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


Sinoj said...

hello.... read your work about architecture as frozen music. the words I was struggling to put together you just bought it in beautifully, bravo... see, I am an architecture student who is doing thesis at present. so its understandable about how tenuous these researches can be. you are the perfect person to help me. really, I am in a mess. please, hoping to hear from you soon!!!!!

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Unknown said...

hello, very easy to understand post. i was thinking about a similar relation between architecture and music and after reading your post i am feeling confident about my idea. thank you.

Unknown said...

ow eg for understand this post