MID Archives: Architecture and Music




Celebrating our Decade of Design

The Common Language of

Music + Architecture

Walk into a modern house. White walls and buffed floors. Quiet except for footsteps and echoes. Sounds more like a museum than a place to hang your hat. But turn on the stereo and that place instantly gets a pulse. Music bestows life upon our homes, transforming inanimate objects into something more human. Sure, some music is just noise – a daily soundtrack of radio jingles and elevator accompaniment. But play the right turns in the right context and you’ll move people, in all the senses of the word. 

Our Summer 2014 issue explored the commonalities between architecture and music. Read below for a portion of that article, or click HERE to see the full and original pdf.

Modern In Denver cover, Summer 2014
Arguably America’s most cherished architect, Frank Lloyd Wright was as prolific as he was influential. With a voracious work ethic and boundless imagination, he left an indelible mark via residential, office, religious, hotel, and mixed-use structures. He’s synonymous with the Prairie School of Architecture, but Wright’s organic Fallingwater residence and Eusonian homes also show that geniuses can evolve. His internationally celebrated Guggenheim Museum in New York City further cemented his legacy and playfulness with shapes. Since Wright’s death in 1959, he’s had many imitators but few detractors.
Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer was obsessed with curves, a natural trait born from a country of crescent beaches and the snaking Amazon River. By pushing reinforced concrete to its pliable limits, he created bold contours and monuments more sensual than monolithic. When named chief architect of Brazil’s new capital city Brasília in 1956, Niemeyer had the rare opportunity to design an urban environment from scratch. He thrived under the pressure, transforming cattle country to a modernist laboratory with bleached structures that seem to levitate.
Dutch architect and city planner Rem Koolhaas tries to downplay his celebrity status in interviews. He’s more interested in urban density and well-oiled infrastructure than himself. But with masterful and massive projects like the CCTV Headquarters in Beijing and a train hub in northern France, global attention is a given. His first big splash in the United States was the 2004 Seattle Public Library, a striking “Books Spiral” bathed in natural light. Koolhaas once wrote screenplays but now devotes himself to the serious study of modern cities.
It’s easy to spot a building by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry. Just look for tourists taking pictures of it. With his penchant for unusual materials and postmodern amorphous shapes, Gehry stands out from the crowd. The one-time truck driver earned money from cardboard furniture then renovated his Santa Monica home in 1978. Its novel use of corrugated steel jump-started his career, one with decades of praise for high-profile works like the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.
If architecture is a language, then Santiago Calatrava has an accent all his own. The Spanish- born architect and structural engineer has taken the color white to new heights with gleaming bridges and cultural institutions. His first American work, at the Milwaukee Art Museum, appears to float above the lakefront like a sinuous beacon. The building’s “wings” open during the day and fold at night, proving that architecture doesn’t have to sit still.
The breakout career of I.M. Pei has roots in Colorado with his design of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder. He established his lofty reputation by combining inspiration from natural surroundings with the singular spirit of the project at hand. His modernist constructions launched an era, the zenith being his famous pyramidal addition to the Louvre. Still contributing his prowess to the world of design in his 90s, Pei is an inspiration inside and outside the drafting room.
Brazen and imaginative, Jean Nouvel is one of the most experimental architects alive today. The unconventional textures, drama, and scope of his work show that high risk can yield high rewards—and he’s got the 2008 Pritzker Prize to prove it. From his gravity-defying cantilever on the Lucerne Culture and Congress Centre, to his white-speckled Tower 25 in Cyprus, to the rainbow capsule Torre Agbar skyscraper in Barcelona, his enterprising work speaks loud and clear.

The building itself is part of that harmony. Some songs are designed for stadiums, others for the bedroom. But the connections between architecture and music run deeper than the venue. Look at terminology used by the creators and you’ll see overlap: words like rhythm, accents, theme variation. Architects and musicians often speak the same language. View the two art forms through the lens of modernism, and you’ll observe more common DNA. Both embraced new materials, questioned assumptions, and stripped down structures to their cores. “Before the modernist period, a cutting-edge musician tried to make melody and harmony even more expressive,” said Jack Sheinbaum, a professor of musicology at the University of Denver. “But then, the questions change to: ‘Wait a minute, why do I even need melody and harmony?’”

