uurimusi arhitektuurist ja teooriast
investigations on architecture and theory

Heli Ojamaa. Interview with Mr. Robert Austin Boudreau, director of the American Wind Symphony Orchestra

When I was asked if I would be willing to try to get a phone interview with Robert Boudreau, the owner of the Point Counterpoint II – the floating concert hall and gallery designed by Kahn, I was honored and immediately agreed. My first knowledge of this unique boat was from the Nathaniel Kahn’s film, “My Architect”, and as I quickly found out, there is not much published on this unique work of Kahn’s. Although we did have questions prepared, once getting Mr. Boudreau on the phone, much direction was not needed for Mr. Boudreau to talk about his experiences and work with Kahn. If one has seen the segment in the film where Nathaniel is interviewing Robert Boudreau, you can imagine his sincere dynamic nature, and I can only hope that this comes through in the transcribed dialogue of the interview as he discusses his relationship with Louis Kahn and their work on what is a very unique integration of architecture, music, the arts and community. – Heli Ojamaa

Interview with Mr. Robert Austin Boudreau, director of the American Wind Symphony Orchestra.

Interviewer: Heli Ojamaa, architect
11. April 2007 at 17:00 in Tallinn, Estonia/10.00 in Mars, Pennsylvania

Heli Ojamaa: As a follow up to the Kahn Days, which we held in Saaremaa, where Kahn was born 105 years ago, we are doing a special edition of the Architectural Review with a focus on him. And why we actually have an interest in your ship is that the Estonian people have a great appreciation for music always having been a big part of their culture, and so there has been an interest in your involvement with Kahn when you designed the barge for the orchestra together.

We were curious if Kahn ever mentioned to you about his ancestry and where he was born, because Riga where a lot of his family was from, as well as Kuressaare where he was born, we closely connected to the sea, did that ever came up in your discussions when you were designing your ship together?

Robert Austin Boudreau: No, I must tell you some stories. I grew up as a poultry farmer in Massachusetts, and then went on to get some more degrees in and went to the Paris conservatory, etc. and my knowledge of architects was nil. I was teaching at Duquesne, as a professor at Duquesne University, and I was telling this lovely lady about the fact that I wanted to build this boat. But the first boat that he designed for me was the one in ’61. I don’t know if you are aware of that. That was a built on the Thames River, in London, for a tour for the H.G. Heinz company. We used to walk on the streets of London eating fish and chips, together. And, but how it all happened is that when I told this lady that I wanted to do this boat, she said “well you better get the best architect in the world”. And I said: “Well who is that?”. And so she said “his name is Lou Kahn, he lives in Philadelphia.” So I called him up, set up a meeting and went to visit with him. We went to Walnut Street where his address was, in Philadelphia and I knocked, and rang the bell, and he stuck his head out the window, and said “Oh the elevator isn’t working, but if you just walk up three flights” I tell you that for a reason, because I knew Lou for eleven years, and worked with him over eleven years, and the elevator never worked.

But this was Lou Kahn, you would just have to understand who he was. Anyway, I walked into his office, this was back in 1960, and said that “Mr. Kahn, I’m going to be doing a tour of the Thames River in London. I need a stage that is 35 foot, about 35 feet deep, so that I can put an orchestra on it. And I need a proscenium that is going to be at least thirty foot high so it can reflect the sound, and I have to go through seventeen foot locks and I have to get under a ten foot bridge in Maidenhead.”He left the room. I understood that he went out of the room and said “We really have one in there tonight”.

Anyway, he did build that boat that went through seventeen foot locks and ten foot bridges.

Actually he designed one where the floor folded up on each side, and that actually allowed us to get through the locks, and then with the series of pulley chains, we let those walls come down, and that was my stage. And on the ceilings, what we did is use like clothes line poles, and we pushed up the roof, and there were three sections of the roof, we pushed them up and that is how we got the height of it.

But he was a remarkable man. We spent hours together. He never drove, as you know, he never drove at all.

Yes, he took the taxis.

So I would call, and say that I’m coming to Philadelphia, I have a problem. But I didn’t tell him what the problem was. And then I got there and we’d go out for a corned beef sandwich, and go out for beer or something. Or he would say lets go to a restaurant, I know a good restaurant in New Jersey, but he never drove, so he didn’t know how to get anywhere. So we’d drive around for three hours, trying to find this restaurant and then after a couple hours he’d say, oh Robert I have to get back to the office. So but during those three hours, we talked, so so much. Just…He was a mystic; he was just a very remarkable man. I’d go and talk, just talk to him, never tell him what the problem was, but somehow after those hours of discussion, the problem would disappear.

So what did you discuss when you were together with Lou?

Well, we talked about his daughter, talked about so many different things.

He loved music. As you know he was a pianist as well, and used to play in clubs, etc. and so he loved music.

Now this boat cost about 3 million dollars when we built it. And I kept saying to him, Lou, I need a bill. How much are you going to charge me for all of this? And finally he gave me a bill, of some $4000, which was just for his phone calls, basically. He never charged me for anything.

That’s why when he died he had a lot of deficit. But he just loved the idea of this boat, and he love this also because his daughter was a flutist, I don’t know if you knew that.

Yes, I have read that.

…and so, he was a friend, but more than a friend, he was like my family. And I would always think about when I’m going to go visit him, and I would think, this is what I want for the boat. So every time I went in, this went over several years now, we’re designing this new boat, the new one that we have now, that exists.

When did you start designing that?

We started in ’66, but this was not built until 75, a couple of years after he had died. But ever time I would go to him he would get out his Calque and I would give him some thoughts or ideas, and we would redesign the whole boat.

So I began to realize after awhile that I better not do that anymore, I’m never going to get this boat built, because every time I go see him, we have these new ideas, so finally we just decided on the idea of what is was going to be and he designed the boat.

He actually traveled from Estonia to the United States in 1906 on a ship. Did you discuss that?

No, he did not. I don’t know why, but he never did, he discussed many things, but he never discussed that.

Because we were wondering if he had some connection, or some idea of an archetype of boats that was connected with that experience.

No. Now, boats are fascinating though to everybody, aren’t they? People always love to go see a boat. So I think, I think he was fascinated because number one, it was going to be a boat with music. Now the first boat that he designed, for me, ok, not the one in England, but the first design he made, it was sort of in the shape of a diamond. And we brought it to a naval architect, you know because he needed a naval architect that would tell him what is…

…what would work and….

Yes, and the naval architect look at the model that he had made, and he said, “Mr. Kahn, I’m terribly sorry, but this thing is going to sink”

And what was his reaction?

(laughs) ha, he didn’t pay any attention to what the guy said. He just went on from there, you know nothing ever (still laughing), nothing negative ever penetrated Lou’s mind. He was always sure we’d do it. And they have a model of that one there too (in the Penn archives), but it is in the shape of a diamond, and of course it would have sunk. But that’s why, he said “But, that’s why I’ve come to you, you know I’ve come to you to learn….”

For you to tell me how it won’t sink

Yeah… (Continues laughing)

So when you were designing the ship together, did you discuss parallels between music and architecture?

He built it (Point-Counterpoint II) in the shape of a flute, and if you notice the holes in the windows, and if you can look at, it sort of gives you the idea of a flute. But he also always said to me, I want it to be in silver. Because, I want it to look like a moth. It’s an insect; it has silver wings to it. But he wanted it to look like that insect. That’s why it was painted in silver. And it is in silver.

Do you have any idea why he wanted it to look like a moth?

Because he thought a moth lives over the water. It’s a natural kind of thing; he was very much a natural person, as you know – when he talks about the brick. (Laughing)

Yes, you ask the brick what it wants to be.

…what it’s going to be… and he knew what this boat is going to be.

Did you feel this experience then, designing this boat with Lou, was an integration of art and music.

Oh, absolutely. But not only of that, but of people. When we go into a community for instance, we create a whole organization that helps to raise money, develop the site, do all of that thing, environmental.., the whole bit. And so its, you see piece of steel floating out there basically, but it comes alive, because of all the people that become part of it. It’s sort of remarkable how it brings a new quality of thinking and of life, and philosophy to the people that people that become engaged with the whole project.

Now there will be composers on board, there will be poets on board….. And musicians don’t usually relate to poets, as you know, and vice-versa. But because of the boat itself, and the way it works, everybody becomes integrated.

And do you think that is partially because of the design of the boat?

Oh yeah, oh yeah, absolutely.

Or the concept of what the boat should be and how it functions?

