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 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: