What Architecture Cannot Do
Architecture cannot save classical music. Architecture can only do so much. It is not the hospital for the arts. When something is dead or dying, architecture cannot revive it with flamboyance, much fanfare and fashionable designs. Flares and curves over something that is no more are nothing more than flares and curves.
Classical music is something that stopped growing a long time ago; it’s nothing but music made with old technologies that take too long to learn. A classically trained musician is out of time. It’s far too costly to devote an entire period of one’s development to one thing, one instrument. In Bach’s time, this made sense because a piano is a mentally and physically demanding technology. These days, we can make great music with far less training and sweat. When an art is dying, the only thing architecture can do for it is institutionalize it.
Indeed, this is what happened to jazz at New York’s Lincoln Center. The completion of the Rafael Viñoly-designed Frederick P. Rose Hall in 2004 marked the final entombment of the art, which also uses old technologies in the production of its music. Jazz has been dying since the late 1960s, when it was first replaced by younger and less technically demanding forms of music. At the peak of modern jazz, no work of architecture was devoted to it, facilitated its growth or reflected its vitality. (Incidentally, when the Swiss architect Le Corbusier first saw New York City in 1945 from an approaching commercial liner, he exclaimed: “It is hot—jazz in stone!”)
This, however, doesn’t mean that classical music has no place in the world of digitally produced and circulated music. Classical music and jazz are not only great sources for sampling but also offer access to a structure of feeling that was shaped by social and technological environments that are radically different from our own. Also, works like Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” are too beautiful to be forgotten. Yes, the music is still important but is also not alive. It is like a fossil, something from the past, something we must preserve and admire. Leave resurrection to the prophets.
Frank Gehry Designs Another Hospital for Classical Music
In a recent essay about the opening of the New World Center in Miami Beach, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross points out that when the building’s architect, Frank Gehry, designed Walt Disney Concert Hall (completed in 2003) for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, “His aim was to present the orchestra as a vibrant organism, not as a descript form trapped within a fortress of culture.” The critic then states that the New World Center, which cost $160 million to build and is often described as marking something of a redirection in the architect’s world-famous design program – a program that began, of course, with the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (a building, by the way, that’s devoted to contemporary art) – is “an even more radical articulation of the same idea [as the Disney Hall].”
Though boxy and not as flamboyant as the other music buildings, the New World Center is architecture as a hospital for the arts. It does everything not to be what, in fact, it is: an institution. If Gehry’s building were to look institutional, to appear noble, or somber, or marbly, or grounded in history (I have in mind Robert Venturi’s part of the Seattle Art Museum), then it would reinforce the actual state of the art, an organism that’s no longer vibrant. The New World Center is not only lively looking – and has a lively music park designed by the Dutch firm West 8 – its main performance hall is dominated by several curved surfaces for large-scale video projections. It’s the spectacle of new technologies compensating for old technologies used in the production of music by long-dead composers—Wagner, Beethoven, Mozart and so on.
After spending a day reading reviews about the center and looking at YouTube videos made by giddy, sunbaked visitors of the building and its park, I had a dream. In that dream, I found myself in the main performance hall of the New World Center. An orchestra composed of students (the building is, after all, a school) played Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. The performance was projected on the screens above us. But what my dream started to focus on were the sheets of music—the symbols of a music from a very distant time. At this moment, the dream turned dark. It became more and more about this dead person in the music, in the past. The performance was not so much a collaboration among the living, but more like a séance, the living communicating with the dead. When I woke up, the sun was in my face.