Sunday, September 24, 2006

Architecture as Frozen Music

Frozen Music……….?

Architecture. Music. And the connection between them is….? I’m not sure, but the obvious thing that comes into my mind and yours is that quote from Goethe (or was it Schelling ?) ‘architecture is frozen music’. What can that phrase possibly mean? If the two terms are equivalent, does that mean that music could be seen as ‘liquid architecture’? What about painting? Or sculpture? Is painting frozen music as well? Again, I don’t know, but to go back for a minute to architecture: I could imagine in a gloriously Romantic feel-good moment that the experience of a wonderful building might in some way equate with the experience of a wonderful piece of music. For instance, is the experience of walking through Notre Dame Cathedral or Sir John Soane’s Museum similar in some way to listening to Albinoni’s Allegro or Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road? Or, (and forgive me for reflecting my personal biases), walking through Louis Kahn’s Salk Laboratories at San Diego or listening to Heartbeat City by the Cars, Perfect Kiss played live by New Order. Oh, and don’t forget Lou Reed singing Rock ‘n’ Roll. Are these not the same kinds of experience in the sense that they have the same effect: the powerful after-image, the triggering of so many associations, forgetting oneself, being enveloped by a single coherent perception of the world, when reality itself is so diverse, fragmented, chaotic and frankly tiresome? Isn’t this what the artistic experience is about; that change of perception when you step out (of the cinema?) into the light of day and look again at your familiar world; now seeing it as bright, new, integrated and crisp when before it was……well, boring, familiar and maybe suicidally pointless? Okay, I’m cheating a bit, I slipped in the subject of movies so I guess I’ll have to say that architecture now seems to be both frozen music and the ideal movie experience (like Woodie Allen’s Manhatten or Greenaway’s The Draughtsmans Contract). To be honest, though, I also felt the same kind of experience when I read Gibson’s Neuromancer and even Beevor’s Stalingrad. Alright, this is getting complicated: apparently architecture is now equivalent to frozen music, ideal movies, powerful books. Anything else? Yes, since we are in Singapore: eating Rogan Josh, Laksa, Beef Rendang or a rack of prime ribs.

I’m getting carried away here. Ultimately, as you have probably noticed, what I’m really talking about is the aesthetic experience in general, whether music or architecture or movies or books or Rogan Josh. On this basis I could go babbling along for ever, so lets cut to the chase. Honest person that I am, I feel I have to say something significant because you bought the magazine so you want your money’s worth. You want an explanation for all this similarity of effect between architecture and music or whatever. Okay, I will give it to you; the explanation; the connection between architecture, music, movies, food and….yes, painting, literature, science and, ultimately everything! (The Meaning of Life I shall leave for another time). Amaze your friends but remember, you saw it here first. Here we go:

Firstly, let’s reject the essentially Romantic approach of ‘feelings’ and the futile search for the ‘meaning’ of art. The end result is always psychobabble of some sort. Let us rather ask answerable questions in the sense that a question well formulated is a problem already half solved. (Thank you Le Corbusier). So, what’s the question:

In what way can we say that architecture is similar to music (or cooking or movies for that matter)?

We certainly know what the differences between them are. They are obvious. Architecture doesn’t use notes or chords to produce its forms, and music doesn’t use columns or windows. For most people such very obvious and yet apparently fundamental differences between systems would seem to eliminate any possible similarity between them. But wait! If we use a linguistic analogy and regard each of these systems as a unique kind of language which seeks to represent experience in a particular way, we will get a very different picture. We will then notice that their obvious differences only occur between the elements or medium which each uses to represent experience; columns and beams in one case or audible chords and notes in another. The premise here is that at the level of their organization and function – what they do and how they do it - there are considerable similarities. Representation of experience is the key idea. It is what languages do. It is what they are for.

Along these lines therefore let’s propose the following:

a) The difference between systems whether music or architecture or science or cooking is a matter of the medium or material which they use to achieve the goals of the system: namely, representing particular experiences.

b) The similarity between systems is a matter of the processes involved rather than the medium or material they use.

Thus we have similarity at one level and difference at another. A good start. But, as the suspiciously-minded amongst you will have noticed, I still have to explain in what way are the processes similar. Here it is, I think:

In every case and no matter what the system, there is a process of selection and combination of available elements from a given vocabulary, whether it be words, architectural forms, sounds, colours, textures, foodstuffs and so on, in order to represent a particular experience. We have, in other words, the usual suspects of vocabulary (or, in this case, lexicon) and grammar combining to produce unique representations of the world.

Examples? Okay. What does the architect do? In architecture, the architect models or represents the functions, hierarchies, location, finance and particularities of a particular institution in a particular place and in the form of a particular building. Where does the architect get his lexicon of forms to do this? Answer: by selecting from the forms made available in the works of all other architects. From the past in other words. These are combined to match the relationships in the institution to be represented. And grammar? Well, you can’t do or say absolutely anything you want. (Try inventing your own language for instance. This act of pure artistic freedom will result in gibberish). There are, in language constraints and conventions on how you can combine ‘words’ in order to maintain the intelligibility of the statement. Individual creativity will push the boundaries of the conventional but always only up to a point. Where did these constraints come from? From all the previous statements that have been made. What’s the difference between this process and that of the composer? The answer is: nothing. Not a thing. The composer tries to represent an experience (of love or tragedy or joy) with a vocabulary of sounds or lyrics. Combining and recombining them, stretching them, kicking them around till they exude that one pure exclamation of emotion.

Simple, isn’t it? We do it every time we utter a statement or design a building.

Music in this sense is virtual architecture. So is cooking; the chef being the artist conjuring up a recipe - selecting and combining available ingredients to provide a culinary experience. Thus: Rogan Josh.

‘Walked a thousand miles just to slip this skin’ (Bruce Springsteen; Philadelphia

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Evolution of Architecture

This article is taken from the draft of my book of the same title - currently in production - on the same subject

It is a truism to say that architectures evolve over time. The term ‘evolve’ is however usually used quite loosely to mean that architecture changes over time and that it is possible to trace the sources of these changes to work produced by a previous generation of architects. It has also been noticed that there is some vague analogy between the concept of styles and that of species in biological systems. Both are seen as unique groups of characteristics which are distributed throughout a particular ecological or cultural environment and both of which in simple terms originate or become extinct at certain historical points in time. In other words they have a definite lifespan after which they cease to exist or ‘become something else’ by being transformed into another species or style. In both cases we have the idea of a lineage and even the concept of continual transformation. This is coupled with an understanding that change occurs in both these systems as a product of adaptation to their respective environments. In biology this environment would be the effect, for instance of climate, food supply or the activities of other species. In architecture, environment is seen as a function of demographic, institutional, technological or economic change. Another similarity is that of distribution of these species-styles within particular environments. A number of these may co-exist at the same time while at other times a single species-style dominates the environment. One may also notice that at certain times even the function of ‘competition’ creeps into the architectural vocabulary where diverse styles are seen to compete with each other for cultural dominance during particular periods.

So far so good. One might think that analogies like these and others might have suggested to architectural theorists the possibility of developing a comprehensive ‘theory of evolution’ for architecture. A theory which would deal with large scale transformation in architecture over long periods of time and the collective mechanisms involved in such changes. However this has not happened possibly because architects and historians while they are aware of these long term effects have, for one reason or another been unable to pinpoint an impartial and systematic mechanism by which such transformations could take place. In the biological sciences of course, the mechanism for change in the characteristics of species is the thoroughly worked out theory of natural selection.

Perhaps for this reason the idea of evolution in architecture seldom gets beyond the identification of highly personal lineages or lines of ‘influence’ and is further reduced in its usefulness by a tendency to ascribe personal choices and motivations on the part of architects for the evolution of styles. In other words particular styles are seen to be the constructs of individuals or a highly motivated group – the avant garde. It is for this reason that the concept of evolution in architecture is even less likely to involve any discussion or search for a systematic process of change or an impartial mechanism by which different styles emerge or are transformed into others. Change, even at the large scale of styles and periods is still regarded almost as a matter of personal invention. When it does happen it usually depicted as revolutionary or catastrophic event (‘crises’ in architectural terms) provoked or resolved by the work of concerned architects or groups unlike the algorithmic or step-by-step processes identified in biological evolution. Some cultural theorists hold that this difference of theoretical method between cultural systems such as architecture and biological systems is based on what they would regard as a real difference in the nature of the systems themselves. One is the product of human intelligence, the other the product of natural forces. A difference in other words, based on the materials with which they are ‘constructed’: the conscious mind or the unconscious processes of nature. This, so the theory goes, must inevitably mean that there is also fundamental differences in the processes of change which take place within each system. It would seem that if one thing is different, namely the origin of the system in nature or in culture, then everything else must be different. This somewhat literalist position fails to notice that there are in fact numerous similarities between these different fields. They both involve the continuous interaction of groups of agents, organisms or components and from this the formation of organized complexity where individual characteristics or actions are constrained by collectively-defined limits to individual behaviour. Limits which arise out of the endless communication and exchange of information within defined groups in their attempt to adapt to their respective environments. This book will attempt to show that both natural and cultural systems can be regarded as adaptive or dynamic systems coupled to their environments and thus subject to the same evolutionary processes.

In many ways, the perceived differences between natural and cultural systems is also a matter of the scale of analysis used to study each system. In the study of biological evolution the scale of analysis is that of large scale systems such as species or indeed whole environments and the collectively-defined mechanisms which produce change at that scale. (Its worth noting here that individual organisms do not evolve, they develop according to a genetic program already laid down in the specific combination of parental genes with which they are endowed. In other words, an organism cannot evolve into another type of organism; a lion cannot evolve into a tiger no matter what the ebvironment. Species can, however evolve into other species). Evolution is fundamentally a group phenomenon where, over time the interaction of individual organisms alters the bias in the genetic pool of the species thus changing the range of characteristics that its organisms can display.