Architects asked similar questions and rewrote the rules over the last 65 years. Why not break down the barrier between indoor and outdoor space? Why not put a kitchen in a living room? For example, look to the Denver Art Museum (DAM) with its jutting triangles and deviant geometry. “The museum is very abstract and jarring,” said Michael Knorr, an architect based in Denver and Las Vegas. “It reminds me of electronic composers at midcentury who used atonality and didn’t follow formal structure.” Daniel Libeskind, architect of the DAM extension, was once an accomplished pianist and accordion player. And so he often invokes musical analogies when describing his projects, calling them precise and emotional compositions where one wrong note can ruin the mood.

Of course, music and architecture do not always run on parallel rails. A saxophone solo requires a very different skill set than designing a high-rise, but their growth comes from the same petri dish of culture and technology. Pioneers in both fields became modern by pushing boundaries. Dip into musical history from modal Jazz to Hip-Hop and you’ll see that creativity evolves faster than we do.

Cutting the Chord

Let’s start with the Jazz album that everybody knows about, “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis. And let’s start at the beginning of that record. The first track “So What” lives up to its defiant title by subverting traditional Tin Pan Alley song structure. Normally, horns lead the melody, but Davis freezes them in a two-note loop, while the bass lines are thrust to center stage. Skip to track two, “Freddie Freeloader,” and you’ll hear an abstraction that breaks Blues conventions; chord progressions are thrown out the window. “It’s an intellectual modernist exercise,” said Sheinbaum, “but it’s still beautiful and enjoyable.”

Why did Cool Jazz musicians want to be different? Partially because for the first time, musicians in the 20th century acutely felt their place in history, argued Sheinbaum. “Before the 1950s, most music you would hear in your life was only the music of your generation, but now we have all of music history at our fingertips,” he said. In other words, postwar musicians carved out a distinction between popularity and quality that survives today—a new ambition beyond concert and album sales.

That unconventional streak led to natural allies with architecture. Miles Davis met Bruce Goff, a largely self-taught chair of the School of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma. Far from smoky clubs on the coasts, Jazz icons performed private concerts for Goff and his students. Goff dotted the prairie with eclectic and organic homes, but he also experimented with player-piano rolls. Goff didn’t bother with proper musical notation; he simply sliced triangles and circles into the paper rolls and let the piano do the work. It was music designed visually—an adventurous mix of careful planning and random results.

How did it turn out? “Not too bad,” Michael Knorr said with a laugh. He heard them at an exhibition in Washington D.C. Goff wasn’t trying to emulate Miles Davis. But both took bold risks and blazed their own trails. “Jazz is like a river,” Knorr said. “You can go off on interesting tangents that are not strictly bound by the course of the river. I think modern architecture is the same way.”

Rocking the Boat

The sea change eventually flows from Jazz into Rock music, spilling over into the roots of Punk and New Wave in the ’70s. Modern music again flips expectations and flips off protocol. Think of minimalists like the Ramones, armed with three chords, two-minute songs, and one cohesive fashion sense. The lesson: You don’t have to be a virtuoso to have a band. You can use brute force, rattling off anthems like a machine gun. But simple doesn’t mean stupid. Johnny Ramone was once asked why his songs were so short. His reply was that they were actually long songs played very quickly. Modernism can come across as stark, but a closer look reveals complexity within all the open space. For Sheinbaum, Punk is a reaction to the “hot” emotional passion of Classic Rock.

Next in line is New Wave, which cools down the temperature even more. “We expect soaring intensity from classic rock,” Sheinbaum said, “but New Wave strips all the emotion out of it.”

Guitars are no longer a given, and synthesizers let you squeeze out new tones, impossible to produce without machines.

