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Writing Songs in Architecture

January 24, 2019 \ Studio
by Eilidh Henderson

Architect Eilidh Henderson shared her evolving personal manifesto, taking the office on a memorable journey through music and architecture.

Writing Songs in Architecture

Part of our Inside/Out series of Monday morning talks, in which internal and external guest speakers alternate to share insight on a range of subjects and personal passions.

I think of songwriting as being about two things. Firstly, the people who come together to play instruments and, secondly, the places where that song is written and performed. Together, they influence the structure and sound of the piece.

In my experience, architecture is subject to the same influences – Clients, design teams, contractors, and users come together to make a building in the same way. The process is a bit like a jamming session; it can shift in direction depending on the strengths and skill of each of the players involved.

During the recording of Miles Davis’ album Kind of Blue, Miles brought a sketch of the structure into the studio for the other players to improvise in a single take. It is now revered as one of the finest jazz albums, but its genius is in the simplicity of the framework that Miles sketched, enough to stimulate performance, while providing a structure in time that held the group together.

Time was fundamental in that process, and that applies to architecture too. You write or design in the present, but you imagine it in the future. As a designer, you know the building will evolve through time, and be influenced by others outwith your control. Yet, there’s a rhythm to buildings that, like music, can transcend everything else.

Music can also be used to transform the ordinary into something beautiful. Glen Campbell’s Witchita Lineman is about a man fixing telephone poles. What that tells me is that there is no bad project. You’ve got to celebrate how good each building can be.

Think next of the impact the Beatles had on Abbey Road. If not for their 1969 album, few would have known it was the home of EMI’s London recording studio. The cover of that album has gone on to be one of the most iconic representations of a street today, a reminder that you never know how important a building might go on to be.

A final lesson is in John Cage’s silent statement piece 4’33. The powerful piece is a plea for people to listen closely, and to appreciate the incidental sounds that we might typically try to ignore. As John Cage said “Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.” The silence makes us each more aware of our senses – the sight of the space around you, the sound of the room, the smells, tastes, and textures to touch. We strive to make buildings that have the same impact, and triggering the senses is critical to the experience and memory of architecture.

I recently finished a project for the University of Edinburgh, St.Cecilia’s Hall, a music museum and concert hall. The Head of Museums at the university told a story of why the insides of many of the harpsichords in the collection were decorated. In the case of one instrument which was decorated with organic imagery, the intention was that when you played you could taste the peaches, smell the flowers, and see the parrots flying.

In the same way, architecture can be enriched through texture, rhythm and sensory triggers ingrained in the building fabric. Ultimately though, the magic comes in the jamming session, where each performer contributes to the direction of the final building.

So do our buildings need an album cover? In the music industry, the record sleeve credits each contributor – producers, sound technicians, players, and composers alike. In the construction industry we are remiss at recognising the multiple contributions of the people who deliver our buildings. Perhaps though in architecture the building is both the record sleeve and the song?

Dan Dubowitz: who is the architect for, and what should the architect be doing?

December 4, 2018 \ Studio
by David Page

Multi-disciplinary artist and photographer Dan Dubowitz used the platform of guest speaker to great effect, shaking up our Monday morning with some provocative thoughts.

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