My love affair with Mary Duke Biddle

The Mary Duke Biddle Music Building (MDB) is my favorite building on East Campus. Built in 1971 by American architect Edward Durrell Stone, it has housed the music department of Duke University since it opened. Such continuity is a rarity on today’s campus. This level of permanence is more than a 44-year fermata; the grandeur of the building is a testament to the staying power of musical education at Duke. Edward Durrell Stone was a prolific progenitor of modernism in American architecture and in the same year completed the East Building of the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. Previously, he participated in designing the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1937 and even the North Carolina Legislative Building in Raleigh in 1963. Mary Duke Biddle was well aware that her funding of the construction would produce a result of which she could be proud.

When one first happens across the building after seeing the main axis of East Campus or by driving up from the rear on Brodie Gym Drive, one notices instantly that the building speaks with the grammar of a modern style. Mary Duke Biddle must have been of one mind with Frank Lloyd Wright, who said that, of all the fine arts, music was the one without which he could not live.

The lightly-shaded brick is a stark contrast in color to the other brick buildings of East Campus while the white line of the roof emphasizes the fact that MDB is the shortest building there as well. The brushed quality of the bricks provides an enhanced texture and palette most appropriate for the geography and environment of the Sandhills of North Carolina. Without too many trees or shrubs to obstruct the view of the front elevation, the horizontality is striking but harmonious with the surrounding nature. When viewed from the rear or side, it is easier to see how the building nestles into the landscape. From any perspective, its elegance is neither aggressive nor domineering, and it lacks a dome or tower to declare its superiority. Rather, simplicity and beauty attest to the aesthetic value of music at Duke being prized over all other arts. Indeed, East Campus was once known as the artsy campus and now only MDB keeps that memory alive. The long arcade which surrounds the building protects its users from weather of all kinds. Combined with the even, slim windows, the exterior creates the uniform and unornamented sheet on which the music is to be written. These unassuming features further call to mind a miniaturized repetition of Stone’s larger musical space: the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. At the back of the MDB on the rear elevation, a large, open patio space offers fresh air, level ground and sunshine, Lord willing. Lamentably, there are no tables, chairs or benches present to provide a useful lunch break or reading spot. This underutilization is soon to be found when entering the building as well.

As soon as one arrives inside the building, one is embraced by sound. The architecture naturally enables the amplification of water in a fountain on the lower ground floor to reach the ears of patrons immediately when stepping in on either side. A balustraded opening allows the sound waves to travel to the ground floor and its balanced north and south facing entrances. Six circular skylights over the opening connect the outside with the inside as does the continued use of brick walls in this foyer. Light and sound simultaneously signal the symmetrical center of this building. The oval aperture forms a core in the middle of the building from which everything flows and is connected as one. Such unity speaks to the intimacy of the music department, where conductors know each student by name and faculty members are as responsive to students as the building is to its landscape. The most important room inside, entered on the right-hand side, is the music library. Like the exterior, the library is similarly sparse and simple, providing a sense of how narrow the building really is.

Downstairs the fountain provides a pleasant lounge area where rare musical instruments are on display. Along the hallways which depart from the center, one will find classrooms, practice rooms and offices. Nothing much nicer than one would find at a typical American high school but no less functional and modern either—hopefully this is evidence that the acoustics have taken precedence here over ergonomics. Stone’s highly modern buildings have not infrequently been criticized for the phallocentric elements inherent in high modernism. Likewise, the music department is not immune to this concern either in its lack of gender parity among the faculty. In the end, my love for Mary Duke Biddle turns out to be skin deep; such pulchritude is always at risk of pretension.

Nathan Bullock is a graduate student in the Department of Art, Art History and Visual Studies.


Share and discuss “My love affair with Mary Duke Biddle” on social media.