Architecture as "Frozen Music"

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When I told people a few years ago that I had taught at SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute Of Architecture), people inevitably asked, “What’s music got to do with architecture?” To me the differences between the two disciplines are not very far off.

Here are two great artists making the connection:

Claude Debussy, French composer (1862–1918)

After being blown away by the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris, where Debussy heard Balinese gamelan and other exotic music for the first time, he proclaimed this:

“Music is a free art, gushing forth—an open-air art, an art boundless as the elements, the wind, the sky, the sea! I love music passionately, and because I love it, I try to free it from the barren traditions that stifle it. The sound of the sea, the curve of the horizon, the wind in the leaves, the cry of a bird enregister complex impressions…”

Oscar Niemeyer, Brazilian architect (1907–2012)

“I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves…The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of a beloved woman.” Click here to see a slideshow of Niemeyer’s work.

Niemeyer only designed one house in America. It is on La Mesa Drive, an almost secret street in Brentwood, which has the largest ficus trees anywhere in Los Angeles. Niemeyer left LA during the McCarthy era, when modern architecture, public housing, and numerous other good things were branded “communist.” Niemeyer lived to be 104 years-old! He and his work are truly immortal.

Artists are so often inspired by the organic, nature, and humanity. One thinks of Picasso being smitten by the rawness and purity of the African masks at the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in 1907. This was just a couple of months before he painted “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” one of his most famous early works, and one that shattered the tenets of 19th century romanticism in art.

And of course, we have Frank Gehry celebrating the sensual, sweeping arc and curve in his glorious designs. Toru Takemitsu had a similar notion of how nature and music meet, and he listed Debussy as his strongest influence. We are fortunate to have artists like Frank Gehry and Ryuichi Sakamoto carrying the torch forward.