Trinity Church, Boston: Architecture and Sound

Henry Hobson Richardson's Trinity Church in Boston
Henry Hobson Richardson’s Trinity Church in Boston

 

Yesterday marked the anniversary of the birth of noted nineteenth century American architect Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886). Richardson’s memorable and influential designs include the turreted Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh, Albany’s City Hall and New York State Capital, Buffalo’s New York State Asylum, and Chicago’s mighty Marshall Field Wholesale Store (now demolished), as well as a host of libraries and houses in smaller towns.

Richardson’s buildings, load-bearing and often featuring extensive stone and masonry, convey a sense of rugged weight and accentuate a fascinating play of solids and voids. The Beaux-Arts-trained  architect developed a medieval revival style, imitated by later architects through the early years of the twentieth century, which became known as “Richardsonian Romanesque.”

Henry Hobson Richardson’s most famous work is undoubtedly Trinity Church in Boston’s Back Bay, built between 1872 and 1877 and designated one of the “Ten Most Significant Buildings in the United States” by the American Institute of Architects. The church anchors Copley Square, its enormous central tower creating a dramatic visual approach. In the absence of an “American” style, nineteenth and early twentieth century architects looked to historical examples in Europe. (In the case of Trinity Church, a fresh new form emerges, rather than a simple copy). Richardson wrote,

…the style of the Church may be characterized as a free rendering of the French Romanesque, inclining particularly to the school that flourished in the eleventh century in Central France.

Despite its size, Henry Cobb and I.M Pei’s neighboring 790-foot-tall John Hancock Tower, completed in 1976, defers to Trinity Church. Its sliver-thin side meets the square with an axis which keeps the church the center of attention. Mirrored glass almost makes it seem to disappear as it reflects its surroundings and becomes a liquid contrast to Trinity Church’s solidity.

As we celebrate Henry Hobson Richardson’s legacy, let’s step inside and hear the extraordinary Trinity Church choir. Here is a playlist featuring their 1999 Naxos recording, Radiant Light – Songs for the Millennium. Opening with Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria, the CD includes meditative music by Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, Tchaikovsky, Randall Thompson, and John Rutter:

The Mozart of Modernism

The Millau Viaduct in Southern France, designed by Sir Norman Foster.
The Millau Viaduct in Southern France, designed by Sir Norman Foster.

 

It’s been estimated that 3,000 performance majors graduate from American music schools and conservatories each year, while there are only 150 to 269 yearly openings in full-time professional orchestras. To that end, recent advice from internationally renowned British architect Sir Norman Foster seems relevant, not only to music students but to all of us:

Foster captured attention in the 1980s with his innovative design for the HSBC Building in Hong Kong, a 47-story modular design that features a sunlight-filled, cathedral-like interior which echoes (on a much larger scale) Frank Lloyd Wright’s now demolished Larkin Building in Buffalo, New York. Other prominent Foster designs include the glass-domed restoration of Berlin’s Reichstag, the cylindrical “Gherkin” tower in London, and the 1,125 foot tall Millau Viaduct in France, the world’s tallest bridge, completed in 2004. Architecture critic Paul Goldberger has pointed out that there are few man-made structures that actually improve their natural setting. San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge may be one example, and the serene Millau Viaduct is surely another.

Elegance, beauty, economy, and soul lie at the heart of all of these designs. There’s no waste in the unseen hand of nature (think trees, bird’s nests and spider webs). The same is true in great music, art, literature, architecture, and beyond. Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower in New York, a design which requires 20% less structural steel because of the inherent strength of its triangular diagrid design, inspired Paul Goldberger to dub Foster “the Mozart of modernism” in a 2005 article in the New Yorker:

Norman Foster is the Mozart of modernism. He is nimble and prolific, and his buildings are marked by lightness and grace. He works very hard, but his designs don’t show the effort. He brings an air of unnerving aplomb to everything he creates—from skyscrapers to airports, research laboratories to art galleries, chairs to doorknobs.

The Hearst Building
The Hearst Building

 

Sublime Background Music

It’s so famous and catchy that we almost don’t notice it anymore. And that’s probably what Mozart intended. Eine kleine Nachtmusik is far from Mozart’s most “serious” music. It was written as functional party music. Yet, like everything else Mozart wrote, it’s so great that we can’t get enough of it. As you listen, consider the parallels Goldberger draws with the 21st century architecture of Norman Foster.

Here is a live concert performance by the Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra: