“I have come to the conviction that once one embarks on a concept for a building, this concept has to be exaggerated and overstated and repeated in every part of its interior so that wherever you are, inside or outside, the building sings with the same message.”

Rethinking The Future Awards 2022

Eero Saarinen, Finnish Architect

Famous for his vision of modernist architecture and lack of a signature style, Eero Saarinen was a Finnish architect who often made bold choices and designed radically different buildings for different clients. Out of the numerous projects he worked on during his short life, there were only a few buildings that were designed together by the iconic father-son duo, Eliel Saarinen and Eero Saarinen. Even while working alongside his father, he followed a rationalist style of architecture. 

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The buildings laid a lot of emphasis on refining the form and dramatic interiors while including exceptional furniture designed by Eero Saarinen himself. One such notable building is the Kleinhans Music Hall.

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Kleinhans Music Hall _©Bilyana Dimitrova

Introduction and Purpose

Designated as a National Historic Landmark, Kleinhans Music Hall is considered one of the finest concert halls in the world and is located on Symphony Circle in Buffalo, New York. The building is dedicated to and named after the Kleinhans family and was commissioned by Edward Kleinhans in memory of his mother and wife. 

This was to address the compelling and growing need of Buffalo city for an appropriate concert hall to host concerts and orchestras and celebrate civic life. The Kleinhans family not only provided the city with a music hall but also brought recognition and enjoyment to the people of Buffalo.

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Symphony Circle, Buffalo _©Derek Gee and Buffalo News

Design Philosophy and Concept

According to the Saarinen duo, the design aimed to create “an architectural atmosphere…so as to tune the performers and the public alike into a proper mood of performance and receptiveness, respectively.” (Kleinhans Music Hall). They thought of the Concert hall as a musical instrument on its own and accordingly derived the form of the structure in the shape of a violin. The lyrical curves of the violin serve as the primary element of the building design.

Additionally, Eero Saarinen also designed accessories like couches, chairs, and water fountains to be used in the Kleinhans Concert Hall. The intention was to have a space-saving solution and a streamlined design to complement the hall itself. 

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Building Shaped as a Violin_©Derek Gee and Buffalo News

Architectural Planning and Details

The Kleinhans is famous for its successful integration of an architectural ideology with the technical requirements of a concert hall building. It is considered to be designed in the shape of a violin and has three major areas: the main auditorium on the west side, Livingston Hall, and the Mary Seaton Room on the east side of the building. The main auditorium has fan-shaped proportions with an original capacity of 2,839 people, with 1,575 seats on the main floor and the remaining 1,264 on the balcony. 

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On the exterior, Eero Saarinen essentially designed the building as a giant ellipse inspired by the violin. The main auditorium forms one half of the ellipse while the reflective pool curved around the Mary Seaton hall is the other half. The ends of the pool connect to the two major entrance lobby areas on the north and south side of the building to complete the ellipse. The stepped roofs on either side of the main auditorium are also a significant feature of the exterior. 

The curved proportions of the violin also inform the interior of the building which is completely curved with no straight lines or walls. The 50-foot-wide lobby is an arched space with curved vestibules, lifts, and sinuous stairs leading to the upper lobby and balcony area. The lighting details, cladding and curved walls of rooms are also well coordinated. The interior of the music hall seems to be entirely streamlined by Eero Saarinen to suggest the notion of “architecture as frozen music”.

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Southern Building Façade_©Bilyana Dimitrova
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Main Building Entrance_©Chuck LaChiusa
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The Main Auditorium_©Bilyana Dimitrova
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Staircase leading to Upper Floor Lobby_©Bilyana Dimitrova

Materials and Construction

The Kleinhans Music Hall has a daunting yet graceful structure. High-quality materials, extensive masonry details, and contrast between lines and textures make up the exterior façade of the building. Some parts of the building are constructed with simple, multicoloured Ohio Wyandotte brick, while the walls of the music hall have large panels of buff Mankato limestone with regular spaces between them. The cantilevered roofs on both entrances are made of steel-reinforced concrete. 

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Multiple materials together advocate the use of texture as an important feature of the building. With his enriched contributions, Eero Saarinen designed the building to be extremely different from its residential surroundings and still fit right in. The music hall sits humbly yet impressively in its unique environment.

