“I call architecture frozen music.” – Goethe
Continuing this thought by the famous polymath and author of Faust, I have long viewed the best of architects as the composers and conductors of built symphonies. Using rhythms of structural framing, melodies of material textures, and chords of light, these architects really do create works rivaling the best musical compositions. The architect’s score is written in notes of volume and color and shadow. Even minor buildings can have moments that transcend what would otherwise be the equivalent of an architectural jingle.
If you have ever visited an architectural masterpiece you’ve probably experienced, as I have, moments that take away your breath. And you really do have to be there in person: unlike a wonderful recorded performance, photographs cannot do justice to a building. To be appreciated, you must surround yourself with these livable works of art. Walk through them. Observe the shifting perspective as you travel from one space to the next. Listen for the subtle echoes of those who have passed before you. Sip the vista from the balcony.
Unlike other works of art, most buildings result from the efforts of many people. The architect composes the original score, and must know the range and qualities of each instrument. The builder is the conductor, interpreting the architect’s creation and coordinating an orchestra of specialists who work together to produce a monument to everyone’s hard work.
This is where the musical metaphor breaks down: while music is a linear experience, with one group of notes and beats following another, a building is apprehended by many senses at once. It doesn’t matter what order your path takes, because the next time you visit you may walk in a different direction.
The Roman architect Vitruvius wrote that a successful building must have positive qualities of firmness, commodity, and delight; that is, a building must be strong, it must function efficiently, and it must be beautiful. Contemporary architects would also add three more to this list: the qualities of safety, comfort, and economy.
To be strong, a building must support its weight and that of its occupants against not only gravity, but also lateral forces such as wind and earthquakes. An efficient building is one that places similar activities adjacent, that doesn’t force its occupants to travel far to carry on their daily activities. As for safety in buildings, this is the reason we have building codes: every paragraph is a response to someone’s suffering. Comfort in buildings refers not only to heating and air conditioning, ventilation and humidity control, but also providing for adequate lighting without glare. And buildings must be economical not only in their frugal use of materials, but also in the energy spent in placing and maintaining them. Economy rears its head in architecture another important way that rarely has the same impact in music: when someone makes a mistake. A miniscule error during design can multiply geometrically when under construction, transforming into far more than a sour note. No one is perfect: even Frank Lloyd Wright said, “The physician can bury his mistakes, but the architect can only advise his client to plant vines,” and “An architect’s most useful tools are an eraser at the drafting board, and a wrecking bar at the site.”
Then there’s beauty. Unfortunately for us, very few buildings sing. Most buildings and their environs don’t exhibit the first faltering notes toward this musical metaphor. Driving through the city can be like repeatedly thumbing the TV remote and discovering there really isn’t anything good on all those channels. All too often, the criterion of cost subordinates that of beauty, and we become surrounded by a cacophony of thoughtlessly assembled boxes like wood blocks strewn across a playroom floor.
In striving to balance those six qualities in their designs, architects are recognized among artists as Renaissance people. Their best buildings will play their frozen music for the generations to come.
Written by Dean R. Camlin, AIA, LEED AP BD+C.
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