In architectural theory however, even in the study of stylistic periods which can last for centuries, the unit of analysis used is usually that of the individual or the motivated group acting at particular points in time. While due recognition may be given to the general characteristics of a period or changing social or technological environments, the driving force behind the consequent changes in architecture remains that of the motivated group or in some cases the deeply personal experiments of individual architects. The results of this kind of small scale analysis are then applied (inappropriately) to large scale events in the history of architecture: the changing characteristics of styles In this scenario single architects or avant-garde groups are said to produce a series of works which become the immediate sources or origin of a whole new style. Like individual buildings, change, from this point of view is consciously ‘constructed’ by human action. So it is said. While this is not quite what one might call the ‘spontaneous generation’ of styles since these innovative architects are also said to be responding to fundamental changes in their social or technological environment, it gets pretty close to it.

Above all, theories of transformation in architecture are anthropocentric theories about individuals passing the ‘cultural torch’ to other individuals. There is no real sense in which theorists or historians in architecture treat its development as a vast collective enterprise where, like the biological sciences, no individuals can be identified and the processes arise out of the interaction of countless numbers of such individuals. Architecture simply does not have the theoretical tools to handle or explain the collective dimension of its own history; the dimension of organization and cumulative selection which produces large scale stylistic change. Without that truly collective approach to the subject it is impossible to establish any impartial and system-wide mechanism which would produce the large scale evolutionary changes which are identified in the visible periodization of architectural history.

architectural Definitions

a) Architecture is the representation of social institutions through the medium of built form.

b) Architecture is a similarity of form between a large number of buildings irrespective of their function.

c) Architecture is the historically-derived information which is used to characterize the form of material objects called buildings for particular times and places.

d) Architecture is a general language of form from which architects select and combine for particular institutional contexts.

e) Architecture is an autonomous, self-regulating, self -organizing system having its own medium of expression and formative rules.

f) Architecture is one cultural system amongst the collection of other cultural systems which make up a society.

g) Architecture is the exchange of experience between architects which produces a set of ‘essential’ forms (a style) drawn from a mass of actual work.

h) Architecture is the making of Place.

i) Architecture is Buildings - physically at least

j) Architecture is not Buildings. It is a relationship of similarity betwen many buildings. In other words, it is information.

k) Architecture is 'Frozen Music'.

….and there we are into a different area. See my previous post on Frozen Music on this blog.

architecture as language

1. Introduction

It is proposed here that architecture, like natural language (written or spoken language), is simply one of many different types of language each with its own lexicon and grammar. Others would include music, scientific theories, art, political organization and many others. The definition of ‘language’ as it is used here is, therefore not a matter of the content or the particular kind of lexicon or the ‘subject matter’ of any given system, but of what the system does and how it does it.

2. Similarities and Differences

Architecture does not use notes or chords to produce its forms, and music does not use columns or windows. Yet:

a) The real difference between systems whether music or architecture or science is a matter of the medium or material which is manipulated to achieve the goals of the system.

b) The similarity between systems is a matter of the processes involved rather than components which are manipulated.

3. Architecture as a Language

Based on the general statements about language made above we can now look at how well architectural processes fit into that scheme of things. Thus:

a) In other words architecture is a report or representation of the functions and relationships within an institution and the immediate context within which the institution will be materialized. That is the concrete reality of designing buildings.

b) Any statement in a language has a referent. It is always talking about something (event or thing). The referent in architecture is the institution, client or program which is being represented.

c) Language is digital. Architecture's discrete elements (like worsd) are architectural forms or compositional techniques selected from the current typical set of a style (the vocabulary).

d) Architecture makes a metaphor of the institution; a metaphor in built form. That is, a form which represents the elements and relations of the institution.

e) For language there is always a statement about something. In architectural terms, the building is equally a statement about something: the referent institution.

f) As in language, in architecture, a set of typical or conventional architectural forms plus the compositional rules which govern their arrangement can be termed a language.

h) In architecture, a particular or characteristic set of forms together with their conventional usage or rules of combination is called a style.

i) The style is the code, the building is the message derived from selections of forms and syntax of the code-style.

k) As a message, the building is a report about the ‘state of things’ in the referent institution in a particular context, namely this time and this place.

l) Architecture like written/spoken language is rule-governed.

4. The Architect as Author

If we want to think of this issue in personal terms or in terms of authorship we can usefully consider the following:

a) Using the formal vocabulary available to him (within the repertoire of a particular style) and constrained by the rules (of selection and combination and context), the ARCHITECT SPEAKS THE BUILDING. HE is indeed the author of the building.

b) The building is a STATEMENT by him about some referent event and its context and derived by him from a selection of possible (appropriate?) elements and their combinations to represent this event/context.

5. Conclusion

And, finally, where would we find the equivalent of verbs in architecture? These would lie in the relationships which the architect sets up between different parts of the building and which reflect or represent the dynamics of the institution and/or its context. In other words it is the geometrical arrangement of the building which reflects the dynamics of its referent. THE GEOMETRY IS THE VERB. After all its only a report. Now these concrete (!) arrangements don’t look like verbs, but then what does a verb look like? It is a written or spoken WORD. A thing in other words which represents an action. So too with the geometric composition of the building.