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Multicolored Ohio Wyandotte Brick and Buff Mankato Limestone_©Derek Gee and Buffalo News
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Masonry Details_©Derek Gee and Buffalo News
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Brickwork Details_©Derek Gee and Buffalo News

Restoration Process

Since the concert hall first opened 80 years ago, many changes and additions have been made to the building over the years. An architecture firm from Buffalo, HHL Architects has led a phased, multi-year restoration and reconstruction of Eero Saarinen’s building since 2002. It is focused on making the building more inclusive for users and sustainable while also enhancing the acoustic performance of the main concert hall and auditorium. 

During the restoration, various vertical lifts and new handicapped seating areas were added to make the building more accommodating to different people with different uses and needs. Energy-saving systems were installed to improve the overall performance, while acoustic panels were replaced in the main auditorium to enhance the acoustics of the building. 

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In 2015, the seating of the main auditorium was reduced to 2441 from the original 2839 seats to allow for more comfortable seating. The storage rooms were also converted into archive rooms to serve an educational purpose. The project also included exterior masonry restoration and reconstruction of the reflecting pool. 

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Vestibule with Lifts_©Derek Gee and Buffalo News

Acoustics

Eero Saarinen’s Kleinhans Concert hall has garnered the reputation of being a world-class performance and music hall because of the acoustics inside the building. The main auditorium is designed in a 1:1.3 ratio to achieve the most ideal acoustic performance. The shape of the hall enables the audience members sitting at the back to have an auditory experience just as clear and instantaneous as those in the front. 

The parabolic ceiling panels, simple color palette, and plain interior wall finishes with no suspended sound reflectors also help to create a more intimate and distraction-free experience. This is why, it is considered to have extraordinary acoustics, save for the low reverberation time in the main auditorium. 

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During the restoration process, sound-absorbing wood wall finishes were replaced with sound reflective panels. New carpeting, that matched the original, was also added to the auditorium to increase reverberation. 

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Acoustic Details_©Derek Gee and Buffalo News

The Reflective Pool

Another magnificent architectural feature that strikes the senses is the reflective pool. It is located on the eastern side of the building and is a significant part of the building’s architectural design. It wraps around the exterior of the Mary Seaton Room, finishes the elliptical composition, and makes the transition between the actual building and the lawn. 

Initially, Eero Saarinen designed the reflective pool to be about three feet deep with a contoured bottom. This added a natural serenity to the site and made it a recreation space for the community. However, a terrible accident caused the city of Buffalo to reduce the depth to one foot by adding large amounts of gravel in it. Soon after, a decision was made to fill the pool and turn it into a lawn which drastically changed the aesthetic of the Kleinhans Music hall. Therefore, during the restoration process in 2001 by HHL Architects, the reflecting pool was redesigned. 

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The pool that exists today is about 3 inches deep with a concave floor to give the illusion of a much greater depth. Sometimes, the pool water is also dyed black to facilitate the illusion and increase the reflectivity of the building.

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Reflective Pool_©Bilyana Dimitrova

An Architectural Treasure

All in all, Eero Saarinen’s work on the Kleinhans Music Hall is a testament to his revolutionary thought process and vision. The design philosophy and concept inform the architecture of the entire building, be it exteriors or interiors. The sweeping lines, curved forms, and the reflective pool create a surrealist montage for the people to see and experience. 

The building with its extraordinary form, excellent acoustics, and advanced technology truly serves as an architectural treasure for the city of Buffalo!

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References

Kleinhans Music Hall. Mission, History & Architecture. [online]. Available at: https://kleinhansbuffalo.org/about/mission-history-architecture/ [Accessed 06 June 2021].

WITOLD RYBCZYNSKI (2016). Revisiting Kleinhans Music Hall. [online]. Available at: https://www.architectmagazine.com/design/revisiting-kleinhans-music-hall_o [Accessed 06 June 2021].

The Buffalo News (2021). A Closer Look: In Kleinhans Music Hall, architecture that suggests music. [online]. (Last updated 01 Mar 2021). Available at: https://buffalonews.com/multimedia/a-closer-look-in-kleinhans-music-hall-architecture-that-suggests-music/collection_73ba7644-3fed-50a4-97ab-3b40df5c3e5f.html#1 [Accessed 06 June 2021].

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Connor Schloop (2020). The Kleinhans reflecting pool: an architectural treasure. [online]. Available at: https://bpo.org/the-kleinhans-reflecting-pool-an-architectural-treasure/ [Accessed 06 June 2021].

Author

An avid learner and reading enthusiast, Urja Jindal is a practicing Junior Architect who is currently exploring her interest in Architectural Journalism. She believes that people are the best audiences to the buildings around them and sees architecture as a medium that has the most power to change their environment.

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Rethinking The Future Awards 2022