It’s a curious truth that one of the few buildings in the world named after its architect is an opera house. Or at least that’s how Allan Greenberg sees it, referring of course to Charles Garnier’s Beaux-Arts Palais Garnier in Paris.
“The world of every opera is a fantasy world,” Greenberg explained over the phone just following the groundbreaking of his latest project, the Shepherd Opera House and Music Center on Rice University’s Houston campus. “A director may dress operas in contemporary clothing, and the opera may even tell a contemporary story, but still the world it creates is a fantasy world, and the opera house should stand out as an overture, a musical overture.”
And proof of this exists, quite literally, around the world—Sydney’s Jørn Utzon masterpiece (on which Greenberg, fascinatingly enough, worked early in his career), Milan’s La Scala, New York’s Metropolitan, each a testament to the idea that this special art form is deserving of a physical setting transcendent of the ordinary.
What Greenberg brings to Rice is his profound commitment to a brand of classicism that, as described in Architectural Record in 1985 and still ringing true today, “serve[s] the purposes of his own time, both functional and symbolic.” In Houston, Greenberg doesn’t simply offer his design for an opera house; rather, his work is careful consideration of what it means for an opera house to exist on the Rice campus.
The unique feature of my building at Rice is that rather than just use the same materials as the older buildings, which a lot of buildings there do, I try to expand the vocabulary of the traditional Rice buildings,” explains Greenberg. “It’s a sort of byzantine vocabulary of form.”
While elements of the opera house recall the university’s famous Lovett Hall and Greenberg’s first campus project, the Humanities Building, others—like the colorfully striped marble panels that will adorn its exterior or the intensely colored jewel box of an interior—show that something altogether momentous is going on—it’s his overture.
“It’s a sequential experience, which gets more and more intense as you get into the building,” explains Greenberg. “I don’t know that there is an opera house quite like this anywhere else.”
Not only have Greenberg and his team of seven project architects designed, by choice, every detail of the space, but they will be intensely involved in the construction process as it shakes out over several years.
“I love the construction part of architecture, and I don’t know how you can really be an architect unless it involves the construction because you modify and refine all of your details during the process,” explains Greenberg. “I think other architects would probably just say I’m old-fashioned, and maybe I am, I don’t know. But this is my way; I love my work.