and the cafés and restaurants in the neighbouring streets are popular not least because they give a view of this serene and dignified building. It is perhaps worth remarking that the Concertgebouw is one of three symphony halls – the others being the Vienna Musikverein and the Boston Symphony – which are noted for their superlative acoustics, and all three are built in the classical style, the last by McKim Meade and White, who took the trouble to consult the physicist Wallace Clement Sabine as their acoustical engineer.
Unlike Stanford White modernist architects are singularly reluctant to adopt a style that fits in to the urban fabric. Typically they wish their building to stand out, to attract attention to itself as a visitor from the future, whether by negating the lines and details of the surrounding streets, as in Baltimore, or by standing stark and isolated in a park, like the new symphony hall designed by Jean Nouvel in Paris’s Parc de la Villette. Nouvel’s building, now the subject of dispute on account of its cost overrun (and what modernist project has ever stayed within budget?), has the appearance of a flying saucer, though with too many knobs and struts to navigate the dense atmosphere of our planet, with the result that it has crash-landed in a Park in Paris. Whether it will work acoustically has yet to be definitively proven. But that it does not work as architecture, still less as part of the world’s greatest city, is immediately apparent. Only because it is in a park does it wreak no havoc on its surroundings, and it is inconceivable that the neighbouring streets, were they too to invade the greenery, should incorporate it as one of their neighbours.
This point is, it seems to me, absolutely vital if the symphony hall is to have a real future. The modern concert venue is designed with only two things in view: to create a space uniquely designed for a kind of laboratory listening, and to announce to the world the arrival of yet another architect of genius. The combination of inner sterility and outer megalomania essentially cuts the venue off from the life around it. The resulting hall is not part of the city but stands in opposition to it, defiant testimonial to a dying culture. In this it also contributes, as does the Barbican Centre, to urban decay. Who wants to linger in those destroyed streets, to take time out beneath an aggressive concrete overhang, to look in vain for a coffee shop or a bookstore in the shadow of a building that looks as dead on the outside as it sounds to the ear within? Only if we wake up to the fact that this kind of modernist architecture is the enemy of the city will we begin to build the concert venues that we need – the venues, namely, which attract people to their neighbourhood, and provide a hub around which an artistic culture can again begin to grow.
Of course, architects will object to the suggestion. Modernist buildings are expensive and produce monstrous fees for their designers. They are also unadaptable, and therefore constantly in need of expensive adjustments, on which their architects usually have a lien. For this reason a struggling arts organization cannot normally afford a modernist concert hall, and would do far better to take over some existing building, such as a disused church or meeting hall, so as to adapt it for the purpose. Such, indeed, has been the normal practice in London, with the London Symphony Orchestra using the beautiful 18th century church of St Lukes in Old Street for its chamber concerts and its educational programs.
Moreover, large modernist buildings are almost invariably exercises in branding: They declare that their architects belong among the stars. Hence everybody has heard of Jean Nouvel, whose Wikipedia article is spread over two pages of uncritical hype, while nobody has heard of Adolf van Ghent, who has no Wikipedia article at all.
The problem of adaptability is not confined to the design of concert halls. From its inception, modernism has been a style against the city, and not a style that seeks to be a part of it. This is apparent in Le Corbusier’s original plan for Paris, which involved demolishing the city North of the Seine, and replacing it with glass towers amid sterile squares of trampled grass. It is apparent in the Centre Pompidou, built by Presidential decree, and which involved demolishing street upon street of classical houses in the Marais and replacing them with a collection of steel pipes and girders in infantile colours. It is apparent in the huge kitchen appliance dumped by the architectural firm Morphosis in New York’s Cooper Square.
All such projects show the extent to which our delicate urban fabric, built over many years in styles that exist because they are publicly accepted and adaptable to our changing uses, is under threat from the new architectural forms. These are usually designed for the specific use of a single client, and designed at a computer. Their shapes are dictated purely from within – they have no facades and no real attempt is made to fit them to their surroundings or to make them adaptable to any other use than the one that first required them. Eventually, when our city streets are lined with magnified hair-dryers, iPads, refrigerators, computer gadgets and food processors, all surviving awkwardly from a use that has vanished, people will wake up to the fact that the city has disappeared. A few lonely souls will drive in of an evening to take their seat inside a streamlined kettle, there to hear the strains of a Mahler symphony bouncing along the concrete walls. But most people will stay at home in the suburbs, preferring phones in their ears to live music, when live music must be reached by travelling across a desert of decaying gadgets to a comfortless kettle in a moonscape.
All is not lost, however. The New Urbanist movement, and the emergence of schools devoted to real architecture such as that at the University of Notre Dame, are sources of hope. And there are growing numbers of architects willing to take on big projects in a style that can be integrated into the fabric of a liveable city. I think of Leon Krier, principal architect of the Prince of Wales’s development at Poundbury, of Quinlan Terry, whose work on the restoration of Williamsburg provides a model for American urbanism, of John Simpson, architect of a new concert hall at Eton College, of Pedro Godoy and Maria Sanchez, graduates of the Notre Dame architecture school and architects of the impressive New Town Cayala in Guatemala. There is no longer an excuse to think that modernism is the only style available, or that the aesthetic of a symphony hall should require it to stand out from its surroundings, and not to belong to them. The time has therefore come for a real concert venue, one built into the city, and not against it like that at London’s Barbican. Such a symphony hall, built in the classical style, need not involve the acres of demolition and clearance required by the modernist gadgets. It can be built behind a façade that respects the fabric of the city, as the old theatres were built, and if, against our hopes, it fails to revive the concert-going habit, it will change its use quietly and inoffensively, remaining as a restaurant venue, a university or – best of all – a school of architecture, devoted to the ideals that caused it to be built.
Hot on the heels of what was surely disappointing news for Maris Jansons and Munich’s musical community – that, despite their protracted efforts, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra will not be getting a much needed new hall – came the triumphant announcement that Sir Simon Rattle, appointed as London Symphony Orchestra’s new chief, has secured a commitment from the city’s mayor to seriously investigate the possibility of a new concert hall for London’s top ensemble. Rattle has brought his political capital to bear right out of the gates – for good reason and while all eyes are on him. Despite the loud assertions of pundits who prefer to question his motives, this isn’t just a case of the new music director throwing his weight around. Sir Simon Rattle is instead pointing out the elephant in the music room: London, a concert capital with an embarrassment of riches measured in great orchestras and visiting performers, has somehow managed in all its centuries of legendary activity not to erect a single great concert venue the likes of Carnegie Hall, The Royal Concertgebouw, Musikverein, or even anything approaching the grandeur of St George’s Hall in Liverpool or Usher Hall in Edinburgh.
Each of the city’s major orchestras, besides being important and accomplished in its own right, supports and nourishes the rich ecosystem that is London’s classical music community. We can draw an analogy to the many museums in London – and we’ll do so despite the increasingly popular, pejorative reading of the word museum. Here we are using it as a wondrous term, connoting a sanctuary for our vast and beloved tradition. The London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) is like the British Museum. It is the repository of the best knowledge collected within the lifetimes and experience of its musicians, arguably standing a head above others in stature for its longevity of scope, its relationships with the world’s greatest conductors, and the breadth of its output. For the LSO not to have a proper and fitting home is akin to the British Museum existing only as a traveling collection.
So what, then, of the concert halls that London does have? The Barbican Center is a colossal, concrete bunker and the Royal Albert Hall, though storied and beautiful, has no acoustics to speak of. The Royal Festival Hall in the Southbank Center, meanwhile, combines the most lamentable attributes of both. Certainly, musical life in London could and would go on without a new hall. But so will many of the institutions and traditions we treasure continue to sputter along despite our neglect until tarnish and inertia overtake them and we become accustomed to decayed and hollow versions of the vibrant and living things we once loved. Why should London’s most prized assets, including both the LSO and the city’s musical life itself, be left just to “go on” this way? A proper concert hall represents an important piece of the city’s cultural puzzle, still waiting to be solved, and, equally meaningful both to London and its famed orchestra, an opportunity for renewal.
So, if we were to agree about the necessity of such a grand project, what would we build and where would we build it? Is it too early to even open such a discussion? Certainly not – for, as we have often seen, the political jockeying to win such a project begins immediately and dominates everything that happens behind the scenes. Too often the end result of these Machiavellian maneuverings leaves many disappointed observers wondering, “All that money…how in the world did they come up with that?”
At the Future Symphony Institute, we have come to understand that the most important consideration for a concert hall, beyond its acoustics, is the relationship it establishes between the orchestra, its patrons, and their community. The concert hall is the orchestra’s home – the space into which it invites the public as its guests, the setting in which it extends its hospitality and friendship. But it is also the face with which the orchestra looks out upon its neighbors and through which it participates in the conversation of settlement that invests a place with the meaning of home. Its physical presence creates an immediate and lasting impression that communicates directly to the community just what the orchestra believes about what it has to offer and what it perceives to be its role in the life and conversation of the community. For this reason a concert hall, in our estimation, can be either a major driver of or a serious impediment to demand for classical * concerts.
THE HALL AS A HOME
Home is an expression of both who we are and where we belong. We mark the places where we belong – the spaces we call home – with those things that reflect how we understand ourselves, who we aspire to be, and how we want others to know us. And we gather these clues, consciously or not, whenever we enter someone’s home – gather the myriad, little, aesthetic decisions and with them assemble a portrait, however astute or incomplete, of the person who made them. The privilege of being invited into a person’s home is the privilege of glimpsing their soul. In a very real way, the hall is the orchestra’s home; everything about it and within it should attest to the orchestra’s deepest convictions about itself and about classical music.
For instance, while it’s something of a fad to build halls that resemble spaceships, there is nevertheless a general lie and an injustice in doing so. And that’s because classical music does not come to us from outer space, or even from the future. It is not created by robots or by alien beings we cannot approach or begin to understand. It comes to us instead from a very long and very human tradition – from people we would recognize, people we can approach and come to know intimately through their music. It’s not slick, plastic, or high-tech. On the contrary, it still relies on a legacy of meticulous, human craftsmanship and unplugged, acoustic instruments. The hall should be the embodiment of classical music’s character: it should above all feel human, feel familiar, feel knowable, and feel intimate as often as it feels exalted.
Likewise, to reduce classical music simply to pretty sounds accumulated accidentally over the centuries is to ignore the fact that it revolves around ideals of beauty drawn from the innate order of the universe, and that we recreate that order through music painted on a canvas of time. It’s as great a contradiction to bury classical music in a disorienting and convoluted labyrinth – however shiny or pretty – as it is to stage it in a spaceship. By building such a home for itself, whether it realizes it or not, the orchestra risks suggesting to its patrons that its music is more complicated than it needs to be and – even worse – that they might not “get it.” Every little aesthetic clue in and about the hall inevitably tells its guests not only what the orchestra thinks about itself, or what it wants them to think about classical music, but also – and perhaps most importantly – what the orchestra thinks of them.
A hall is more than a holding pen and an acoustic space. It is a place in which its guests, too, must come to feel that they belong. Though they will likely never come to know each member of the orchestra, they will nonetheless feel like they know the orchestra as a whole – as if it is a friend to whom they relate, and with whom they while away their evening hours in a sort of intimate communion. In the symphony hall, guests sense the orchestra as a neighbor into whose home they have been invited. The hospitality they experience there can inspire a friendship and gratitude that connects directly to a sense of belonging. And an orchestra can only be successful to the extent that those friendships and that gratitude manifest themselves in the charitable donations of patrons and in the pride and enthusiasm with which they, in turn, offer the orchestra’s hospitality to their own friends and neighbors – especially to those who have not yet come to know this sense of belonging in the symphony hall. The most important contribution a proper hall might make to an orchestra’s success is its propensity to cultivate deep and lasting friendships.
THE HALL AS A FACE
Every act of architecture is an enduring act of imposition wherever it’s committed. Whether a monument, a hall, a home, or an office, every building becomes part of the community upon which it’s imposed. While not everyone will find reason to engage directly with it, they will nevertheless live in its shadow. They must inevitably despair or delight in its company forever after – or at least as long as it remains standing among them. It’s the realization born of this fact, the realization that we’re all “in it together”, that tempers our adolescent urges toward defiant self-expression.
Just as the youth, who thinks little of imposing his window-rattling, musical misadventures upon his neighbors, eventually in adulthood comes to appreciate the reciprocal consideration that obliges him not to offend his neighbors with his noise, so we become sensitive to the plight of our neighbors the more completely we understand our situation to be bound up with theirs in the identity of community. This is the foundation for the manners that make good neighbors. And this is what makes the homeowners’ associations of America’s transient suburbs as perennial as they are reviled: they are an attempt to enforce good manners in the absence of genuine neighborliness from which the sentiment naturally springs.
Our home is for us a private sanctuary, but it is also part of a larger, collective sanctuary. And we feel this larger place as home too, inhabited as it is by our many neighbors, probably none of whom we chose. In this larger place called home – in our community – we are only one voice of many. And each building, like each neighbor, looks out upon the community with its own face and participates in the ongoing conversation of settlement with its own voice. Like neighbors themselves, these buildings do not always echo each other or even agree, but because they are architectural reflections of their very human subjects, their differences too are tempered by membership in the community. They attune to each other and relate to each other in the community’s natural and never-ending process of becoming home. The result is an organic harmony of individual voices, and this is what we sense in the world’s oldest and most beautiful cities and neighborhoods.
