Lincoln Center’s Metropolitan Opera House Lobby. Photo by Andreas Praefcke

The Genesis of the Metropolitan Opera House Chandeliers: How Accident & Intention Come to Light

Beginnings are arbitrary, accidental and mysterious. It is hard to know exactly when a point in a process becomes the beginning of something. Moisture, barometric pressure, temperature, currents of air carrying pollen, dirt, crystals of salt off the sea gather and develop a direction and momentum that form fog, a front, a storm or tornado. It separates itself out with identity, a path, force and consequence that serve to replenish, inseminate, or destroy. But when did it begin? Like one weather system morphing into another, the creative process continues and inspires one work after another. Authorship is complicated. Guardianship of an idea is perhaps a more accurate characterization. At what point does intention declare itself if the beginning is arbitrary? At what point is the accident seized? At what point is the mystery recognized and pursued? And by whom?

All of this comes to mind when thinking of one beginning, one set of beginnings, a Rashomon set of stories of beginnings of a project that started more than fifty ago. The stories, not the authorship of the project, may cohere.

The project involves an idea, the birth of an idea back in the early sixties, in New York. It involves one of countless ideas that went into the making of Lincoln Center, more specifically, the making of the Opera House in Lincoln Center. And more specifically than that, the idea behind the origin of the points of light that drop from its ceiling. I am referring to the design of the Chandeliers in the Metropolitan Opera House.

You may have seen them. They make a spectacle at the start of every performance, an explosion of light refracting from crystals that ascend, literally ascend, to the ceiling to announce the beginning of an opera.

Genesis, the ultimate beginning, makes one think of the first book of the Bible for its believers, the origin of the universe as The Big Bang for non believers. Interestingly, physical evidence for The Big Bang was developed at about the same time as the Metropolitan Opera House design was being developed. With optical telescopes, the space between stars and planets is black; but with a radio telescope, a glow is visible; this glow is cosmic radiation. In 1964, scientists explained that this radiation is leftover from the origin of the universe, the first physical evidence of The Big Bang. There was excitement in the media about this discovery. The world was looking up and out into space. The U.S. and Soviet space program was in full swing. This context is the basis of a story of origin of the design of the chandeliers.

At about the same time, The Austrian Government announced that it would make a donation to the new Metropolitan Opera House: a set of crystal chandeliers for its foyer and auditorium. In July of 1963, Hans Harald Rath of J. and L. Lobmeyr, a celebrated Viennese crystal and chandelier manufacturing company, came to New York to discuss the design of the chandeliers with Wallace Harrison of Harrison and Abramovitz, the architect of the Opera House itself.

Nine years ago, I met Leonid Rath, the grandson of Dr. Rath. Both Leonid and his brother Johannes are the current head of J. and L. Lobmeyr. Mr. Rath was in New York to begin discussions of the dismantling and cleaning of the Met’s chandeliers. He told me that when his grandfather and WKH met to discuss the chandeliers, Harrison gave Hans Harald Rath a book on galaxies. This book served as inspiration for the chandeliers’ design. The crystals are held by metal rods that radiate out from the center of the chandeliers, making them appear like starburst constellations. They were installed in May 1966 and became known as sputniks, after the Soviet space satellites, from the night the Met opened. [i]

On Sept. 13 1966, 3800 people were in the audience for opening night of the Opera House. It was an exciting evening, the world premiere of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra. The first ovation exploded as the curtain was lifted and 21 chandeliers rose toward the ceiling. Wallace K. Harrison, Hans Rath and my father were there. This brings me to a second story of the chandeliers’ genesis.

The genesis of genesis has an Old English origin of gignesthai meaning birth. The etymological dictionary entry states, “be born…see KIN.” While birth is the beginning of one that is distinct; kin carry shared family lines and history.

