The Music of Architecture
Russell Degnan

Found floating around the planning blogs. Wired magazine had an article on Christopher Alexander's The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe. Although they obviously can't do his 2000+ page work justice they have condensed the key points down for examination.

Alexander has attempted to explain why how architecture could be better, using the natural world as his guide. But, underlying the natural world is a poorly understood, but complex mathematical relationship that we are only beginning to understand. So, Alexander's book is merely a stepping stone in the examination of the structures of life, and the models we can build by imitating its procedures - as opposed to its eventual form.

But this is not the first field to undergo mathematical examination for complex patterns. Probably the first field to do that was music, by Pythagoras and its somewhat mystical followers. Culminating in the works of Herman Helmholtz. it is interesting then, to examine Alexander's different elements and consider them in the context of the four elements of music: melody, harmony, rythym, and dynamics.

Rythym first, is the basis of the song: the beat. For a building it is the constant changes in the building and streetscape, the repetition of arches, columns, decoation, houses, street lamps, and roads. Alexander recognises these as Gradients, Repetition, Contrast and Echoes. A long undecorated blank wall is bad because first and foremost, "it 'aint got no rythym".

Harmony is the relationship between elements, the notes. They are harmonic in relation to simultaneous and successive notes according to a fixed, and relatively simple mathematical ratio based on their frequency. For a building it is Positive Space, Shape, Local Symmetries and Simplicity. They are such that all the different elements go together without jarring the senses. Classical architecture is obsessed with harmony and rythym - the size and shape of columns, and capitals and their proper spacing. But while it is servicable, a truly great building - or public space needs the other two elements as well.

The melody is the overall structure of the song. For a building it is its shape, and functional elements arranged in a way that each is in harmony with the other. For Alexander it is Scale, Strong Centers, Boundaries, and Not-Separateness. It is the meeting of the building, space or even an organism with its surroundings and the use of what is available. Each living part of nature has its own melody, seperate from the ubiquitous rythyms and harmony common to everyone.

To quote from the page earlier: "Once a song is organized by melody, harmony, and rhythm, it is technically presentable". This is also true of any building, but it is damning it with faint praise. The dynamics, the emotion, or in nature, the mere random chaotic side is the final important thing. You could easily criticise architects for paying too much attention to this element and not those previously mentioned, which is no doubt the reason Alexander has spent thirty years on these books. But they are still important. For him they are the Deep Interlock and Ambiguity, and Roughness. Also to note, dynamics are not necessarily chaotic - in nature they are a reaction against the natural environment and merely appear so, a point I'll return to at another time - there are hidden harmonic structures in organic forms that still react some part of the brain. But, I'd have to read Alexander's book to see how he thinks to bring them forth.

For planners, finding a way to accomodate knowledge of natural - rather than fixed - order, so as to achieve better planning ends is somethign that would be great to see. How it can be done is another matter.

Passing Fancy 13th June, 2004 02:47:23   [#]