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Piano in empty concert hall

Listening to Space, Inhabiting Time: Between Music and Architecture


Since antiquity, the musical and architectural arts have been delightfully, inextricably linked.

On a trip to Greece at the age of 24, the architect Le Corbusier vividly described the Parthenon through a series of musical metaphors:

A brazen trumpet that proffers a strident blast. The entablature with a cruel rigidity breaks and terrorizes … The Parthenon, terrible machine, pulverizes and dominates everything for miles around. 

A similar experience may result from the contemplation of various other constructions: the Cathedral of Notre Dame can be seen from the Seine as a series of choral overlays indicating a rise from the earthly to the celestial at the vertical impulse of the Gothic. The imposing bluestones of Stonehenge (whose musical qualities are only beginning to be understood by archaeologists) may have been not merely a prehistoric musical forum, but an actual musical instrument of gigantic proportions.

The relation between architecture and music is based on their common geometrical and mathematical origins: rules of proportion, rhythm, and harmony. For the Greek philosopher, Pythagoras, these came from the “music of the spheres,” and they’ve never stopped mutually involving one another, even over these many centuries.

From the Greek theater and its preoccupation with acoustics to the most experimental constructions – such as Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – architects have thought of space and building materials from musical perspectives. Sometimes it’s not just a matter of imagining spaces that accommodate music, (such as the Sydney Opera House, an architectural landmark that gives personality to the entire city), but also that these spaces can pose as metaphors for sound all the while being visited and inhabited.

The seeming cold functionalism of some constructions, Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Housing Units by the architect Mario Pani, for example, form rhythmic patterns on monumental scales. The separations between windows, and corridors connecting one section with another, and the parks and public spaces remind one of a musical symphony of concrete.

Expressionist painters of the early 20th century sought to emulate in their paintings the emotions resulting from avant-garde musical pieces. And poets like Paul Valéry noted that the written word, however beautiful, could never produce the same effects as an orchestra rumbling inside a concert hall. It’s that music, the art par excellence, which unlike all other arts appeals directly to the presence of the listener. Somehow this power in music acquires an entirely new dimension in architecture, an art of space.

When sound and space converge, in an instant we feel alive, inspired and present. The music of the spheres, and its correlations, also implies that the human being is an antenna that captures and emits the harmony of our historical moment.

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