How can a building embody music? This abstract question is one that Sara Caples, AIA, and Everardo Jefferson, co-principles at the New York firm Caples Jefferson Architects, first pondered 17 years ago—when they entered into competition with more than 40 other firms to design the Louis Armstrong Center, a multipurpose hub dedicated to the late jazz icon. Now, the newly opened center—located across the street from the Louis Armstrong House Museum and Armstrong’s garden in Queens, N.Y.—can begin answering that question, as the architects incorporated countless elements of Armstrong’s legacy and musical inspiration into the design.
Neatly tucked into a residential area where Armstrong first settled in the 1940s, near other musicians including Dizzy Gillespie, the 14,000-square-foot center accomplishes many goals. The building hosts the 60,000-piece Louis Armstrong Archive, the largest for any jazz musician, in addition to practice spaces, a 75-seat venue, and Here To Stay, a permanent exhibit chronicling Armstrong’s life. Caples and Jefferson say they hope the building will “fit in and stand out” within its modest surroundings, all while giving back to residents. As the center approached its opening, the architects note that they revieved feedback from nearby youth who watched the site come to fruition over many years.
“They told us, [Louis] created this amazing thing, and he didn't create it over there in Manhattan,” Caples says. “This world-shaking thing came out of neighborhoods like ours, and that means that we could do something special, too.”
Working in a tight urban envelope, the design team incirporated nods to Armstrong’s musical legacy from the center’s very entrance, where visitors are greeted by two black-brass columns—subtle echoes of written musical motes. The twin columns incorporate several of Armstrong’s most iconic songs into their design as inlaid brass pieces, just one example of a design response to the center's musical legacy.
“You go into the space and it goes into different degrees of daylight and darkness, which I think is inherent to the experience of jazz,” Caples says. “It’s using the elements of jazz, but in an architectural way, to create these very experiences and moments in the piece with different emotional weights.”
The ability to incorporate natural light also came at a premium. Sandwiched between the building’s façade and the roof, which evoke a piano’s shape through curving forms, floor-to-ceiling windows flood the ground level space with daylight that filters into the lower-level practice spaces and galleries while leaving the archival area in darkness.
“Everything is transparent, and the natural light comes in from the south,” Jefferson says. “That’s especially important for the jazz musicians practicing during the day.”
With spaces like the Jazz Room, an open practice space adorned in the dark reds and mahogany tones of a lively jazz club, the center is a physical testament to the influence that Armstrong’s music has on modern artists. Originally tasked with creating general multipurpose spaces, Caples and Jefferson suggested early in the process that the inclusion of easily accessible practice spaces would ensure that the center remains relevant to the community. Paired with upcoming commissioned musical compositions from artists like jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding, as well as residencies for up-and-coming musicians, the center is set to rekindle the musical energy that Armstrong conjured in Queens decades ago, each note in resonance with the building that houses it.
“At the heart of it, it needs to be a place that honors the living legacy of Louis Armstrong, someone who reshaped music, and not just jazz, which is enormous in and of itself, but all different kinds of contemporary music like rap, Afrobeat, and techno,” Caples says. “The idea is that you can hear both recorded music, recorded video and live music, and the center embraced the idea of living heritage and history in a wonderful welcoming way for the public.”
Project: The Louis Armstrong Center, Queens, N.Y.
Architects: Caples Jefferson Architects, New York.
Structural Engineering: Severud Associates
MEP/FA Engineering: WSP
Lighting, AV & Acoustical: Arup
Sustainable Design: Steven Winter Associates
Exhibits/Graphic Design: C&G Partners/Potion Design/Art Guild
Construction Manager: Hill International
General Contractor: Paul J. Scariano, Inc.