Thomas Jefferson: Architect, Musician

Jefferson's Rotunda at the University of Virginia establishes hierarchy on The Lawn.
Jefferson’s Rotunda at the University of Virginia establishes hierarchy on The Lawn.

 

Hierarchy is a powerful concept in architecture. Some buildings, such as Frank Gehry’s iconic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, or the Sydney Opera House, rising out of the harbor with its bright “sails,” grab our attention and dominate the landscape. The majestic, muscular Art Deco City Hall in Buffalo, New York is another, if less obvious, example. It nobly anchors the city’s main public square, telling us, “this place is important.” The building has a powerful presence when seen from a distance down one of the city’s long, main boulevards. It establishes a sense of procession.

But not every building should scream at us. The quiet, surrounding background buildings are just as important to architectural hierarchy. These are the buildings that make up the nuts and bolts of a city and make the occasional icons especially powerful. Consider the satisfying feeling we get from the handsome, but homogeneous, blocks that make up the majority of central Paris.

Hierarchy is apparent in Thomas Jefferson’s masterful, classical design for the University of Virginia. The Rotunda, influenced by the Pantheon in Rome and Palladian architecture, sits at the head of The Lawn, flanked by the background buildings of the “Academical Village.” The Rotunda, which Jefferson designed to represent the “authority of nature and power of reason,” houses the library. Interestingly, as architect Stanley Tigerman mentions in this 2011 Yale lecture, Jefferson’s original plan did not include the Rotunda. It boldly obliterated hierarchy, leaving The Lawn open-ended, similar to twentieth century architect Louis Kahn’s 1965 design for the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. It was only after Jefferson visited Europe that he retreated from the ultimate democratic symbolism of his initial design. Look at the image below and consider The Lawn without the hierarchy of its famous Rotunda.

Architectural critic Paul Goldberger describes Jefferson’s design, in its completed form, this way:

Ultimately the University of Virginia is an essay in balance-balance between the built world and the natural one, between the individual and the community, between past and present, between order and freedom. There is order to the buildings, freedom to the lawn itself-but as the buildings order and define and enclose the great open space, so does the space make the buildings sensual and rich. Neither the buildings nor the lawn would have any meaning without the other, and the dialogue they enter into is a sublime composition. The lawn is terraced, so that it steps down gradually as it moves away from the Rotunda, adding a whole other rhythm to the composition. The lawn is a room, and the sky its ceiling; I know of few other outdoor places anywhere where the sense of architectural space can be so intensely felt.

Jefferson's "Academical Village" at the University of Virginia.
Jefferson’s “Academical Village” flanks The Lawn at the University of Virginia.

Jefferson, the Violinist

In addition to being a visionary architect, naturalist, statesman, and author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson was a violinist. During his lifetime he owned three violins, one possibly made by famous Cremona master, Nicolò Amati. His library included the technical treatise, The Art of Playing on the Violin by Francesco Geminiani (1680-1762) as well as sonatas and concertos by Corelli, Vivaldi, Handel, Pugnani, Boccherini, and others.

Andrew Manze’s performance of Corelli’s 12 Violin Sonatas, Op.5 provides a sense of the music Jefferson might have played:

The Concert Hall as a Civic Icon

Image-Disney Concert Hall by Carol Highsmith edit

[quote]“Music is liquid architecture; Architecture is frozen music.” -Wolfgang von Goethe[/quote]

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]A Living Room for the City[/typography]

This month marks the tenth anniversary of the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall, the gleaming, iconic home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, designed by Frank Gehry. The hall is more than a monument to a world class orchestra in the middle of a world class city. It’s a reminder that, like sports, music is a public, collective activity. It brings us together. In a city which hasn’t always been known for its great public spaces, Gehry wanted to create “a living room for the city.” He blurs the lines between architecture and sculpture, showing that buildings can curve, swoop and catch the changing light in exciting new ways. Disney Hall’s soaring “sails” are clad in sleek, shimmering titanium. Gehry used the same material for his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Inside, the audience surrounds the orchestra, creating a feeling of intimacy. Disney Hall captures the unique spirit of a maturing Los Angeles and conveys the message that symphonic music is essential, dynamic, democratic and anything but stuffy.

Frank Gehry talks with LA Phil CEO Deborah Borda here:

The Los Angeles Philharmonic celebrates the history and impact of Disney Hall here. To get the perspective of musicians in the orchestra read this interview. Also read this article from the Los Angeles Times and a story from NPR. Take a virtual tour here and learn more about the design from Frank Gehry.

For a live concert in Disney Hall, here is the final movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Kansas City’s Kauffman Center[/typography]

Kauffman Center for Performing Arts

Disney Hall isn’t the only architecturally daring concert hall to be built in recent years. The Kansas City Symphony got a new home when the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts opened in 2011. Situated on a prominent mound on the edge of downtown Kansas City, the building was designed by architect, Moshe Safdie. He talks about the building in this interview with the PBS Newshour:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]What Makes a Concert Hall Great?[/typography]
In the end, the most important aspect of any concert hall is how it sounds. An acoustically good space allows the audience to hear each musical voice clearly, whether high or low. Patrons should be able to sit anywhere in the hall without encountering “dead” spots. It’s also important for musicians on stage to be able to hear each other clearly. A concert hall can change the way an orchestra plays. Musicians always listen to the sound as it reverberates and “play the hall” as if it’s another instrument. This video will give you an idea of how acoustic engineers were able to shape the sound of the Kauffman Center. A period of adjustment and “tuning” of a concert hall takes place over time as engineers hear the orchestra. Watch the first rehearsal of the Kansas City Symphony in the new hall.

If you’re interested in learning more about concert hall acoustics, read Orchestral Acoustics 101: Vineyard vs. Shoebox and Orchestra vs. Hall by Christopher Blair.