Michael St Hill
Comment on: Architecture Becomes Music
The Architecture of Music, the Music of Architecture and the Myth of Progress
Michael L. St. Hill Principal Michael L. St. Hill Architects and Planners Ltd
We know that, through evolution, things change and adapt – they don’t necessarily get better or more complex. Therefore ‘progress’, in the sense of movement to a happy place at the end of a Hollywood blockbuster, has nothing to do with life or human history.
Application of these simple, fundamentals to the disciplines of architecture and music, and blocking out the Wagnerian romanticism about humankind is the key to a useful exploration of the relationships of the two hybrid sciences and arts: Music and Architecture. Music exists in time and space: Architecture exists in space and time. To my understanding music does not consist of a harmonic chord by strings and trumpets anymore than architecture in a photograph, so the idea of spending 5 or 6 pages remarking on the role of proportional relationships in sound waves and in lines making a facade is futile and says very little about music or architecture.
Jencks gives away the shallowness of his analysis many times but, perhaps most tellingly, in this passage:
Musicians are often taught the six basic moods, and modes, they can stress – sadness, joyfulness, fearfulness, tenderness, love and anger...
No, musicians are often taught the scales, the structure of a melody and how to build one in 4, 8 or 16 bars and how to build a musical phrase into a composition – which, nowadays, amounts to nothing more than an A-A or A-B-A song form. Alas, here is the true lesson: in music and architecture we are not sailing into the ether of perpetual progress, we are, most likely, in a dark age where a very great deal of the technique of these hybrid arts and sciences has been forgotten and is no longer recognized or experienced.
Then there’s the question of the actual ‘new’ and ‘groundbreaking’ in music and architecture....
In western music the last great fundamental advance was with J. S. Bach and the Well Tempered Clavier that set the tuning of scales and, hence, instruments. Some abstract advances in terms of style and expression have been made up until Late Beethoven in the Late Quartets and 9th Symphony but since then (even with Jazz and the sex driven Popular Music of our time) nothing has changed. Similarly in architecture it is true to say that the last meaningful change has been with the Corbusier, Mies and Wright generation. The rest is essentially superficial and individual style which has little relevance beyond the particular practitioner.
This is obvious in music with Schoenberg and inventors of self-referential laws and regulations of composition that are irrelevant to the actual, real, contemporary music scene and, in architecture, the Ghery’s, ‘Blobmeisters’ and ‘Parameisters’ who, at the end, build the Eiffel Towers and Bilbaos – one-offs of no consequence to the general, real, daily contemporary architectural practice.
Reyner Banham is correct to call Le Corbusier (or at least his generation) the last form-givers; though there may be opportunity for a new generation once the computer is properly established in the design studio. The odd, idiosyncratic use of software and techniques exclusive to the Ghery’s and Hadid’s of the world counts for little beyond the promotion of their individual personalities.
Architecture and music are highly technical endeavours: learning to play the violin or piano is a far more complex endeavour than learning to drive a truck or fly an Air Bus. Writing a piece of music or (in the case of Jazz and pre literate music) improvising on a theme or given structure is a complex technical exercise first and foremost. Emotional expression is consequent and not vice versa. As architects we have it easier because of our (troubled) partnership with engineers and so we sometimes lose sight of the fact that our designs have to stand up and not leak. Musicians, even the performers, are generally closer to the fundamental structure of their art. This is an example we can take from the correlation of these arts: that our work, as architects, may be enhanced by a closer knowledge and affinity with the enabling structure – just as Jimi Hendrix, at the height of his expression, is acutely aware of the technical prerequisite of chord progressions, rhythmic synchronicity and dynamic correlation.
Can there be a more pointless question than,
“ Are musical chords like space?”
In the end it only tells us how different literature is than music and architecture and how ineffectual and inadequate it is in trying to explicate either.
LEARNING TO LIVE WITH CRAP
Surely the adjacency of the absolutely contradictory articles ‘Campaign – Transcend and Include’ and ‘Technology’ in the May 2012 edition was deliberate. The brilliant result is that readers of the sequenced articles are forced to decide – to make up their own minds instead of being fed a doctrine.
This is an arrangement admirable for being neutral, catholic, open minded and democratic; for encouraging us all to stand on our own (intellectual) feet. Once we do so we may be faced with a certain shallowness and invalidity in the options presented. This is also good as the reader doesn’t have a choice; he is forced to write his own story.
It is possible to lean toward the ‘Campaign’ but only if it is recognized as a rehashing of all the tenets of Modernism: another attempt to meld Corbu, Mies and Wright and make better sense of their pure philosophies than they and most others have been able to in the real world to date. It is ridiculous and desperate to try and persuade the readership that this is about a whole new architectural movement; rather it is the reinterpretation of an evolving idea in a changing world with changing emphasizes and priorities.
It is not possible to accept the naïve and adolescent, Sex in the City version of tomorrow set out in the following, opposing ‘Technology’ segment. This gives a version of the extremely distorted and dangerous vision of the World through the eyes of Zuckerburg and Tom Cruise.
What does it mean to say to the 99.998 or 99.999 percent of us who don’t own a Manhattan penthouse or at least a terrace brown-stone that…
‘[e]verything in our evolving architecture – from a speculative detail to a construction component, a laser-guided beam to a server card – is addressed and located within the deep spatio-temporal universe of digital dimensions that exist alongside and within, not opposite or beyond, the physical spaces we all know.’
The conclusive scene in the recent film Surrogate comes to mind where ‘we’ are all forced to wake up and live as ‘our’ surrogates, living ‘our’ surrogate lives are simultaneously ended/destroyed. The first thing that sprung to mind as cars crashed into surrogates and each other was: what becomes of the all the hundreds of planes in the air at that moment? Do some of them come down on towns where real people are waking from their surrogate existence? If so what’s the body count at the end of the disaster?
My second thought (or maybe my primary thought) was whether the children of Indian, African, South American (and Arkansas) slums also have surrogates and are waking, as everyone in Manhattan (presumably even the homeless) has theirs (and are only virtually suffering).
Surely now, at the beginning of the end of western capitalism as we know it, we are reluctantly coming to realize that a website called Facebook cannot be worth 100 billion dollars while an entire nation and all its people (and a semi-European country at that) like Greece is worth less than nothing; surely now we can assign the adolescent utopian fantasies of the ‘Technology’ article to an environmentally safe landfill and begin to deal with the inconvenient truth that we can’t crap in our i-phones and thereby make it (the crap) disappear.
Michael L. St. Hill
Saint Lucia 24 May 2012