Last Sunday afternoon, I was fortunate enough to be sitting in the 2nd balcony of Benaroya Hall, listening to the Seattle Symphony perform the lilting vibrato of Mozart’s Requiem – a fitting end to Halloween weekend and the Day of the Dead – when it occurred to me that I’ve always associated architecture with art, but more specifically as musical art. With the reverberations of string music buffeting my ears, and the chorale behind them lifting voices of their own, my eyes instinctively rose to the pipe organ backdrop on stage, and the faceted ceiling, private boxes and amber lighting of the interior performance hall.
Music definitely takes shape. Just close your eyes and imagine the length of notes like a kind of Morse Code, the beat as a vertical downward slash… it’s not too far from what written music looks like, by the way. I was a string musician in my early years; at age 6 I picked up the viola because I thought violins were too squeaky and cellos too large. The viola was just right – a wood stringed instrument played in an oddball clef (the alto clef, shared only by one other instrument, the alto saxophone) that is continuously the butt of all orchestra jokes. But, it fit my style, and it wasn’t a wind instrument (the ones you blow into). Wind instruments, and brass in particular, are kind of disgusting when they fill up with your saliva… alas I digress…
This is not a blog post talking about the science behind acoustics, like sound dampening panels or “live” surfaces such as bare concrete and wood. I’m talking about how architecture sounds. When you look at the façade of a building, do you recognize a regular repetition of forms? Is it symmetrical? Tall? Short? Decorated with little brackets under a roof overhang? Step outside the box for a minute and assign a note to each part of the design… imagine regular occurrences of windows as a beat, imagine the height of the building as how long you can hear it. Imagine that bold color the crazy owner chose to paint their siding as volume – I mean how loud the sound is – is it a color that shouts insults at you? Or is it whispering?
A lot of the same adjectives we use in architecture mean exactly the same thing in music. Is this material smooth to the touch? Rough? A curving wall is smooth, and so is a long sustained note of music. Syncopated? Like a snare drum? Just like combed brick. What does “rough” sound like, you ask? Well, you know how many people talking at once turns into background noise at a restaurant? It’s kind of like that. Is window glazing reflective? So can it be with music. (Ever need to just put on a record that reminds you of something else? Sounds like reflection to me.) See? This is fun.
If architecture is an art, then it is certainly as subjective as art is. No one thing is right for everyone. We all have tastes, preferences, we all dream, some people take more risks than others. Now let’s look at some buildings. You can look at whole buildings or pieces of them. How does that piece make you feel? Is it harmonious or jarring? Not all music is perfect. In a symphony of 100+ members, I can guarantee you that someone makes a mistake somewhere. Can you pick out the wrong note in the following picture?
Yes, it’s that replacement vinyl window. We don’t advocate this. Not ever.
Now here’s a picture of the new One World Trade Center in New York from a visit earlier this year.
What do you think this sounds like?
Remember, the simpler the building (shape, size, etc.) the more poignant the quality… in this case I’d say it’s as close to a true note (not sharp or flat) as you can get. It fades from a boom to nothingness. It doesn’t waver in tone, but there are slight imperfections in the quality (those glazing strips which haven’t been removed yet). I attribute order in design (base, middle, top) to classicism, and since this building ignores that, I’d even call it digital. Or electronic. It’s reflective, and brilliant in sunlight. A bright piece of music, indeed.
Now what about the Guggenheim?
I read this as a lot of base, as in low, thudding beats, like a subwoofer. Some people like that kind of stuff. A lot of gangsta-rap sounds like the Guggenheim, for instance.
What about the Pacific Science Center arches?
I’d almost say this is more a single instrument, like a xylophone, chimes, or maybe a simple triangle. There’s something so mathematical about a parabola.
Here are some other guidelines for this that can help narrow your search in assigning music to buildings. For instance, the era of the structure should also match the kind of music available at the time. A Mies van der Rohe house cannot sound like Bjork. (Or can it? Maybe a modern church can sound like a Gregorian chant… I don’t know.) I challenge you on that. Another observation might be that the more common a building is (a set of cookie-cutter subdivision houses, for example) the more it sounds like everything else… i.e. it isn’t a unique piece of music either.
To keep this conversation going, I ask you, the viewer, to choose some music for the following Seattle buildings:
1) The Seattle Library
2) Smith Tower
3) Any other building you want, but please send us a picture!
Postscript, on the idea of renovation:
This is why remodels and additions are so tricky – it’s like you are amending a piece of music. You are potentially taking Mozart’s most famous work and writing a different ending to it. Or changing the tempo. It’s a big responsibility, and we don’t take it lightly.
Now, we do understand that each piece of music is performed by an individual. Each house is also owned by an individual. It’s about how you personalize your house that enhances (or diminishes) what it is, and what it conveys to the viewer, the neighborhood. We’re here to help you do that, but we are also going to ask what drew your eye to your house in the first place, because there’s likely something there that is worth keeping.
Have a good week, and tune in next time to see what other crazy ideas we’re exploring!