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Lenfest Hall: An Appreciation

David Brownlee, Art and Architecture Historian from the University of Pennsylvania, August 2011

The new Lenfest Hall draws inspiration from its context while speaking clearly in its own voice. It solves problems gracefully but quickly moves beyond serving material needs to express and inspire creativity.

This work of architectural art is the creation of one of most fertile creative collaborations in history, the firm of Venturi Scott Brown and Associates, which demonstrates with this design its ability to make the transition to a new generation of leadership. Its artistry also demonstrates that VSBA has been, for decades, a multi-generational practice in which the designers of the new building were active--something to which Venturi and Brown themselves have always pointed with pride.

On Locust Street the building is bookended by two exceptionally fine historic townhouses, whose facades have been impeccably restored, framing six bays of new construction that respect the residential scale of the neighbors. However, the new building is not recessive; it opens itself up with large paned windows whose scale betokens its institutional use and public importance. These window panes are of the signature VSBA "almost-square" variety--the trademark of a great Philadelphia architectural tradition that is as recognizable as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's decorative use of I-beams in Chicago. Lenfest Hall also announces its function with similarly iconic, beautiful VSBA-style typography that carries the name of the building across the façade--superimposed on a musical staff. And the broad entrance is marked by a crinkle in the façade, two bays thrust outward in a fold to shelter the welcoming door.

Inside, this small building is an adroit multi-tasker, welcoming visitors and students in a light-filled lobby (with adjacent dining hall), whose bright airy openness is filled with views of the lively city in which the Curtis Institute lives. The same openness is repeated on every level of the wide-corridored school building, which occupies the first four floors. Although this is a small building, it is graced throughout with generously proportioned, brightly lit circulation spaces, including a skylit stairway. In this home for music and learning, the sonic requirements of the former and the modern technological needs of the latter are met in all the beautifully detailed classrooms and practice rooms. For those who will study in it, the building models the ability of art to accomplish the difficult without awkwardness.

The most noble of Lenfest Hall's many fine, light-filled spaces is the three-story rehearsal hall on the second floor. With sweeping views outward to St. Mark's Church across the street, it wraps student musicians with a warm, human-scaled band of wooden wainscoting; but overhead soars a bright cliff of north-facing windows and a vast space, designed to be inhabited by sound and the imagination.

Atop the school building rides a residential tower, in which, in quietly generous suites of rooms, will live the students of Curtis and the future of music. The first floor of the tower has common rooms opening onto a sky garden that caps the school building. The tower is pulled sufficiently far back from Locust Street to be invisible from the sidewalk, and its sheer rise above Latimer Street in the rear is artfully mitigated by a shift from red to sky-blending white brick above the height of the school building.

The experience of Lenfest Hall is shaped by exacting design, executed in excellent materials by consummate builders and craftsmen. While it is, by intention, a quiet building, it is not a shy one, and its artistry will perpetually enrich the lives of the most gifted musicians of the future--and all Philadelphians of today.

David Brownlee is a historian of modern architecture whose interests embrace a wide range of subjects in Europe and America, from the late eighteenth century to the present. His recent books include "Louis I. Kahn: In the Realm of Architecture" (with David G. De Long,1991, translated into four other languages), "Making a Modern Classic: The Architecture of the Philadelphia Museum of Art" (1997), "Building America's First University: An Historical and Architectural Guide to the University of Pennsylvania" (with George Thomas, 2000), and "Out of the Ordinary: Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Associates: Architecture, Urbanism, Design" (with David De Long and Kathryn Hiesinger, 2001).

Dr. Brownlee has won numerous fellowships, and his work has earned three major publication prizes from the Society of Architectural Historians. He is a recipient of the University of Pennsylvania's Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching. After chairing the committees that proposed the reshaping of the University's undergraduate residences in 1997, he directed the implementation of a comprehensive system of College Houses and served as Director of the Office of College Houses and Academic Services for four years.