Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts

An Interview with Rafael Vinoly

An Interview with Rafael Viñoly, Architect


Architect Rafael Viñoly discusses the Kimmel Center at "Performance by Design" a panel discussion at the American Institute of Architects national conference, May 2000.

When you entered the competition to design The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, what aspect of its program appealed to you most?

R.V.: The first orchestra I ever knew was The Philadelphia Orchestra, under Stokowski, which I heard on my father's records. He was involved professionally with music in Uruguay and then in Argentina, where he ran the Teatro Colón, and I myself originally trained for a career as a pianist. So it appealed to me to build a place for The Philadephia Orchestra, for which I retain an adulation that dates back to childhood.

On a less personal level, the factor that seemed brilliant in this project was that the chairman of RPAC, Willard Rouse, conceived the building from the start as a civic statement. Now, that could be just a formal quality, the way the building articulates itself within the urban scale. But for me, those formal ideas are usually translated, in the design process, into a requirement for some form of accessibility.

The accessibility we achieved in The Kimmel Center is different from anything I know of. The Kimmel Center forces an interaction between functions that are not necessarily part of the typical repertoire of what happens in a performing arts center. And that really interests me.

The program called for two principal spaces: a new home for The Philadelphia Orchestra, later named Verizon Hall, and a new multi-purpose hall, the Perelman Theater. With these as the major requirements, how did you develop a place that would be an accessible civic statement?

R.V.: There was an initial phase in which we tried to understand what would be the best shape for each component of the project, taken individually. Programmatically and also architecturally, we had to understand the challenge of fitting everything into the site.

"The tradition of architectural excellence is enormous in Philadelphia. How do you respond to that? You have to make a landmark for a city of monuments, and at the same time you want to invite interaction."
-- Rafael Viñoly

When you visit The Kimmel Center, the disposition of Verizon Hall and Perelman Theater seem so simple and obvious.

R.V.: That's the key for me! And it's a very difficult thing, particularly in a competitive environment. You think it's obvious, but it's not. It becomes obvious after you do it.

Perhaps the most difficult thing was to convince people that you could put Verizon Hall at the back of the site. This is the bigger hall and the home of the Orchestra, so why wouldn't it be up front? Once it became clear to everyone that Verizon Hall should be at the back, the rest started to come together.

Don't you need some way to acknowledge the importance of Verizon Hall?

R.V.: What makes it important is that it is symmetrically placed. Urbanistically, it's centered on this big element of the skyline, the Drake building, a high-rise that stands right behind The Kimmel Center. The Perelman Theater is toward the front of the site, but pushed off-axis. Its position plays off the symmetry of Verizon Hall.

Once you place the objects like this, what you want to do is create the sense that you enter a place where the traditional notion of the lobby is transformed into a new typology. So we enclosed the two buildings, almost as if we were putting a glass jar over them.

Packing up all the residual spaces into one space forces you to have a sense of disclosure. You can't avoid seeing The Kimmel Center as a place where you're together with many other people. You see them; there are no barriers. All the traditional areas of the lobby are merged into this new civic space. If it's used correctly, I think it will be really interesting.

For The Kimmel Center to be a civic statement, it has to be accessible, but it also has to speak about Philadelphia. How did you respond to the city's architecture?

R.V.: The tradition of architectural excellence is enormous in Philadelphia. How do you respond to that? You have to make a landmark for a city of monuments, and at the same time you want to invite interaction.

You give the building a neo-classical shape to provide people with something familiar, but then you make the shape so big that it's surprising. You use the neo-classical element to respect the urban context, to achieve economy - but then it yields an interior space that's unclassifiable. Would it be fair to say that you're deliberately operating in a zone between comfort and unease?

R.V.: A certain level of discomfort is good. It keeps you alert. Thatís something difficult to predict, the extent to which this thing invites you to change the way you perceive the ceremonial aspect of the performing arts.

Why do you think it's important to change the ceremony of attending a performing arts event?

R.V.: These rooms are all about the proscenium, the magic line that separates the musicians from the public. If you know the musicians and you like them, then you want to dilute the pressures of that separation, which emerge in stage fright. If there is no inflation of that fear, I think you play better. And people who listen without fear listen better.

