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Frozen music: Erik Satie house in Beijing by Atelier Fronti

Musical notation by the avant-garde composer inspired this house in Beijing

Erik Satie, composer, writer and eccentric was born in Honfleur, Normandy, and spent most of his life in Paris in the heady days of La Belle Époque surrounded by the decadence of Montmartre, absinthe and Le Chat Noir.

Much of his work was acclaimed only after his death, his oeuvre being a curious mix of challenging and quirky short pieces that have been characterised as early-Surrealist. In a Guardian article, minimalist composer John Cage said that Satie was ‘indispensable’ to the development of music and musical experimentation. For many, his posthumous fame rests primarily with his Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes published at the end of the 19th century: delightful, mournful and atmospheric. To paraphrase Cage, Satie was an early exponent of ambient music.

Plans and rectangle of Satie's Le Golf score that inspired them

Plans and rectangle of Satie’s Le Golf score that inspired them - click to expand

Plans and rectangle of Satie’s Le Golf score that inspired them - click to expand

Satie joined the leftist cliques of the Parisian art scene, accentuating his bohemian lifestyle and colourful personality. In later life, he worked variously with Man Ray, Cocteau and Braque among others and dabbled with Dadaism and absurdism. The director of the Cheltenham Festival has written that Satie ‘bought seven identical, grey velvet corduroy suits which he proceeded to wear, with no variation, for 10 years’. As was fitting to his melancholic musical catalogue, he died of cirrhosis at 59, alone in a grubby suburban bedsit in 1925. 

Erik Satie never went to China, yet this is where his true house stands. It is a generous Modernist home that the architect, Wang Yun, says Satie would have deserved. As a composer of musical fragments, he might have appreciated the fact that the building is unfinished. 

‘The distance between musical notes in a score is not only the representation of time but also visual expression of musical space’

Wang is professor of architecture at the Beijing University Civil Engineering and Architecture school (BUCEA). He is the founding director of architectural practice Atelier Fronti and author of a new book (in Chinese) on Music and Architecture, currently enjoying an exhibition on that topic at Beijing’s Graduate School of Architecture Design and Art. Like Satie, Wang’s work is part innovation, part experiment and part humour. However, it is also thoughtful and contemplative and certainly not the spoof that would make this article easier to write. 

Wang Yun has decided to transcribe musical notation into simplified patterns. He takes those abstract forms and imagines the dots and lines as walls and columns, and so on. The image is turned into a model, which he ponders over to imagine what kind of building, what kind of typology that it might represent. 

Before you turn over, hear me out … Unlike Bernard Tschumi’s Manhattan Transcripts – currently enjoying a major retrospective in the Powerstation of Art in Shanghai – Wang’s work is not a fantasy. He rejects Tschumi’s post-structuralist creations as politically motivated fictional narratives far removed from his own adherence to the structured artistry of a musical score. Tschumi disavows synthesis; Wang seeks it out. The forms he creates are merely ways to spur the creative process.

Eric Satie’s 1914 composition, Le Golf, is an expressive social commentary completed two months before the outbreak of the First World War. It is one episode of his Sports & Divertissements trilogy, comprising drawings, music and verbal texts. Caroline Potter, Satie’s biographer, describes one of the gestures in his score for Le Golf as ‘musical onomatopoeia’ in that it conjures the image, the form, the physical act of golf. Author Anthony Bateman notes that Satie’s compositions ‘conveys the effect of being improvisations accompanying silent movie sequences’. It is music as an aid to visualisation. 

‘As a composer of musical fragments, he might have appreciated the fact that the building is unfinished’

Goethe’s dictum that ‘architecture is frozen music’ is reflected in a recent BBC radio documentary that claimed that Satie’s music has a ‘physical form which takes you into space and time’. Similarly, Wang claims that ‘the distance between musical notes in a score is not only the representation of time but also visual expression of musical space.’ 

