Re-imagining a quiet campus space for the sound of music

As part of a collaborative studio in music and architecture, UB master's student Keith D. Benes suggested an air filled balloon that would float above the campus and be hauled down to create a cover for outdoor concerts.

As part of a collaborative studio in music and architecture, UB master's student Keith D. Benes suggested an air filled balloon that would float above the campus and be hauled down to create a cover for outdoor concerts.

by Bert Gambini

Published October 6, 2020

On the first day of class on the last day of August, Eric Huebner, associate professor of music in the College of Arts and Sciences, was seated at the chair of a grand piano on the sidewalk outside of Slee Hall on the North Campus. He was performing two Chopin preludes and a snippet of Bach’s D minor keyboard concerto, a piece that he would soon be performing as part of an upcoming concert with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

What sounds like a musician’s dream, not unlike the dream ballet sequence from “Singin’ in the Rain,” was actually the start of a class at UB — a class not in music or dance, but in architecture.

And Huebner’s talent as a pianist and educator — not to mention his equally impressive feat of moving a half-ton instrument from Slee Hall’s lobby to the pop-up performance stage 100 feet away — framed a question about how to creatively use space that he and Brian Carter, professor of architecture in the School of Architecture and Planning, were posing to 15 students in Carter’s graduate design studio.

“With all the uncertainty surrounding live music performances during the COVID-19 pandemic, Brian and I were looking for ways to provide students and our community with opportunities to hear and witness live performances,” says Huebner, who is also a pianist-member of the New York Philharmonic. “The opportunity to attend live performances is an integral part of taking music classes at UB and an invaluable asset to our university community.”

The socially distanced outdoor recital was the dramatic appeal to student ingenuity for how this might happen.

As part of a collaborative studio in architecture and music, MArch student Keith D. Benes suggested an air-filled balloon that would float above campus and be hauled down to create a cover for outdoor concert screen. 

Their responses to the design project were as inventive as how the question was asked. The answers came from eight years of collaborations between Huebner and Carter that celebrate the rich histories that connect architecture and music, and how intermingling the two arts in the resourceful environment of the graduate studio could help reimagine campus spaces like the one alongside Slee Hall and the entrances to the Center for the Arts (CFA) and Alumni Arena — the very spot where Huebner performed the first day of the fall semester.

“That space surrounded by the civic buildings of our campus is like a town square,” says Carter, an architect who worked in practice in London before joining the UB faculty and who is responsible for the design of award-winning buildings. “So we asked the students about how we might bring music into this space.”

Great idea!

But didn’t Huebner already answer that question? 

It seems a back strong enough to move a piano and the gifts required to play it would be enough. Ask the audience to bring lawn chairs and cue the band.

“It’s a very good start,” says Carter. “But outdoor concerts require protection from the elements for the musicians, audiences and instruments, too.”

And while architecture traditionally values permanence and firmness, according to Carter, he instead asked the students to design temporary structures as a quick and inexpensive option that can also test ideas.

“Temporary installations interest me because clients can benefit from that,” says Carter. “They might help people envisage different ways of using space, creating shelter and exploring the use of innovative materials.”

Like air.

One student took ideas from inflatable spaces well beyond the realm of golf domes to imagine an acoustic structure that could float above campus and promote future events when not in use for concerts.

Other students in the design studio, inspired by the proximity of the CFA, suggested collaborations with art students and faculty, while others suggested using ready-made items in innovative ways to create shelter while minimizing coasts.

Students completed the work over two weeks, and though strictly an academic exercise, their designs could have a life beyond the studio.

“Architects, like musicians, have to be activists,” says Carter. “Eric was an activist when he pulled the piano out onto the pavement.”

That activism inspired Carter and Huebner’s previous work together. They’ve presented concerts in historic buildings and notable landmarks in the city, and in doing so made new connections between sound and space.

“These are not just connections between music and the buildings that house orchestras,” says Huebner. “Architecture can elevate music if done in a certain way and I’ve always found these discussions and exercises with Brian and his students to be fascinating because we conceptualize these questions and the students respond with previously unimagined ideas.”

It’s the possibility of reality created by visibility of experimentation.

“Experimentation is something we should consider in our discussions of campus space,” adds Carter. “The experimental natures of music and architecture are two elements that make people think about spaces differently.”

Both Carter and Huebner speak of the future, but also recognize, along with the students, that this type of thinking is especially critical at the moment.

On that first day of class, following Huebner’s performance, Carter asked the students why they thought re-imagining the campus in 2020 was a thematic thread of their studio assignment.

“Sanity and joy,” was the reply.