No, do you know when we travel with the boat, there’s always the question: “What is that thing”. Because you know, its very unusual looking boat.

The boat has become something unique to America. And when you travel on the many water ways that we have… well it’s the only one of its kind in the world.

What happened to the original boat? The one that was built in 1961?

The one in London? I don’t know, I really don’t know, which is terrible. But I really don’t know.

I read that this is going to be your farewell tour.

This is the first, well the 9th of the 10 farewell tours.

And when is the last one going to be?

(laughs) When my wife shoots me. She and I, we make this all this happen together.

It’s a wonderful thing that you are doing.

Well thank you, well you know it’s a gift. It’s a gift that someone else is giving me that I can do it. Its not, I never think of it that way. When I start working with my musicians, there always something magical that happens. That’s all I need, I don’t need anything else

Do you ever feel that Lou’s spirit has joined you on the ship?

Oh, always…always. Yes, I think of him all the time.

I’ll tell you a quick little story, because it wasn’t in the film. I don’t know if Nathaniel ever told you why that happened, but I went to the funeral in Philadelphia. And Lou was lying there, and his secretary came over to me and said, “Look over there, in the next room, that’s Lou Kahn’s son”. I said, “He doesn’t have a son. We talked so closely, we’ve been so intimate over these eleven-twelve years; I know he doesn’t have a son.” And she said, “No, that’s his son, and that’s the mother.” And Mrs. Kahn wouldn’t allow them into the room where Lou was, she kept them out. She knew what the story was, but she didn’t want to acknowledge it. So I put my head down, and said “Well, some day I hope I can do something for your son, Lou.”

And low and behold, my wife knew what was going on, but they didn’t want me to know what was going on, that it was actually Nathaniel that was going to come on and do the filming.

So I didn’t know it was him, I didn’t know that that was Nathaniel Kahn, until he was ready to leave the boat, and he turned to me and said, “Oh, by the way, I’m Lou Kahn’s son” well whew…how could I not cry. So, he’s become like a son to me.

So have you kept in touch with Nathaniel?

Oh, yeah all the time. And he’ll be at the performance, of course, in New Haven as well. The British Art Museum is wonderful. It’s all Lou. We were there this past December, for the reopening of the Yale art gallery-as their guests (the Kahns)… it’s all Lou. He was an amazing guy.

By Heli Ojamaa
Based on internet sources

In 1952, when Robert Boudreau graduated from the esteemed Juilliard School in Manhattan, he already had the idea of a floating concert hall; since then he has created what has become an innovative integration of music, art and community. The American Wind Symphony Orchestra, which Boudreau formed and has conducted since 1957, has had its home on a series of different boats, from a converted an old coal carrier in 1956 to two other floating concert halls designed by Louis Kahn, the first in 1961 and the current barge, known as the Point-Counter Point II since 1975.

When I spoke to Mr. Boudreau he was at home on his farm outside of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife, Kathleen. At the time he was preparing to embark on the Orchestra’s “50+1 Journey of Americas Tour” that began in mid April from Texas and continuing along the Gulf Coast and then up the East Coast of the United States to conclude at Yale University in New Haven Connecticut in mid-June.

Besides commissioning what remains almost 50 years later a futuristic floating 175 foot long- 35 foot wide, concert hall from Kahn, Boudreau has commissioned various other works of “art”. From countless original scores from international composers and over 400 works of art to be displayed in both the barge’s galleries and on the 75 foot wide stage that is revealed during performances when a retractable acoustical shell is lifted up by hydraulic lifts. In 1971 not only were two large modular kinetic sculptures displayed in the rear of the stage, but a huge stage sculpture, including the design of the orchestra members’ chairs. This integration of the arts and community is integral to Boudreau’s idea behind the Point-Counter Point.

Although the main concert, viewed from the waterfront in front of the impressive stage is the main, most awaited event, it is only a part of interaction between the touring barge and the community that it is “docked at”. Musicians stay with host families while in town, often mentoring children of families that play the same instrument, lead workshops at local schools, and perform “chamber concerts” throughout the towns. Poets, artists and composers in residence lead workshops and discussions, and local artists display their work in the galleries on board for “patron receptions” during AWSO´s visit to a town.

Heli Ojamaa is an Estonian architect, born and lived in USA, graduated from Philadelphia University (2006). She is currently working in architectural bureau AB Ansambel in Tallinn.