Professor Wang is a rare Modernist in China, revitalising the social challenges from 100 years ago in new context. Satie’s era was a time of Modernist discordancy when artists were breaking hallowed boundaries and trying to embody the spirit of the new. Just as the Futurists tried to capture speed and velocity in their paintings and sculpture, so artists blurred boundaries: photography as art, noise as music. The idea of crossing boundaries and using one particular art form to enhance another is what Wang is experimenting with. He also sees this as a demystifying process, democratising architecture whereby anyone can kick-start a visual exploration into architectural form. 

 Erik Satie house interior

Erik Satie house interior

Erik Satie house interior

This project for Satie’s house began by overlaying a rectangle on Satie’s Le Golf score to include some of the notes, lines, words and notation within the frame. The expertise of the architect is still important to decide which shapes are the most architectural. Here, the rectangle is placed at about 70 degrees to the music score and, hey presto, he has created the plan of a single-storey structure. ‘See’, he says, showing me the overlay, ‘the paired quavers form an enclosure that look like toilets, don’t they?’ They do. ‘What do you think this angled shape could be?’ he asks. I hazard a guess that it could be a closet. ‘Good’, he says with delight, ‘Yes, a closet. It could be.’ 

Like Satie’s work, Wang’s playful interpretation of architecture and music comes together in drawings and models, but he has finally translated his ideas into a life-size concrete prototype, 48m long x 8m wide. With a departmental budget of RMB600,000 (£60,000), the framework of the house was erected in a few weeks. Sadly the quintessentially bad Chinese workmanship is not to the architect’s liking and the suburban paving and concrete step access is diametrically opposed to his vision.

Section - click to expand

Section - click to expand

Section - click to expand

But the plan works well. The tied notes in Satie’s original score – representing the golf swing – are now a curved wall to separate the kitchen/dining areas. The bare staves are used to form steps in the ground floor and rooflights in the concrete soffit – throwing sharp, flat shadows on the walls. The black note heads and stems of the beam notes emerge as structural walls cutting through the staircase and breaking up the volume. The delicate interplay of light on the rough cast concrete surface enlivens the spaces, but so too does the unintended occurrence of a beautiful, low humming echo that pervades the living-room spaces. Even without walls, there is an eerie resonance as we chat. Wang bursts into song. 

The only tension on the site is whether Wang should finish the building or keep it as it is. It could be a ruin, a folly, an artefact, academic research or simply a talking point. Until decisions are made, the university will continue to use it as a marketing tool and a public arena for performances. (Wang recently hosted an international conference in the living room.) If he decides to complete the project, then full-height glazed walls ‘just like the Barcelona Pavilion’ will enclose the entire perimeter (even though the floor is raised in the main living space). After that, Wang confirms that any private owner will be allowed curtains if s/he so wishes.

‘The idea of crossing boundaries and using one particular art form to enhance another is what Wang is experimenting with’

Beijing is going through a decongestion policy that makes the BBC’s relocation to Manchester look like a tea party. The authorities have already moved 6,600 students to the suburbs with plans to resettle more than half a million more central city residents in the next year or so. BUCEA is resisting calls to take its 1,100 students beyond the 5th Ring Road to this Daxing campus in Beijing’s distant south-west because even though it is a vast campus with new facilities, there is little else. Currently situated among country walks – where President Xi Jinping had planted trees to promote the protection of the country’s forestry – the architecture department fears the loss of its historic central Beijing context. 

But maybe there is little to fear from change. Wang’s Satie House was built in a clearing. The windows and openings frame views of the wild forest landscape on all sides, that is, the dense trees that President Xi was so keen to preserve. One year later, the house looks out over a four-lane roadway. China is definitely surreal enough for Satie.

Erik Satie House

Architect : Atelier Fronti
Project architect : Wang Yun
Project team : Wang Yun, Zhang Hanping, Zhao Guannan, Wen Hui
Photographs : Xia Zhi

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