Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Curtis Institute's Lenfest Hall: An Assessment

One happy result of needing to convalesce from a particularly bad case of pneumonia is the chance to catch up on reading that one has either missed or would normally have ignored due to more pressing concerns. Case in point: This morning I happened upon a highly interesting and, I think, spot-on critique of The Curtis Institute's spanking new rehearsal hall/dormitory in the architecture blog, Philly Bricks. This is a building I have twice seen in person, last October and again in December. My initial, vague sense of disappointment was unfortunately confirmed by my second observation.

The Curtis Institute, as all music lovers know, is one of the most prestigious music schools in the world, boasting such notable alumni as Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Joseph Alessi, Cecile Licad, and, more recently, Hilary Hahn. No one—least of all yours truly—would begrudge them the need to construct new spaces to house and train their students, who will have the important and ever-more-difficult task of preserving and promoting the great musical heritage of Western Civilization.

A little context: Lenfest Hall is located in the 1600 block of Locust Street in Center City Philadelphia. This is one of my favorite blocks in my favorite city. Across from the Hall, on the north side of the block, lies John Notman's magnificent St. Mark's (Episcopal) Church, built in 1847-49. The south side of the block consists largely of imposing and stylistically diverse 19th-century townhomes. Lenfest Hall lies in the middle of the block on its south side.

The first thing to say is that Curtis could have done much worse. In particular, they chose to lessen the visual impact of the full 119-foot height of the building by setting back the tower after the first four stories. This not only preserves the scale of the street wall but, as Inga Saffron noted, allows sunshine to warm and enliven the delightful gardens of St. Mark's Church across the street.

Not only that, but they also flanked the new construction by restoring the original facades of two classic 19th century  brownstones, The Wilson Brothers' 1897 John Converse House at 1610 Locust, and Wilson Eyre's 1888 renovation of Notman's Henry Dallett House at 1618 Locust.

Initial stage of preserving and renovating the facade of the John Converse House.
Note Ritter & Shay's great Drake rising in the background.

Therein lies the problem, however. For their painstaking, immaculate restoration of the facades of the two venerable brownstones throws into stark relief the strangely soulless quality of postmodern architectural contextualization.

Example of restoration of the original facade of the John Converse House, replacing what had been
a plate-glass storefront (photo courtesy of the author, 3 October 2011)

It could, I said, have been worse. The new construction could have been glass-plated, angular, and totally out of context. In that sense we can be thankful that Curtis chose the firm of Venturi, Scott Brown, and Associates. Venturi, famous as he is, was certainly capable of constructing hideous monstrosities such as the Guild House (1960-63) at 7th and Spring Garden and the ISI Building (1978-79) at 35th and Market, both of which still scar the city's streetscape. Yet he also was capable of much finer work, such as the famous Sainsbury Wing of London's National Gallery (1990) and Franklin Court (1976) on the 300 block of Market Street.

Venturi was an effective critic of banal modernism in architecture, but much of his work, it seems to me, amounts to little more than affected, Pop Art interpretations of classic architectural styles of the past. In such a context, "allusions" to traditional architectural elements, no matter how out-of-proportion or devoid of detail, count for more than the real thing. Sometimes this is effective. More often, it seems to me, it isn't.

Lenfest Hall is the work of Venturi and Scott Brown's "Associates," Daniel McCoubrey and Nancy Trainer. In it they show themselves capable of carrying on the tradition of the firm's founders. And, it must be admitted, they may have done as well as could possibly be expected in the current cultural context. After all, they used actual blocks of brownstone rather than the thin, brittle stone used in most of today's masonry construction. Yet certain elements, such as the overabundance of square glass plates and unfortunate lack of adornment and detail, disappoint. Dullness may not offend the same way ugliness does, but it still leaves the observer with longing for architects who work to design buildings that are both creative and beautiful.

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