This should be especially interesting to us when considering the case of concert halls. The blending of a chorus of individual voices into harmonious polyphony is precisely the hallmark and heritage of our musical tradition. It would be the most natural thing imaginable for an orchestra to build for itself a hall that sits comfortably in its community, shoulder-to-shoulder with its neighbors, that participates in the act of settlement by accepting its role in the compromise and conversation that makes a place home and strangers neighbors. But how often do we see halls built like this today?
It seems as though the adolescent obsession with individualism now nearly always trumps neighborliness. Too often the modern hall is designed as a solipsistic monolith that rises faceless from a shallow sea of concrete somewhere off the shore of its community. It shuns its neighbors – it does not participate and does not relate. It does not invite the passerby inside with welcoming familiarity that reads as approachability. In fact, should the passerby wander into its remote realm, it’s far too likely that it won’t even be clear to him where the entrance might be. The modernist hall stands defiantly as a foreboding monument to its architect’s ego, and perhaps to the colossal blundering of the planning committees who mistook this emphatic statement of irrelevance for its literal opposite.
But a concert hall is not built for planning committees or for architects. It is built for the ordinary people who will become its neighbors, the music patrons who will become its friends, and the orchestra for whom it will become a face. It must communicate the inspiration and the achievement of the composers and musicians that live within it, but it must speak of those things in the local language and in tones of civility. It must enfold not only concert spaces of varying size, but also spaces for communion, where people can come together and discover neighbors, and spaces for education, where they can come together and discover music. This last point deserves to be stressed: given the incredible responsibility orchestras have to impart their legacy to future generations, it’s imperative that their halls should enfold facilities that reflect both the central and permanent nature of their educational role in the community.
One more word on the idea of the concert hall as the orchestra’s face: It is important for the LSO to remember that a concert hall really does become an orchestra’s identity – what we might otherwise called “brand” in the commercial world. In the case of orchestras, branding is often a bit of an abstraction since visually one orchestra isn’t very distinct from the next in the way that a Lamborghini is distinct from a BMW. They have logos, to be sure, but since concerts aren’t purchased in stores off a shelf, the logo doesn’t become invested with the weight and power associated with physical goods. In some cases, the music director becomes the “face” or identity of a group. But that becomes a problem when the conductor moves on or even passes on. For instance, Herbert von Karajan was synonymous with the Berlin Philharmonic (BPO) for decades, and despite the equally important leadership of his successor Claudio Abaddo, the orchestra was challenged to assert its autonomy and identity through another focal point following its contentious breakup withKarajan. In recent decades, the BPO has adopted its own iconic 1962 Cold War era hall by Hans Sharoun as its face. And now that is precisely how it is known. We can cite other examples where mentioning the orchestra calls to mind immediately its hall and creates for us a vivid association with the character that we recognize in it: Boston Symphony, Royal Concertgebouw, Vienna Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, LA Philharmonic.
What we will also point out, probably to the consternation of dear Sir Simon’s modernist, downright futuristic leanings, is that LSO’s identity is wrapped up in its connection to a rich and storied past – a great tradition stretching back to the British Empire. There are many great orchestras in London. What sets LSO apart is its pedigree, its traditions embodying the collective experience of having played with so many of the world’s greatest conductors. It is, as I said, the British museum of London orchestras, not the Tate Modern. Therefore, it would do well to position itself among its true peers – Vienna, Amsterdam, and Boston, with their profound connections to the history of classical music. (Philadelphia could have been included here, except that it abandoned its connection to its illustrious past when it moved into the Kimmel Center – what a passerby might for all the world suppose is just another corporate office building on Market street. Philadelphia is a cautionary tale.) To this end, it is most regrettable that Edwin Lutyens never designed for LSO a concert hall that would have rightfully stood among the other great halls of the world.
London is a city beloved by residents and cultural tourists for both what it has retained and what it has become over the centuries. But sadly, what the air raids of WWII didn’t manage, the modernists are now pulling off with the banishment of traditional architecture. Yet one would be severely challenged to find a tourist who came to London to see the Gherkin, the Barbican, or Southbank. Nor is it at all surprising or unusual that we see in the choices people make about where to live in London that traditional areas are much more desirable and therefore much more valuable than the cold, faceless clumps of glass and steel that one always comes across with disappointment when walking through town. Even the modernist architects, as architect Léon Krier memorably points out, usually live in gorgeous, traditional homes, leaving their glass and steel monstrosities for everyone else. Public vice, private virtue, as he says.
We can imagine at this point that LSO will have a choice between two halls: let’s say either a Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam or a Walt Disney Hall of Los Angeles. That may seem like an absurd scenario – a false choice, really – but as long as traditional architecture remains a clear and viable option and modernist “starchitects” continue to be driven by an adolescent urge to challenge and shock everyone, then that might be the very scenario we are looking at. That brings us to another important consideration. It may be crushing to many in the modernist Kulturekampf, but the ideal source for funding for London’s new hall will likely be private. And for that to happen, there will have to be a careful alignment of branding.
For example, should a bank like Barclays or UBS, who each have a long track record of sponsorship of classical music ventures, be interested in the project, they would undoubtedly require a building that came with a great deal of prestige attached to it, and one that was meant to be permanent. George Szell used to disparage “contemporary” music by dismissing it with a laugh, calling it “temporary” music. There is always truth in a joke, however, and so it is in the case of contemporary architecture, too. Feats of modernist architecture are usually built with the idea of standing for fifty years – an act of mercy on the one hand, and an act kicking the can down the road for the next generation on the other. But traditionally designed and constructed halls, built as they are with the architectural language and techniques that have endured throughout the ages, last for a very long time. They are meant as permanent places for a permanent music.
In subsequent writings here, we will look at the practical implications that arise from these issues and we’ll examine others, including the question of a building site, as they unfold. More importantly, we’ll look for the insight of those who know these challenges better than we. We are here to argue not only that both the LSO and London itself need and deserve a new concert hall that is fitting for the future of the city’s prestigious musical life, but that they need to imagine it as a place that makes sense for the sake of its own success – that it should be a beautiful and harmonious part of the face and community of London, not a thumb in its eye and a middle finger to everyone else.
* Here, as always, we use the term “classical” with a small c to denote the long tradition of Western art music. When we refer specifically to the music composed during the European age of “Enlightenment”, we will use the term “Classical” with a capital C.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an edited transcription of the lecture delivered by Léon Krier at our inaugural The Future of the Symphony Conference in September 2014. The video of this lecture can be viewed here.
Many of our doings and sayings are really motivated by fear. René Girard, who is well known in this country, has differentiated very clearly desires – metaphysical desires, desires which are directly motivated by bodies, and desires which imitate other desires but which are not felt, which are not considered to be of strict necessity. We still do not quite understand what motivates this desire – that the desire of desire can be stronger than the desire itself. For instance, Girard identifies anorexia as not a physical but a mental debility in which somebody desires something that he does not understand and that can destroy him. And fashion is really that phenomenon which explains or realizes the extraordinary dominance nowadays of metaphysical desire. How otherwise to explain the fact that, for about eighty years now, many gifted musicians refuse to write music, but write a kind of anti-music which instead of giving pleasure gives pain?
How can one explain that despite the failure of modern architecture – which was very visible already from the start – such a flawed theory, demonstrated by extremely bad results in both the urban sense and the architectural/technological sense, came to be repeated so many times around the world and then became the dominant system, not only in our cities but above all in our education system, forbidding any reference to traditional architecture or urbanism except as something which is no longer allowed? I studied for two terms at Stuttgart University, and when I understood that what was being taught there was going to destroy any idea that had motivated me to study architecture, I gave up.
I had the extraordinary chance to have been born in a very beautiful environment, and I found the pleasure I had known in that formidable environment again this morning, very briefly at six o’clock, when I got up in my room here in the hotel. This is not a romantic vision of Caspar David Friedrich, but it’s actually the main square on Charles Street. It is this experience, this personal experience, that has marked anybody who is really interested in traditional architecture or traditional music. Most people are marked by this extraordinary experience, and I think the most important distinction which we have to make is that traditional architecture and traditional music are not historical phenomena, but transcendent phenomena. They are like language, or like mathematics, or like anything good: they are really atemporal goods – good beyond their time.
I try to educate my students to make a fundamental distinction – not to use the term historical architecture, but to distinguish traditional architecture and modernist architecture by a technological difference. In fact, traditional architecture is defined by technology, and therefore is atemporal. It is not linked just to the past, but is that experience of humans building at their scale because there is no other possibility. Obviously the use of fossil fuel energies has created the extraordinary possibility to ignore human capacities, to ignore climate, to ignore soil, and build virtually the same kind of buildings everywhere, independent of climate and of geography.
I grew up in Luxembourg City, which was virtually intact despite the Second World War that passed over and destroyed the northern part of the country. But I was educated in the small town of Echternach which had been completely destroyed by the Brunstad Offensif. Most of the American artillery was sitting on one side and they would bombard the Germans on the other by artillery, and on the way, they destroyed the city. This is considered by most people as an historic city but is in fact a reinvention of the 1940s and 1950s. I grew up in these building sites and it was an extraordinary experience which has lasted for a lifetime. I have pursued this kind of environment all my life. And I realize, now that I am 68, that all my theories and writings have been about how to make such an environment – not only to preserve it, but to create it ex novo.
I spend my summers in Mallorca practicing music, and also under this porch I have been writing a book which is called Corbusier After Le Corbusier. In it I am reforming, correcting, and translating Corbusier’s ideas into traditional architecture. For a musician it would be extremely interesting (and I think there are people actually attempting) to take Pierrot Lunaire and write out the ideas – because there are ideas in Pierrot Lunaire as well as interesting forms and expressions – but to translate it in a mode of Mahler or of Mozart, or of anyone who wrote music which you can listen to the second time without getting bored.
Because what those great musicians have done is virtually invented a world from scratch, building on an enormous edifice of sounds, to create something which is entirely new, in the same way that architecture was invented two thousand, three thousand years ago – many, many centuries and millennia ago. Musical architecture, in that sense of symphonic monumentality and extraordinary spatial dimension, is something relatively new. It is such a glorious experience that you cannot imagine that it will go for a thousand years. There won’t be ten thousand Brahmses or Mozarts writing two thousand five hundred symphonies.
On the other hand, I think that, because they have discovered this world, once we have studied it and, with our sensibilities and the enormous talent which is born every day, met this world, that it will become our own. And then one can probably write a fifth or sixth Brahms symphony which will be as good as the first or second. I think it can be so because there really are new worlds. Discovering one is like moving into a painting – imagine a great landscape of Claude Lorrain and painting it the other way around. It’s virtually an invention of landscape but you can move in it. It’s actually what film does: from one image you create a world. The one world is concentrated in a single image.
I grew up as a modernist, of course, in revolt against my parents. My mother was a musician. I drove them mad with Schoenberg and Webern and so on. My mother always said of Stravinsky’s music, “What is this horse burial? Why do you play this?” And of course, my first building designs were extreme acts of provocation and protest. It’s really when I did my first project for the town where I had been educated, Echternach, that I realized Corbusier could no longer be my master – because plowing any of these enormous buildings which I had been drawing into such a town would mean utter destruction. It is only when I started doing these kinds of projects that I felt the necessity to really relearn a craft that is no longer taught.
Now, it took me twenty years to build the theory which is now being practiced as New Urbanism. It was truly an act of rediscovery – uncovering what had been done for thousands of years before. But what we do not do today is understand the motivating force of modernism. We really don’t understand what modernism is. Well, there are ways of approaching the problem or explaining it by metaphor and by allegory. Modernism in architecture – and music – is very much like the artificial invention of a language, like Esperanto. Esperanto was used by tradesmen and by a very small number of people. But imagine that a very powerful political group took over not just a province or a country, or even a continent, but over the world and imposed Esperanto as a single language, forbidding all other languages and declaring them as purely historical – no longer valid, no longer legitimate for use today. That is what has happened to architecture and even to music.
In architecture it can be explained very simply in a material way. Because of the introduction and use of fossil fuel energies and the fabrication of new building materials, like steel-reinforced concrete or plastics or plate glass – all of which we need enormous amounts of energies to produce – we can achieve building performances which before were not possible with traditional, natural materials. Yet there is no specificity to these new materials. Most people think that concrete or steel or the industrial production of nails created new architecture. In fact, it is not architecture that they created, because the forms which are possible with concrete are independent of the material and there is nothing you can’t cast – a classical arch in concrete as well as a square hole. There is nothing authentically modern to have square forms with concrete, or completely free forms. There is no form for these materials because they can be shaped in any way. You can cast the buildings, put them upside down, and they will be fine for a while. There’s no real authenticity with so-called modern materials.
And because there is very little experience, there is of course no language. There is no language comparable to the language of traditional architecture, which is extremely complex and which is very specific to regions or altitudes formed by different cultures and climates. I think if one used synthetic materials for a thousand years it is absolutely certain that human intelligence and senses and sensibilities will create a language to be the equivalent of traditional architecture, but it will take many centuries. We have not even started. That is why these buildings, which have been produced lately, are so completely out of control. They are just the size that some financial will or political will – or some kind of will independent of traditional scales – allows us to build. Now, when you consider that in the future fossil fuels will become extremely expensive, very scarce, and probably very difficult to use, suddenly we can see that the future of modernist architecture is very limited, and therefore also of modernist art.
The question is “What is modernism?” It is the excess of modernity. It is trying to be more modern than being modern. We are all modern – we cannot help being modern. Just by being here we are modern. So it is not a quality to be modern. We are modern whether we like it or not. It is a question of fate, not of choice. Whereas modernism is definitely something to do with an ideological scheme.