Of course, plenty of musicians still revisited the past. Progressive Rock bands like Pink Floyd and King Crimson aimed for the old grandeur of symphonies and operas but used the latest tools. Like modern architecture, natural and synthetic materials are woven together. “Quiet acoustic sections contrast with
loud electric sections,” said Sheinbaum, who has published several articles on Progressive Rock. “It’s a statement on the 20th century condition of modernity and lost innocence.” Again, musicians and architects feel the burden of history and have something to say about it.

Rhythm Section

Rock embraced new technology in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but it took Hip-Hop and Electronic Music to seal the deal with a kiss. Grandmaster Flash invented a new science for the dance floor, scratching vinyl and redefining turntables into instruments. The secret was extracting the “break,” what Flash called the short, catchy parts of records that grab hold of your ears and never let go—Hip-Hop samples from the best sounds available in any genre, at any time, period. Like a modern architect who seamlessly combines styles, rappers tinker with recipes to show that apples and oranges sometimes do go together. Electronic Dance Music stretched out the concept of the “break” even further— whole songs with only percussion and rhythm, vocals stripped off like
an unwanted distraction. Originally dubbed “hard disco” by Rock journalists, Chicago House hammers out repetition with no time for melody or subtlety. Like any new genre, House had a mothership: a record store called Imports Etc. just south of downtown Chicago. Traveling DJs could return there to fill up on hard-to- get vinyl. They mined the racks for gems and brought them to the world. It’s a geographical dispersion like the way modernist architects like Cliff May and Richard Neutra imported Californian lifestyle to the rest of the American landscape. “Much of Electronic Dance Music is fascinating and avant-garde and noisy on purpose,” said Sheinbaum. “It’s as much a modernist approach to making art as anything that happened in Jazz.” To its detractors, Electronic Music can sound like wall-shaking mindless hypnosis. But there are brains behind the beats. Look at Daft Punk’s carefully crafted image—it’s a fully synthesized vision for music that also happens to sell out arenas. With their faces hidden by helmets, the French duo removes the human element to sound and transports their audience into an alien future. An architectural equivalent could be Paolo Soleri, with his massive hypercities that seem ripped from a science fiction movie set. His floating pyramids and urban beehives were more imagination than reality, but wait a few thousand years and Soleri might have the last laugh. Most of us have a hard time thinking beyond next week’s schedule, but Soleri and Daft Punk looked way beyond the horizon.

Thanks to digital production, fanciful designs can now be churned out in warp speed. But we should be careful to not drown in theory, said Christopher Herr, an architect based in Boulder and Denver. “Both architecture and music are artistic expressions, but both need to be founded upon technical mastery,” said Herr, who also plays principal horn in a local symphony. In other words, art shouldn’t scare away an audience—it can be challenging yet approachable. Clearly there are no straight lines to be drawn in music history. Any attempt at a rigid family tree does a disservice to thousands of sub-genres and permutations. Garage Rock Revival and Neo-Soul are signs that the history can repeat itself. Musical collages and mash-ups poke holes in traditional categories. Bands can reinvent themselves like Radiohead. In the end, modern music and architecture do not hit dead ends. Sound waves can be stretched and twisted into unlimited forms. Steel, wood, and glass can be rearranged to match evolving lifestyles. And technology does more and more of the heavy lifting. Like oral tradition, the languages of architecture and music adapt and thrive. 

Kevin Janowiak


Rebels Without a Cause

Picking your favorite album is harder than picking your favorite child. And anytime you rank artists of any kind, you’re asking for a fight, or at least a vigorous debate. So, don’t consider these pioneering musicians and architects to be a definitive best-of list. Instead, look to them as fine examples of risk takers and boundary pushers. These iconoclasts probably wouldn’t do well together as roommates. But as a group they broke ground and built modern wonders. Writer Kevin Janowiak curated albums that he thought correlated with commonalities between architecture and music. Read below or click HERE to see the full list.