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Sonic Structures

Our world is a complex organism, more interrelated than the silos in which we typically place it. One area of research to recognise this is the new discipline of participatory architecture, which explores among other things the relationship between music and buildings. But the idea has antecedents, including composers like Benjamin Britten and Edgard Varèse, and architects like Renzo Piano and Carlo Scarpo. Michael Shirrefs explores the search for harmony in the built environment.

Have you ever looked at a building and wondered what it would sound like? I’m not just talking about acoustics and air conditioner hum—I mean, what if that building was a piece of music?


It’s an odd question, but it’s an idea that has been popping in and out of both music composition and architectural thinking for more than half a century. And in Melbourne, an entire department at RMIT University called S.I.A.L—Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory—is devoted to researching the ecology of sounds and structures.

Diatope or La Légende d’Eer (1978), by Iannis Xenakis.

So, what happens when architects and sound designers start swapping tools? Do you get a song with a spacious atrium, or a house that ‘sings’ with perfectly tuned harmonics? It’s a simplistic question that underlies one part of a very sophisticated strand of research, referred to as Participatory Architecture.


Spaces generally inform the sounds we make in them. We instinctively adjust our voices to suit our context. And music has always been created to fit an environment. If the cave or chamber or cathedral has a pleasing reverberation or tone, our ears will want us to tune our sounds for pleasure…or drama.


But the era of consciously creating and commissioning music to highlight and celebrate particular buildings really comes with medieval composers like Guillaume Dufay. This was a time of simple vocal melodies that were designed to resonate the volume of large cathedrals, with the long reverberation times allowing the sounds to hang in the air with a reverential beauty.

Music was adapted to these spaces, as ambitious composers created ever more complex works to take advantage of the shape, the materials and the size of a building. Ecclesiastic works were written to fit the domes of basilicas in Florence and Venice. Secular works were crafted to make the most of large palaces and small chambers.


Over subsequent centuries, composers became sophisticated sound designers, as orchestras evolved and organs became intrinsic to the building of churches. Musicologist Richard Toop says that J.S. Bach would immediately gravitate to the organ in an unfamiliar church. This was not simply to acquaint himself with the instrument. It was also a powerful tool for gauging the size, shape and character of the building. This is an idea that foreshadows the science of acoustics.


But it wasn’t until the Machine Age, at the start of the 20th Century, that musical orthodoxy gave way to a new mindset of exploration.

The Philips Pavillion—Brussels 1958

The sonic landscape changed with the noise of industry and engines, and the palette for composers grew accordingly.


As the definition of what constituted music expanded, so did the way music and performance could be represented on the page. And if the image of music was no longer locked to a conventional five line stave, it could look like…anything.

Renzo Piano's sketch for the staging of Luigi Nono's opera Prometeo
Renzo Piano's final structure for Prometeo

So, by the end of World War II, the idea that music could look like architecture was taking hold.


All this came together in the form of the Greek composer and architect Iannis Xenakis. Joining the studio of designer Le Corbusier, Xenakis found the parallels between the way we represent musical and built structures compelling. This thinking came to a head with the design he completed for the Philips Pavillion at the Brussels World Fair in 1958.


Xenakis subsequently took the complex 3-dimensional shapes of the pavilion as the basis for his composition Metastasis. But the Philips Pavillion was significant for another reason as well. Edgard Varèse, one of the great experimental composers of the early avant-garde, was commissioned to create a site-specific work for the Pavillion. The end result, called Poème Électronique, stands as one of the strangest and most inventive works of the 20th Century.


While this idea of a synergy between music and structure goes all the way back to the Greeks, the belief in our power to fully manipulate both and sound and space is a thoroughly modern conceit. Some of our most adventurous composers and architects from the post-War era have borrowed from each other’s visual and conceptual lexicons. Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage and Luigi Nono all indulged in architectural collaborations.


Luigi Nono worked closely with architects Renzo Piano and Carlo Scarpo. For his 1984 opera Prometeo, Nono engaged Renzo Piano’s workshop to design a vast structure to contain the audience and the performers. This combined stage/auditorium was built like a large wooden boat and installed inside the Church of San Lorenzo in Venice.


Australian researcher Chelle Macnaughton is another hybrid of the two disciplines—music and architecture. But connecting the two worlds came more by chance, when she stumbled across a score by composer John Cage.

Exterior of Liebeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin

She was astounded at how architectural it looked, while some other drawings she had by architect Daniel Libeskind had the appearance of music notation. This epiphany has led her down a research path that explores these blurred boundaries, but has also resulted in her teaching architecture students to engage their senses more, in their search for innovative building solutions.


Daniel Libeskind himself is a musician-turned-architect who, when designing the Jewish Museum for Berlin, believed that his building was, in part, the completion of a work of music—the final and unfinished opera by Arnold Schoenberg called Moses und Aron. So what does that mean? Can a building stand in as an extension of a musical composition? For centuries, cathedrals were built like musical instruments—made to elevate and enhance the human voice as an act of worship. And if the setting for the performance of a musical work can have an impact on our experience of the work, then why shouldn’t we see some buildings as intrinsically musical?

This is a question that intrigues people like Lawrence Harvey at RMIT’s SIAL studios. Lawrence is a teacher and researcher and his department has spawned a great many paths of enquiry into how the sonic and the structural worlds can interact and crossover. In Lawrence’s world, the way architects work with computers to create 3D representations of buildings is incredibly similar to the techniques used by acousticians and sound designers. And so the question naturally follows—could a 3D computer-based sound representation be turned into a building? What would it feel like? Would it have structural integrity? And, perhaps most importantly, would it sound like the sound it represents?


These are more than just idle questions because, if we find our physical world increasingly stressful because of noise, maybe the architecture of the future can provide part of the solution. If our designers start to think with all their senses and can deliver more holistic responses to our densely built environment, maybe other specialists will emerge from their silos and view the world as single, complex organism—one that requires a bit more harmony.

First published on the ABC RN website —25th September 2013


Listen to Michael Shirrefs’ program, Acoustic Architecture, at Into The Music


© 2013 — Michael Shirrefs & ABC RN
Filed under: articles, music, works