The great trumpeter Wynton Marsalis once told a group of graduating college students, “Music is the art of the invisible. It gives shape and focus to our innermost inclinations and can clearly evidence our internal lives with shocking immediacy.”
Marsalis’s creative home, of course, is Jazz at Lincoln Center, a collection of performance spaces tucked into the fifth floor of the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle in New York City. The complex’s crown jewel is the Appel Room, designed by Rafael Viñoly, who died on March 2. The space is intimate and sweeping, thanks largely to Rafael’s love of glass and the way it frames the adopted city to which he was endlessly devoted.
Through the course of our intersecting lives, I spent countless rich and meaningful hours with Rafael. But to really understand him, I’d have to meet him twice: first as an architect and, many years later, as a musician.
He opened his studio in New York City in 1983. I started mine the following year. Soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, he and the architect Frederic Schwartz invited me to join the Think design team they assembled to create a new concept for the World Trade Center site. I was living in TriBeCa at the time, and Rafael’s studio, where we met to brainstorm, was a street-front space on Vandam Street in SoHo. We’d walk downtown in horror, engaged it now seems in an endless conversation about the future of cities, in particular New York.
The plan for the site, a pair of twin towers that spiraled upward, a filigreed weave of steel and air, would transform the center for trade to one of civics and culture. There were many of us involved in the Think team, but the design, which won the competition but was rejected by then-Gov. George Pataki, was largely a combination of Fred’s relentless belief in the significance of urban life and Rafael’s love and belief in the power of beauty and culture.
Rafael’s studio at the time seemed, like him, larger than life. The spaces were filled with amazing models, many of them large-scale studies. We would discuss the plans for the World Trade Center site, and how to create built environments that fostered a sense of civic purpose. My strongest memories of that process are feeling his hand leaning on my shoulder as he quizzically looked at what I was drawing and sat down, lowered his glasses and offered — sometimes graciously, sometimes not so much — an invariably whip-smart critique or suggestion.
He was an obsessive architect, pencil in hand, always sketching and drawing, across countries and continents. But he was also a classically trained pianist. And what I would come to understand is that it wasn’t possible to truly know Rafael without appreciating the centrality of music and performance in his life.
I knew that tucked away in the offices was a piano — actually two Steinway D concert pianos from Hamburg, I would later learn. (More recently, according to his son, Román, he kept one belonging to András Schiff, the British pianist.) The pianos were both well used, because Raphael would rely on music — often Bach — to relieve the pressure.
His friend Bernard Goldberg, the art dealer and former hotelier, as passionate as he was about classical music, tells of the time Rafael was redesigning the Roger Williams Hotel, including a space for free chamber music performances. In the middle of one conversation, the architect suddenly popped out of his chair, walked over to a Steinway and started to play a Bach toccata. He finished playing, returned to Bernard, and said, “Now let’s get on with this stuff,” and continued the design conversation.
I was just beginning to return to the piano myself, for the first time since childhood, with an extraordinary piano teacher, Seymour Bernstein. I had resumed my training in 2016 with a level of attention that I had thought impossible. It was then that I finally met Rafael as a musician.
It was at an event at Jazz at Lincoln Center. We were discussing the space — the adaptability of the rooms, allowing for intimate recitals and larger performances — and I mentioned that I was beginning to study piano again. From that moment on, our conversations were about music: how it filled his childhood, the pleasure of practice, the nature of the art form, and how it differed, he insisted, from design and architecture. He famously said that music and architecture were opposites, that music is completely about abstraction. “In a way,” he said, echoing Marsalis, “it has been incredibly constructive to know what true abstraction is.” Architecture, he would often insist, “is a fight against gravity. The musician’s job is to create beauty.”
Several months later I showed up at a “playing class” Seymour had organized at his home on 79th Street. Seymour, who is now 95 and is still at the top of his game as an inspiring teacher, had asked a group of his long-term students to each play a new piece they had been working on, followed by a conversation. As I walked in, I was shocked to see Rafael off to the side. I asked him what he was playing and he said he had come to hear me. I was incredibly moved and equally terrified.
Rafael and I would continue to work on various design projects, most recently the NEMA residential building in Chicago, where he did the structure and I did the interiors. But our communication was different. Music had become our shared language, as we talked — sketching on the same pad — about the rhythm and structure of the outdoor spaces that we both found so important.
I appreciate the distinction that Rafael is trying to make between architecture and music. But I’m not convinced that he fully believed it. In the same interview where he spoke about architecture and gravity and music and beauty, he paused to acknowledge exceptions — projects where the two were totally commingled. He cited the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego. The architect Louis Kahn, who worked on the design with Jonas Salk, produced a campus where each building is unique but somehow united, notes connected almost invisibly. Rafael described stepping onto the plaza between the two long structures, saying, “You feel like you are touched by something that makes you feel good.”
Rafael’s work — his design for the World Trade Center site; the Rose Hall at Jazz at Lincoln Center; his terminal at Carrasco Airport in Montevideo, Uruguay; the Kimmel Center for Performing Arts, home of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and so many others — managed to merge tangible, real-world permanence with Marsalis’s “art of the invisible.” There’s something transcendent about them, something unseeable that you experience when you enter them. When you encounter them, “you are touched by something that makes you feel good.” In other words, his buildings don’t just exist; they perform.