Proportions of Architecture and Music

At least since the Renaissance, architects and musicians have proportioned their works to approximate the golden ratio, believing this proportion to be aesthetically the best. The golden ratio has fascinated western intellectuals and artists from Euclid and Pythagoras to Bela Bartok and Le Corbusier for more than 2.000 years.

For the design-process of architects in the European Renaissance the use of antique music-proportions was common practice. With the beginning of the Baroque and the use of perspective, antique proportions became less important and did not come up until modernism in the early 20th century.

When Johann Sebastian Bach’s oeuvre was rediscovered fin-de-siècle, many architects and artists were not only inspired by his music but by the mathematical logic and proportions in his compositions too. Erich Mendelsohn for example used a gramophone as a working tool to listen to Bach’s fugues during designing the Einstein-tower.

The swiss architect Le Corbusier developed the Modulor – an anthropometric scale of proportions by reference to antique traditions of music. His project head Iannis Xenakis was not only working as an architect but as a composer during night-time – using the Modulor for both disciplines. His composition Metastasis was basis for the Philips pavilion (Expo ’58 in Paris).

Vice versa, musicians were influenced by architecture, too. After the French Revolution music was democratized. Composers had to face the fact that music was no longer an elitist art and began to be commercial. Music halls were built for the public, so they had to consider space, acoustics and even the enhanced size of the orchestras in their compositions.

In the 20th century, composers like Charles Ives also worked with space and architecture: When young Ives was sitting in his hometown’s square, listening to his father’s marching band and other bands on other sides of the square simultaneously, this childhood experience may have been a strong influence on his oeuvre. This motives can be retrieved for example in his composition „Three Places in New England“.

Nowadays, many contemporary architects are still using music as a “tool” for their designs. While some focus more on the emotional aspect, others try to translate music directly into built structures by simply extruding the notations or generating structures by complex computer programs.

Indeed, architecture can be used as a musical instrument: After the introduction-lecturer about architecture and music, Shih presented his composition „Prayer“ and our musical and architectural installation at Sun-Moon-Lake which took place on November 19th. Norihiko Dan’s visitor centre with its huge concrete ramps and bridges was included in the design-process and so used as a musical instrument too. Projections by Sheng-Hsueh Wu and light effects were added. The idea of the cloud-like temporary stage was not only to be shelter, but gate to the surrounding of the lake, to its landscape the water and the sky.

Excerpt from the lecturer “Music and Life”
at National Changhua Living Art Center, Taiwan (R.O.C.)
together with Shih

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