Architecture and music: A duet

4 Examples of Architecture Inspired By Music

June 1, 2011

Have you ever wondered what inspires a musician to write, compose or play his or her song? One can draw inspiration from many things. A flower or serene pasture may influence some. A child’s innocent laughter or the face of a true love may provide another’s muse. And still others might find musical movement in a traumatic experience such as lost love or the death of someone close. For many, however, musical inspiration flows from architectural surroundings.

Mozart and Beethoven were inspired heavily by the many Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque structures throughout Prague in the eighteenth century. The meticulously designed and detailed churches, castles, and bridges moved them to compose arguably the most profound and recognizable music found worldwide. Recording studios didn’t exist. Instead, mammoth walls, columns, and buttresses soaring over 50 feet in height served as acoustic backdrops while also providing breathtaking visual encouragement.

Modern composers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries also found divine guidance in their architectural surroundings. When composing 1921’s AmeriquesEdgar Varèse’s violent bolts of sound were inspired by New York City’s sweeping skyline. Many other twentieth-century composers such as Louis AndriessenBrian Ferneyhough, and Karlheinz Stockhausen have also been stimulated by the built environment.

In addition to classical composers, many musicians today find inspiration in architecture. U2 and Tori Amos have recorded in 300-year-old castles along the Irish countryside. They find that the acoustics and permanence of the structures enhance their musical visions. Elton John recorded some of his greatest albums in the historic 1740 French Chateau d’Hérouville. Radiohead lost interest in stale, insulated recording studios during the early 1990s and sought out the rural St. Catherine’s Court near Bath, England to lay down their monster late-90s album OK Computer. It seems that more and more often, artists such as Robert Plant, Jack White, and Bruce Springsteen are seeking old churches, farmhouses, and other interesting architectural spaces to boost their creative juices.

Perhaps less considered, but equally important, architects are often inspired by music. Many have written about this parallel. Goethe described architecture as “frozen music.” The theory of Saint Augustine suggests that architecture and music exist as sisters because they share imagination, design, space, rhythm, time, numbers, and so on. Elizabeth Martin wrote a pamphlet called “Architecture as a Translation of Music,” which takes a thought-provoking look at how both disciplines can coexist. These writings explore how architecture provides form, dimension, and materiality to space.

Similarly, music consists of these basic structures: tones and melody shape motifs, tempo and time set dimensions, and the timbre of instruments establishes form and feeling. Many architects of the modern era reflect musical inspirations in their designs. Le Corbusier collaborated on many occasions with one of his closest colleagues, Iannis Xenakis, an early twentieth century composer. Together, they created the Philips Pavilion for the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. The structure was inspired by Xenakis’ composition, Metastasis. Steven Holl, a revered international architect today, says his Texan “Stretto House” was inspired by Béla Bàrtok’sMusic for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste. Daniel Libeskind, the lead designer commissioned for the current efforts to rebuild at Ground Zero, stated when referencing his design of the Jewish Museum in Berlin: “If there was no music, architecture would die of asphyxiation, and if there was no architecture, music would have no possibility.”

As an architect who is passionate about great design and also loves music deeply, I find an abundance of wisdom in Libeskind’s statement. On a scaled-down, simple, and everyday level, I find that in my life, a day devoid of music is not a good day. In fact, a great day at work is when I can dial up a solid playlist from the 10,000+ songs within my iTunes library, put my head down, and draw lines. The best design ideas seem to flow from my imagination when a rhythmic beat or a cascading melody is streaming from my speakers. Some days it might be the electronic repetition of the Thievery Corporation or Moby. Other days, funk and soul might do the trick, or even a bit of 70s or 80s retro. The beauty is that music can vary and create different moods.

Architecture is exactly the same. It can vary and create different moods. Our world would be a boring place if each did not evoke variety, progress, and inspiration. Within this, music relies upon architecture just as architecture relies upon music. From that, our world will always thrive on both.


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