Now, it may seem to be a very small change, but the formality of the audience's dress code has been breaking down, and the formality of the behavior is changing with it. Even at the Musikverein in Vienna, they're waving to one another at the end of a concert and signalling, "Will you phone me?" I believe this change is quite remarkable in its implications, and it's happening everywhere in spite of the architecture.

What does this have to do with Philadelphia? As a newcomer, I had the perception that these people were the aristocracy of the United States. It's a notion that comes from Grace Kelly, I suppose. Even so, there really is a level of society in Philadelphia where people dress in white tie and come from old money. But there has been a shift. The aristocrats now co-exist with a new group, which didnít evolve from the Main Line. That understanding gave me another window into the project: the idea that you could propose something that is completely proper and at the same time slightly disturbing, relative to how you perceive the sequence of rooms and this celebration of how people see the performing arts.

So, for you, is the public space in The Kimmel Center valuable because the people are always a little uncertain of where they could or could not go, a little unguided and unsure about how to use the space?

R.V.: Exactly. The collectiveness, the publicness of the statement is visible even from the musicians' quarters. They're on the third tier, where you can walk around the whole building, and we've used wood in them, just as we do inside the concert hall itself. So the back of the house is not a "back of the house."

You've given the interior of Verizon Hall a distinctive, cello-like shape. Why?

R.V.: Verizon Hall reflects the inflection that string instruments have close to the bridge, which emerges in the way the balconies mount over the orchestra. This treatment of Verizon Hall's interior might appear to be too obvious, but it isn't. The room in its conception is actually a shoebox. It doesn't resort to trickery; it doesn't treat the diffusing surfaces of the doors as if they were little mosaics. Verizon Hall doesn't have materials; it doesn't have articulation; it's just itself. When you read the shape of the violin or cello, it isn't a matter of the instrument's having been forced to become something else, because there are great sightlines everywhere, and acoustically the shape is very good.

You've worked closely with the acoustician Russell Johnson of Artec Consultants. Has the partnership with Russell Johnson been satisfying for you?

R.V.: I'm absolutely amazed by Russell Johnson. We've also been working together on the new home for Jazz at Lincoln Center, in New York, which has a totally different set of problems, and Russell's work on that project has been equally brilliant and equally dedicated. It's not just that this man has skills that go beyond another acoustician's. He lives entirely for music. I mean, what if his opportunities had been limited, and he couldn't have done these things as a profession? You get the feeling with Russell that he might have broken into these places on his own initiative and gone to work.

How does The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts compare with another of your major urban projects, the Tokyo International Forum?

R.V.: There is something very important in the Tokyo project, and I don't claim it's happened because of me. The Forum has now become the capital of cruising in Japan. It's absolutely full of people looking for other people. When a building becomes something you never planned for, that's where the magic is.

That's what I usually see as a sign of a good piece. And it has a chance to happen if you can intersect programs that have nothing to do with each other...people going to the café or restaurant, students from Curtis coming for a private lesson, a rehearsal going on, some kids from the University of the Arts just hanging out.

I'd like to think this possibility for openness and unpredictability was what made the project uplifting for the people in Philadelphia. You know, when we made the public presentation, people embraced the idea. That's something that can't be faked, something that gives you the feeling you're hitting it right at some level.

You encourage dissimilar programs to intersect; and you create their place of intersection in the most direct and transparent way. What are the implications, for you, of achieving complex, unpredictable uses through simplicity?

R.V.: To me, it's a colossal, illogical leap in thinking, the idea that to handle complexity, you have to represent it. The problem with representing complexity -- representing any interpretation -- is that you fix the scenario. I think it's better to pull back a little bit. It's an instance of elegance -- which has nothing to do with lack of engagement. You just don't attack the problem with the attitude that you alone can tell everyone how this thing should work.

There is a lot happening in The Kimmel Center. But when you walk around the building, you don't see the complexity. You don't even see the roof, which I think is the best part. From the outside, the building looks like it's a series of brownstones, though with some degree of monumentality. So, again, what happens is really very dependent upon the performance: the performance of the building, the performance of the Orchestra, the performance of RPAC.

Also see:

> Rafael Viñoly Architects PC
> Building the Center
> Rafael Viñoly Architects Web site (opens in new window)