And this started much earlier than synthetic materials. It has to do with the development of Europe, with the political development and also the military expansion – this extraordinary will to expand beyond the limits of Europe and to absorb other cultures. Architectural language had been troubled for at least 250 or 300 years – well before modernism started. Modernism can actually be explained as a reaction against the trouble in the language.
We began to see strange confusions. For instance, we find a building that looks like an abbey or a monastery – some religious building. In fact it is not an abbey. It is a house for a very rich man designed by a very talented architect. It pretends to be a monastery, but it is a house.
Or consider a building designed by the very talented architect Persius, who was a student of Schinkel; and though it looks like a mosque, it is not. It is a pumping station for the fountains of Pottsdam, built in the 1840s. This was the strange trouble in the language: why would one create buildings which would no longer represent what they historically mean?
You had then extremes like a simple block of flats in Geneva where you have the whole history and all the styles of the world you can imagine just unfolded for such a lowly purpose. And that leads to protest. It is so extreme and completely absurd, that there is no more language; there is just noise, messages that are meaningless, and it leads to protest and refusal.
Twenty years later, in 1914, a very talented architect in Denmark, Ivar Bentsen, foreshadowed the Bauhaus in two competitions for the opera in Copenhagen. The square was all the same architecture. You can only distinguish the opera house by a kind of tower which is dressed like it was an actual building. Modernism in that sense can be seen as a protest against Victorian excess, against this enormous outbreak of eclecticism.
The protest led to other more important movements, producing buildings like the one Mies van der Rohe built it at the Illinois Institute of Technology. What is it? It is not a warehouse; it is a church. I think the cross has been replaced by a searchlight, which is very interesting.
Then, of course, there is the Pompidou Center in Paris. Now the question is, if you build pumping houses which look like mosques, houses which look like monasteries, culture palaces which look like some oil refinery or some building having to do with industry, or a church which looks like a warehouse, what should monasteries look like? What should warehouses look like? What should industrial buildings look like, in order that there is no confusion? It’s very difficult to understand. These buildings, these reactions against Victorian excess, are considered to be more rational than Victoriana. In fact, they have very little to do with reason. The Pompidou Center was planned not only to have the walls move, but also the floors were meant to move up and down. That is why the structure was carried outside as were the stairs – so that everything could move because movement was meant to be progressive.
That is really where we are. How has progress – this idea of progress – come to dominate something which in fact should give stability? Historically, the stability of structure has never prohibited mobility of use. Throughout history we have buildings change use and change meanings; market buildings become churches and so on. There is a very long history of change of use, despite the solidity and immobility of the immobile. Immobilier in French and immobiliare in Italian refer to the fact that buildings are immobile. They do not move because they are not cranes or instruments. Now, why such a stupid ideology? That such an excessive set of ideas should become dominant is still difficult to explain.
At the same time the Beaubourg was built, Christian Langlois built an extension for the Senate building in Paris and Spreckelsen built his arch of La Défense. They are both modern architecture produced by the same regime. But of course the French state would never see itself symbolized by the building of Monsieur Langlois.
But whatever happened in the Beaubourg could be done in any kind of building. You didn’t need the mobility. Actually the mobility never happened: they built solid masonry walls inside, in order to have a proper museum. The floors never moved. You can perform that feat on oil derricks or boring platforms on the high seas because, though they are extremely expensive, they bring in inconceivable amounts of money. But, as we know, culture does not make direct income.
All this happened in architecture at an extremely large scale, destroying historic cities of incredible value. If a painter would take a painting of Gozzoli, a beautiful wall painting in San Gimignano, and would start to restore it in this manner – saying, “I don’t believe in historic restoration; I want to express myself, so we will restore Gozzoli!” – there would be world scandal. How can such an idiotic idea to destroy a really important work of art be funded? That is exactly what is happening not only to our cities but to our landscapes.
They are guided, and now disciplined and actually ordered, by two charters: the Charter of Athens and the Charter of Venice. And these cannot be reformed. I tried to understand this set of ideas – like the Charter of Venice, this completely absurd set of ideas – that says if you restore an historical building you must not imitate history. You have to differentiate anything you do by material, by color, by proportion, by character – in fact, you must violate the historic building. Otherwise it is not modern. That’s what the Charter of Venice says. The Charter of Athens stated long ago that cities should not be reconstructed as cities, but be divided, deconstructed in extremely large zones of single use – housing one way, culture another, education – all separate, and linked by public or private transport. They are unsustainable ideas, and yet they dominate the world.
And not only do they dominate the world, but they dominate particularly bureaucracy. And bureaucracy does not think. By its nature it cannot reflect critically on what it does. It must apply what it is told to do by law and by regulations which it is supposed to administer. And that is where the thing becomes extremely toxic, because when we now try to build traditional towns or traditional buildings we are faced with a bureaucracy that not only does not understand us but opposes us.
I became interested in an important project in the center of Moderna. The officer of restoration refused the project. We went to the minister in Rome and he sat down with us. He said, “Professor, can you tell us why you put peaked roofs on your buildings?” We were sitting in a room above Rome; we could see thousands of peaked roofs from where we sat.
I said, “I’m sorry. It is either peaked like this or inverted like that. You think there is a flat roof, but there is no flat roof. Have you ever looked at a flat roof? It is always leaning one way or the other because the water has to be carried away.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said, and we went on. But that is the mentality, because bureaucracy is not supposed to think.
A year later I had another project for the EUR district in Rome – a district built partially under Mussolini – and I was to restore the main square with a huge parking area going under the buildings. When the project was presented, everybody liked it. But the head of public monuments refused it, saying, “You cannot do imitative architecture. Mimetic architecture you cannot do.”
I responded, “But Signora, can you tell us what is non-mimetic architecture?”
“We are not supposed to engage in theoretical discourse.”
Again I said, “But Madame, we are imitative beings. Everything in nature is imitative, mimetic. Flowers imitate flowers, humans imitate humans, everything is imitative and repetitive.”
“We must not engage in theory,” and she stopped the project. It was never built. This is now the system which dominates our towns and cities, and it cannot be reformed. It will die its own death by the exhaustion of fossil fuels, or by simply becoming too expensive.
Traditional architecture is technology before any style. It is technology and typology of building solid buildings, responding to purposes of individuals or of communities, of small or large groups, and it is the accumulation of these experiences which creates the tradition. It is a technique to resolve the building in a pleasant, practical, and lasting way. Innovations happen when they are necessary. In the Middle Ages you do not invent hangars for airplanes. There are no airplanes. But when airplanes appear, there are suddenly hangars for airplanes. That is when innovation happens typologically. Most architects are educated nowadays to be inventive, to create typologies. They present a building and they say, “This is my typology.” Completely insane – a building is not a typology. No one can invent a typology just because he or she likes it. We are in a situation, really, of regression, not of advancement. The fear of backwardness, of not being “in tune”, not being “cool”, is I think paralleled by the fear of age. Why don’t people want to age anymore?
So they buy a beautiful, old house in a beautiful village and then they paint it red, flatten the roof, or make windows which don’t fit. It’s the idea of being different, but different from what? That is always the question. Because the fact is that we are all individuals. Whatever we do is individual. Whether we write, we sing, we walk, we stand, we cook, everything we do is marked by individuality. So there should not be any fear of not being individual. We cannot help being individual any more than we can help being modern. We are individual and we are modern. It is not something about which we should bother. Anyone playing the trumpet will play different from the one next to him, because the shape of his lips or his lungs is very different from that of the other, despite their being similar. This obsession with being individual, of developing individual expression, is nonsensical. And you can only develop individual expression within disciplines which are already shaped and which have been practiced.
The thing now with modernist art that has dominated for so long is that we have no more art. Most museums of modern art for me could be closed down without any interest. My test is always this: if you take a piece of so-called modern art and you put it next to the dumpsters and rubbish in the courtyard and it is taken away, it’s not art – because anyone with any sensitivity or any intelligence will recognize a work of art. It has something more about it than just rubbish.
This is where I come to the parallel of music and architecture. Building a very large complex is symphonic work. If you build a large complex over twenty or thirty years – like building a town – you need some discipline which is going to ensure that there will be harmony of parts despite the contrarianism of the users who are going to inhabit it. You need some simple discipline, which can be understood and shared by a large number of people. That is what traditional architecture was about; and that is why we have these incredible treasures of traditional architecture still surviving, despite the will to deform or to destroy them or to wipe them out.
I am practicing this for the Prince of Wales in Poundbury, England and it has now several phases complete. We have built about 45 percent of it. It’s going better and better. It started with enormous difficulties, because the builders were not able to pursue such complex tasks. But now they have been trained and we have architects who have been well trained; and the buildings which come now after twenty years of work and practice are really extraordinary.
What is distinguishing about traditional architecture – and I think you will find a similarity in music and its universal differentiations – is the very great distinction between vernacular building and classical architecture. In all cultures which have practiced architecture in a systematic way, you have this distinction of vernacular building: very simple buildings which are just walls and pillars and roofs, representing a language of construction which does speak of nothing else but construction. A door is a door, a window is a window, a tile is a tile. There is no message beyond its own being, whereas classical architecture is something more. It is really an artistic translation of building beyond elements of construction into a language that transcends the pure utility of the simple nature of an opening or closure or embrasure or a covering. In Belgium for fifty years now we have given a prize which distinguishes between vernacular and classical architecture – because they are achievements which are of a very different nature, even though they are complementary. You can understand this clearly when you see it in a picture from Venice. Anyone can see which buildings are more important than the others because they are marked by a more elaborate language.
I introduce the differentiation of vernacular and classical in town planning because when people see a street that is not straight, not a gridiron design, they say, “Oh, it’s medieval.” It’s not medieval. Geometry in nature is always meandering. There is no straight line in nature. It’s an invention of the geometry of Euclid. There is no straight line and there is no square angle in nature. There is nothing regular or completely self-identical. It’s all similar, but still all slightly different. To have the correct terminology is very important if you reconstruct, because it’s not self-evident. It has to be so clear that people can easily accept it. Between the gridiron plan and more natural geometry there is enormous consequence for the experience and the use of towns.
The gridiron plan became the dominant technique of building towns in the Indies, in South and Central America, and also in North America where it was used almost exclusively – except in villages lost somewhere in the hills of West Virginia, let’s say. But once you conceptualize these two ideas, you can use them, because they are also intellectual models. You can use them to very powerful effect not only to espouse the land – vernacular geometry is much easier to conform to the land – but also to create very great tensions between the straight and the meandering, between the flow and the node. It is this mixture of geometries which is, I think, most satisfying when you experience towns. There is no better demonstration of this dynamic than Venice: the Grand Canal and so on. Even though most buildings are very regular, they often occupy positions that are very irregular when you look from the air. And that irregularity allows adaptation to the geographic and climatic conditions much more easily than does the gridiron plan.
In this differentiation between vernacular and classical, the classical is reserved for very important buildings, which are for the whole community or for the whole town or for the whole nation, creating a hierarchy of expression and locations – in contrast with the more simple, more laconic nature of the vernacular. For instance, in this form of vernacular geometry, you can have very modest architecture without being boring. It’s always very interesting. Whereas when you have Euclidean geometries and gridiron plans, you must have much better, more ambitious architecture in order for it all to be bearable. Nothing is more boring than barracks architecture. So it’s the mixture of these two geometries and the correct placing of the hierarchy of buildings going from private or individual to public and more common-use which are the tools we use to order a great town. I applied it even to Washington DC: flooding the Tiber Creek creates a big lake, and Americans do not have to go to Venice on their honeymoon – they can come to Washington.
In architecture, it is a well-accepted idea that vernacular is pure technology of building. But it is not pure technology in an abstract sense; it is human technology impregnated by the size and the strength and the capacities of the human body, just as musical instruments are designed for the human hand or for the mouth or for the ear. It is the translation of this simple, purely technical performance into an art form that is what we call classical architecture. And you have it in all different cultures which have developed architecture. But in modernism this distinction doesn’t happen: there is no distinction between concert hall architecture and house architecture. It’s just that one is big and one is small. The Villa Savoir, a charming building of Le Corbusier which measures twenty by twenty-two meters, becomes the Royal Festival Hall in London, which measures fifty by seventy meters. Same number of elements, same architecture. Yet it’s by enlarging size that you change also meaning in nature. Galileo wrote pages on the fact that you cannot design a horse that is a hundred meters tall: it will collapse under the laws of gravity. It is this appropriateness of size, scale, and character which I think marks and limits architecture and gives it shape.
I was struck by the tuning of a piano or a violin. You first overstretch the cord or string, and then release it until it comes to the right vibration, until the tone is harmonized. I do this with my students. They have to take precise measurements of a column, or a vase or a car, and then they have to manipulate those measurements in order to understand why something is classical and to understand that that is a live value, a living designation.
For instance, you take a classical column – Tuscan, the most simple Doric kind – then you vary diameters. Keep the same number of elements, the same moldings, but make it much narrower or much wider, arbitrarily. The result can be called the anorexic or the bulimic column. Or change the vertical proportions. By making slight changes you can powerfully change the column’s character. It goes from elegant to heavy, from martial to enchanting. Or use the same elements but misplace them; it becomes a-tectonic. The logic of form and construction is disrupted if you do not assemble it in the correct way.
If the vernacular and the classical languages are such a very strong reality of the historic and the transcendental experiences of architecture, is it the same with music? You cannot have an allegretto that lasts for twenty-five hours. You would go crazy. These variations of tone, of rhythm, of timbre, of quality are limited, but it is actually their contrast which creates music. So how much classicism do you need to be a happy person? That’s really the question. How much classicism do you need to build a beautiful town. It doesn’t need to be all classical. You need a very large dose of vernacular. You cannot have cream every day.
A kind of ideal of classicism was performed by Burnham and his colleagues for the White City in Chicago. It was an extraordinary creation, but it was not a model of how the world could be. It was an ideal, Worlds Fair kind of world.
Another extreme of classicism would be the Beaux Arts utopia, where everything is beautiful – even the toilet seat is decorated with pearls. But it’s unsustainable in a psychological and an aesthetic sense.
And at the opposite end of the spectrum you have animal architecture, which is without any meaning beyond its own self. It’s just a pile of material that performs a certain utility. It has also its own beauty, because whatever we do over a long period of time we can only stand it and it can only survive if we cultivate beauty. Even the most solid building cannot survive for very long if it is too ugly. It just becomes unbearable. It will be blown up and destroyed. So it’s beauty which gives a building a quality that is absolutely necessary for its survival. But I think it’s the mixture of these two qualities of classicism and vernacular which gives a town or a landscape its lasting quality. In Venice, or in Williamsburg, for instance, you will find this kind of mixture of classical and vernacular.
Today, following the categorical confusion which modernism brought about and which was largely unconscious, there is no intelligent theory of modernism. We read Le Corbusier – and I love Le Corbusier, despite his problems – because he was a great writer and poet, but his work is childish. There is no serious theory there, no rational theory of how to build the world. It’s unsustainable.
This now being the predominant set of ideas, often the industry continues anyway with the traditional models of vernacular and classical, but when they do they always get it wrong in scale or expression or size. There is a reason why very large common buildings need to be more elaborate than houses: because when you have a simple barn blown up a hundred times it becomes extremely brutal in shape. You need something more to make it not only symbolically more important but also more readable. Classical architecture is that set of forms which allows greatest readability of elements at a distance, imparts permanence, and also creates symbolic value and beauty at a scale which would not be inherent in common building forms.
Today we are faced with strange vernacular temples, hotels that imitate cottage but are the size of an aircraft carrier. Or we have little palaces – cottage size, but obviously ridiculous in scale. When you have relatively small settlements – and let’s put this in the context of music, as in the simple song with the single voice – it can go on for, say, four minutes. But if you have a single voice carrying on for twenty-five hours, you’ll get bored. To orchestrate five hours like Wagner does, you need a lot of art and it needs to be very well modulated to be bearable. I lived in a small village where there was no architecture for sixteen years. There were just three columns inside the church – just enough to have walls, openings, some tiles on the roof, and divided window panes. But art is not missing when this is placed in a beautiful landscape. The landscape takes care of the art. But in large cities you need a much richer language. In the nineteenth-century, this led to the proliferation of imperial carnival classicism – crazy buildings which become such an extraordinary performance. The education required to achieve this performance becomes tyrannical and leads to complete rejection. The Beaux Arts movement trained people until 1958, and then it was finished because, even though it was collegial education, it was also very tyrannical. The same tyranny has descended upon scientists and engineering students – it’s extremely gruesome. Doctors have to study for ten years – absolutely horrendous – day and night. Why this revolt did not happen in medical education or engineering is a mystery to me. Why just in architecture?
The best formula is this mixture of classicism and modernism, where just a few public buildings have a bit more than vernacular. And that can make very charming environments. We understand it by contrast. A building four hundred meters high topped by a statue of Lenin nearly a hundred meters high is public imperialism. The private is reduced to nothingness. On the other hand, we have private imperialism. Think of Fifth Avenue and, of course, St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It is quite a nice building, but it’s utterly meaningless among the giants of Fifth Avenue. It is completely humiliated in that setting. The properly structured, classical city is much more balanced.
I limit general building fabric to a very simple theory. Despite the fact that we have motorized vehicles, and even if we have unlimited fossil fuel, no problems with technology, and equipment galore, we should still practice traditional architecture and planning because they are imbued with a humane and aesthetic scale, which is really important.
And I identify nine ways of ordering towns and placing buildings. By arranging architecture on one side and urbanism on the other, you have between them nine modes, or combinations, by which to do it. There is a lot of choice, depending on the landscape and so on. What is perfectly unbearable as a generalized proposition is the combination of classical geometry and vernacular architecture. We generally call it “barracks architecture” and it is perfectly unacceptable. It’s fine for barracks and factories, but not for common habitat. So you have these two possibilities of geometry in combination; and then what is an absolute necessity is to have, within towns and within walkable distance, mixed used and mixed scale, which naturally leads also to mixed architecture.
But mixed use is not an absolute guarantee of a fine city, because you can create a single building containing all uses – and this was Corbusier’s idea: to have a landliner where you have the church and the factory, the public offices and the art gallery, and the housing and everything all in one building. But that is not a city; it’s a building. Buildings are not cities and cities should not be buildings. A large city is not a large house.
You have another deviation when you have uniform volumes, independent of use – where the businesses, the houses, the public offices, the temple, and the library are all contained within the same uniform volumes, controlled by a cornice line and disciplined so they become completely uniform. That’s equally nonsensical. Then you have “anything goes” mixed use. Even though mixed use is a necessity, it’s not a sufficient condition for a meaningful town.
Now, the distribution of vernacular and classical: if our home is the size of a monastery, the housing is a monumental mosque and the church is a tiny, little, dog house. You can call that well-applied but mis-sized architecture and vernacular. You can also misapply classical architecture to the utilitarian building and the church becomes just a naked box. By analyzing small or large buildings according to these principles, you are able to value whether a building is correctly structured, correctly scaled, or semantically – in the sense of meaning – correct. Only once you have a correct composition can you have a beautiful building. Otherwise it is just illusion, confusion, and deconstruction.
I think that the most important book written about energy was Kunstler’s book, The Long Emergency. And I think it is absolutely necessary to read that book. What it teaches us is that the oil peak is not going to be a symmetrical figure. It rise will rise to its peak and then there will be abrupt, very brutal change – in which we already find ourselves – leading to extreme wars and extreme violence, perpetrated to maintain our dominance in that field and in order to run our pack of instruments and maintain our mode of life. Curiously and interestingly, this peak corresponds to the nadir of the traditional arch, which used to dominate.
Modernism was very interesting when it was an experimental art, when just a few rich clients would build their interesting houses. It has become absolutely lethal as a scheme for mass building – a toxic investment. And it’s going to disappear with the increased cost of energy. It’s the fossil fuel economy that really has changed our mode of managing the air, time, energy, and land, and it is going to change. We have to prepare for that because otherwise it will erupt over our heads.
What dominated traditional architecture was climate and soil, and these conditions created very different architecture between regions. For instance, the architecture of the Basque hillsides and that of the Landes region, which is just twenty kilometers away, are very, very different. Meanwhile, the architecture of the Basque hillsides is virtually the same as that in the Himalayan Mountains because they have similar climatic conditions. It is really climate and altitude which have a very strong influence on the shape and style of buildings, historically and traditionally.
When you have a lot of fossil fuel energy you can build the same building in any climate and any altitude, but it will have no permanence because the energy it will take to maintain these buildings will be too expensive. There is only one model to counter the hubris of scale we now achieve, this excess of verticality or horizontality – and they are related problems: suburbanism piled high or suburbanism spread thin. Three dominant building types – the skyscraper, the sprawler, and the landscraper – always occur in excessively large, single-use zones.
Such zones reach beyond the limits of human scale, following the Charter of Athens which we might also apply to gastronomic intake in something like this way: instead of twenty-one varied meals each week, we have all the liquids on Monday, all the meats on Tuesday, all the fats on Wednesday, pasta on Thursday, Friday (for Catholics) fish, all the alcoholic drinks on Saturday, and the baked goods on Sunday. Then after one week the individual is dead. This is what we have been applying to cities. Housing is not the same as houses. To misunderstand that leads to the deconstruction of settlement. It’s inhuman because it has nothing to do with human settlement. And it’s not sustainable.
This incredible, extraordinary repetition represents the deconstruction of the landscape of human beings. We must reconstruct our overgrown cities because exceeding their proper size, as overgrowing the specific size of a cell, is disease – is cancer. This is what is happening to cities. It is as if families grew, instead of by multiplying the number of individuals, by growing the bodies of the parents until they far exceed their natural size; and this is what has happened to cities that have over-expanded, sprawled horizontally or sprawled vertically.
It is the excess, the cul-de-sac reality, which creates planned congestion. Enormous skyscrapers are vertical cul-de-sacs, which congest the network on which they sit. Why there are not more opponents of skyscrapers I do not understand, because they are completely unreasonable. Imagine skyscrapers developing not just for a generation but for 500 years. Let’s say we have no limit to fossil fuel. It would be absolutely unbearable, except living on top, to be in such a compound. It is idiotic, a completely silly idea, and it’s toxic investment. It’s destroying the future of humankind.
This extraordinary jump of scale, which you have independent of ideology, could be represented as Medieval economy, Renaissance economy, and the economy of the nineteenth century. Most utilitarian states already have enormous lots – lots taken just for housing that would be the size of three traditional towns. These enormous lots are often given to a single architect with a single function, which leads necessarily to boring architecture, and boring architecture is unbearable. So architects invent interesting forms to make the boring program more lively, and hence there are things sticking out and leaning over – this silly ballade, which is no music, it’s terrible boredom and meaningless.
Even if we had no limits to energies we should still go back to traditional plotting – in Poundbury, after all, we have the Prince of Wales as a single large landowner, but we have lots which are very different sizes, allowing very different forms of use and therefore also of architecture. Poundbury developed as polycentric instead of having a polynuclear nature. If you have enormous concentrations, this also leads to extraordinarily and extremely rigid social stratification. It is social zoning. For instance, in Colombia you have zones according to income – something like nine categories of income. You cannot buy a house if you are from one class in a zone of a different class. But it is differentiation of scale – great variety of scale, mixed scales, mixed use, mixed architecture – that leads to a rich and varied traditional architecture environment.
The buildings at Poundbury are now as good as any historic buildings in England. We limit our heights not metrically but by numbers. I think that a good scale for towns is three floors: what you can walk every day ten times without getting bored. Anything higher is a stress. I lived in Madrid on the eighth floor, walking up it twice every day in order to keep in shape – but it’s hell walking eight floors. So imagine even the slightest irregularity in the use of energy; when electricity is no longer assured high buildings will become extremely difficult to use.
But this limitation to three stories is no limitation to height. We are not against high buildings per se. The Eiffel Tower is a three-story skyscraper. The Capitol in Washington is a one-story skyscraper. The Washington Memorial is 150 meters high; it has no story. So you can build very high, symbolically powerful buildings, without having many stories.
Going back to small scale operations, we only use small builders, with a maximum of twenty employees. In that way you bring back and you encourage small scale, local craftsmen – those who can actually live where they work. And this redevelopment of crafts allows you to use forms which you are not able to use – a richness and an authenticity of elements which you are not able to use – with large forms of industrial building.
The project in Guatemala called Cayala is now having a lot of success. It took eight years to get it off the ground, but we had very good architects who are our main partners there and who were trained at Notre Dame University in Indiana. We now have this new generation of talent that has been properly trained. In music, you are lucky because you still have the old craft of playing instruments the proper way being taught. In architecture, we don’t have that. We have one school in the United State which teaches the craft of designing traditional buildings, and unfortunately often the industry is not able to follow. But every one of these sites is a teaching instrument.
Many architects think that imitating traditional forms is not creative, but nobody can reinvent the roof or the window. It is a complex in itself. You don’t need to reinvent the window. It has been invented. All these reinventions are just noise. The problem we have to deal with is that the industry is often reproducing traditional models, but their replacements are all fake and therefore one of the toxic results – maybe the most important toxic result of modernism is that traditional architecture has become a product of scandalous inauthenticity. The market actually buys the worst kitsch. People get fake houses. They spend their life’s earnings to get a fake house, which after twenty years is just rotting, as you well know. So every building site is reeducation of the industry.
Conservation: I know architects who have spent their lives restoring beautiful, historic buildings. They never get a prize; there is no glory. There is now one prize in this country, the Driehaus Prize, which finally recognizes the quality of people who do the right thing. You can get the world star by doing something like this – I drew this long ago and now it’s built: the army museum in Dresden looks like that. There’s no word for it but idiotic, because there’s no value in it.
Now people are so illiterate that they cannot distinguish architecture anymore. When a good restoration is done properly, they think it’s historic but not inventive. But to do a proper restoration now is an unbelievable effort of invention, conviction, education, and persistence – over months and years – to get it right. Otherwise it’s just full of mistakes.
Consider the Euro bank notes: I counted on the seven or eight bank notes eighteen mistakes of architecture. Imagine that many mistakes in some official government document. The perpetrator would be locked up. But the people who drew these, they are are scot free. It’s comical.
Beauty, it is said, is in the eye of the beholder. True, but the eye has to be in a certain position, otherwise beauty cannot be in it. A man can admire the beauty of a fire, but if his feet are in it, his eye will be filled with horror. To him there is no more beauty in the fire. Everything in nature, including whatever we do, is beautiful. Even the worst sound is beautiful if we have the right distance from it. Conversely, you can play the loveliest music you want, but if you are a kilometer away from it, it’s meaningless – it’s just noise in the distance. The distance, the height, and the relationship to the beholder need to be correct. That is where modernism fails on all scales. And that is what we are trying to rectify.