My father, Tadeusz Leski, was an architect; and a painter. He was a designer for Harrison and Abramovitz. Harrison was a painter and an architect like my father. He was also a statesman, a businessman, and spent time in high profile social circles being [ii]linked by marriage, socially and professionally to the Rockefeller family. This consumed his time. My father, who entered H&A, straight off the boat, so to speak, was a recent immigrant to this country. He had survived the war; fighting as a Pole in the French army getting captured and escaping work camps. He ended up in London where he finished architecture school and had just left England with his wife and young daughter and a portfolio of drawings under his arm. Harrison recognized the artist and architect in my father. They were close because of it. So close, that my father designed and built a house for our family on a piece of property adjacent to Harrison’s own house. It seemed to me that Harrison was drawn to my father and the kind of conversations they could have. They could converse by standing over sketches, marker or pencil in hand. I imagine that my father’s English wasn’t so good back then; but, he could draw beautifully. These exchanges were recluse for Harrison. He got to speak his favorite language of gesture, mark, space and form. It was a respite from the countless board meetings that I am sure Harrison had to attend.

My father was the designer for the Metropolitan Opera House — as he was for many H&A projects. And he prepared the initial design sketches as he always did, countless fast perspective sketches done in marker or ink and white paint washes on trace, vellum or even cardboard. He would meet with WKH and separate them out based upon strengths and weaknesses. The sketches would become orthographic projections — or plan, section and elevation, and models. Eventually the design would be rendered with a ruling pen and gouache.

Along the way, in preparation for one of the meetings, my father was hurriedly finishing a perspective sketch of the Met’s interior. One fault of my father’s was that he never knew when to stop a painting or a drawing until it was too late. He would obsess over the work, changing one thing and adding another until, as he used to say, “he made a mess of it.” His disgust with the work because of the one too many changes, would make him abandon it; and only then was it done. So he was characteristically “finishing” this sketch of the Met’s interior with markers and paint. In the rush to finish, as a charged brush traveled from the palette to the page, the brush jerked. And then it happened: a splatter — a fat drop of white paint — fell from the brush. The splatter extended across the image, resembling an explosion of fireworks. “O bosc” (oh god) my father thought. “I made a mess of it.” He dabbed the splotch to soak up some of the paint. And then he thought that it looked like the explosion of light from a chandelier. He added white lines to attach the splattered droplets so that it could be interpreted to be the points of refracted light projecting from an abstracted chandelier.[iii]

Rockefeller thought the sketches were great. And he particularly liked the idea of the exploded geometry of the splotch as the form of the chandeliers. An accident was the genesis of the Chandeliers of the Metropolitan Opera House. A drop of paint followed the laws of gravity, surface tension and impact instead of the intentions of the artist. This moment of genesis is suspended like a drop over a page just beyond where my father had intended and before an idea of exploded geometry came to light.

Origins are critical in establishing authorship. But like any beginning, the origin of a work of art or invention is not crystal clear. Constellations, the dots of light in the sky that we connect and name, are imaginary. They inspire myths of princesses, heroes, winged horses and sea monsters. We mentally connect the dots of light as mnemonic devices. Narrative connections serve our imagination and memory. The actual physical locations of these points of light are stars light years away from us, spread out in three and four dimensions. From another point of view, away from the Earth, the constellations would not be recognizable and could not be connected the same way. Different points of view inspire different stories that inform memory and shape what we know.

For more about the history of how the chandelier’s concept became a reality, please click here.

[i] A recent NYTimes slideshow/article, “The Space Age Story Behind the Metropolitan Opera’s Chandeliers,” by Alexandria Symonds, included a letter from Wallace K. Harrison to Hans Harald Rath, dated September 25, 1963. In this letter Harrison refers to two packages being sent to Rath. The first package contained the book, Le Ciel, a text by the French astrophysicist Jean-Claude Pecker and the second package included a model of the central Chandelier. This points to the role of Lobmeyr as a fabricator/developer of a design that was already well underway. ( Additionally this article mis-attributes a sketch for the chandeliers. Click here to read more about the concept sketch.

[ii] WKH was married to Ellen Milton, sister in law of John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s daughter, Abby Rockefeller. He was also a friend of Nelson Rockefeller.

[iii] There had been some debate between my sister Andrea and I as to whether it was a drop of ink or paint that fell and splashed on my father’s drawing. Andrea got this one right. She recently found a video tape (above) of our father telling the story of the Chandeliers’ origin as a splatter of white paint.

Author (The Storm of Creativity, The MIT Press), Architecture Professor (Rhode Island School of Design), & a principal of 3six0 Architecture .

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