Silence as Architecture: Architecture as a composition

theory essays

Curiousity and questions based on my architectural studies.

‘Architecture is not a synchronising phenomenon, but a gradual unfolding. It consists of a sequence of

tableaux, associated in time and space. Like music it is a means of conceiving in time.’- Le Corbusier˝

Often music is represented through scores and the make-up of a piece is defined as a composition. ˝

As music is created through compositions, so is architecture and space. ˝

The scores represent the rhythm and tones, which creates the duration in music. ˝

The gaps in between notes and wavelength of sound create the space within music. ˝

Compared to architecture, there are elements which makes up the space, and the spatial organisation creates duration. ˝

Duration in spatial organisation, is the period where you move through the space, and the time you spend in the space. ˝

Le Corbusier’s stated both architecture and music is a means of time. ˝

Similarly John Cage represented his study of silence as a void, an emptiness between his written text and the actual

piece 4’33.˝

How Corbusier talked about architecture as a ‘gradual unfolding’ states that in fact, architecture is not one picture, or

one final but something created from a series of moments. As you walk through an architectural space, the experience

is not static. It is a sequence of time, experiences of the spatial qualities with each element in the space playing a role. ˝

It’s equivalent in music, as you listen through the piece, you would hear different instruments or different tones,

rhythm and so on. Architecture and music is both a representation of time and space, merely in different languages, but

similarly they create a sequence which makes up the composition. By different languages, I mean how you can relate

both music and architecture to time and space. The gap between notes, are spaces between elements. The tone of the

sound and the tone of colour of the material.

Composition in music are the notations illustrating the different tones, instruments and rhythms combined together. ˝

In architecture, similarly are the elements such as wall, ceiling, doors etc. which pieces the structure together. ˝

In parallel, different instruments can be different elements, different material can give different tone, and equally the

two shares the representation of time and space. An empty atrium compared to a pause in the music, a high concrete

wall would be a particular instrument with a loud demanding sound in music.˝

The sketch illustrates each of the elements that composed the structure, the windows, stairs, the metal wings etc. As if

they are musical notes, each presenting a different key. Each element giving a different experience, different tone to the

space, driving different feelings. ˝

“Space is in our experience equal to place, and the time is equal to the moment.’˝

Juhani Pallasmaa has said that space is equal to place, and time is moment. ˝

As explored earlier, time and space can be representation of the composition of music and architecture.˝

The make-up of an experience is the composition of place and moment. ˝

The experience of the place and the moment, is then defined by an atmosphere of the space, in which the architectural

elements create. ˝

Thus music and architecture composition creates an experience. ˝

In music, the quiet high piano keys would give a different atmosphere to loud banging noise from the drums. Just as an

open window would give a different spatial effect to a solid brick wall.

Architectural and musical elements give certain qualities creating an atmosphere. ˝

This atmosphere is a reflection of the experience. ˝

The experience is of space and moment, which is created through the elements. ˝

The visitor must go through this ‘composition’, the sequence to fully experience it the composition of the space. In a

given structure there are different elements, different instruments which gives different effects. Together is creates the

atmosphere, which in a sequence is gives the experience. The experience as the quote states, is creates by place and

moment, which is space and time. And that goes back to how architecture and music is what creates the experience.˝

Every space creates a distinct atmosphere, made of two components: physical and environment elements. Physical in

forms of the scale, material, furnishing, kind of walls, stairs and similar,. However there are also the more subtle

elements, the environmental components such as light, sound, smell, the intangible sensations that are attached to the

physical objects. As a brick wall can represent an instrument for example, a drum. The brick wall has consistent

rhythm, with how each brick is placed on the wall. The wall is also a very solid object, in which gives no light, or

insulation. In music, the beats are repetitive and the same tone. The comparison could go on, and you would find that

you will be able to relate spatial qualities between architectural elements and music. ˝

Further in his text, the eyes of the skin, Pallasmaa stated “Architecture presents the drama of construction silenced into

matter, space and light”3. ‘The drama of construction’ is noisy, dynamic process, yet it is ‘silenced’ and turned into

matter (physical elements), space and light (environmental elements). This brings us to a very interesting question -

what is silence in architecture? architecture is the ‘silent’ version of space and time? Silence is commonly referred to

nothing, and the lack of a certain quality. For example sound and space. The experience of silence is expected to be

minimal and quiet.˝

In Kenzo Tange’s St Mary Church, which has been illustrated as a sequence and composition earlier, the spatial quality

of the it has created a certain atmosphere of silence. The first initial expectation of any church would be it’s silent

atmosphere. The emptiness and peacefulness of the space. Both the program and design gives an idea of silence, as a

church is a place for quietness and the design is minimal. As a composition, the architectural structure itself controls

the lighting through the narrow window, leaving a gap creating a line of light. Elements of the church also includes a

cold metal facade, high angled ceiling, a void, an emptiness with a concrete interior in which all these elements build in

and creates that atmosphere. Walking into the cold metal facade can be the piano slowly playing high notes, the

threshold as a dramatic opening in the music composition, the void as a pause in the sound, the angled ceiling as the

music ascends and walking along the seating can be repetitive musical notes. Slowly as you compare and try to relate

music to architecture, you can almost start to ‘hear’ the piece.˝

St Mary’s church was completed in 1964, as a church, it is expected to have an atmosphere of silence. However if you

look at it closely, it is actually a good example of how silence matters are noisy, but muted. Made of a concrete core and

interior, the curve walls reflect and allows natural sunlight to enter at a different angle every hour. As you move

through the space, you will notice the angle of light change, it is almost as if the lighting is dancing to a rhythm of its

own, a performance of light. The dancing lighting also illustrates the idea we talked about earlier, how architecture is

not a static structure, but composition of time and space. As you walk through the church, there is a certain order and

sequence, a duration determining how long you would stay there for. ˝

That is the same as how music has it’s own duration, pace and rhythm.˝

My visit was a mesmerising one. I was own my own, exploring the city and walking into this massive empty space was

almost intimidating. As I walked in, I was welcomed by the void, the quiet natural light illuminated the space from the

gaps it shown through. There was nothing, yet every bit, element was enhanced. It’s as if, welcomed by the silence, and

slowly you start to really ‘hear’ what is beyond the silence, the supposing emptiness of the space. How the light shined

through the gaps, the reflection on the instruments, the steps on the stairs, the high ceiling, the number of benches, the

flower petals left on the ground. Both this physical and environmental elements playing hand in hand. ˝

As I sat on the bench and listened to the silence, there were echoes of the wind, staff talking at the reception softly, my

own breathing, distant sound of cars outside. Everything was so soft, in the beginning I had to really concentrate to

identify the sounds, but as I listen further, I was drawn into silence, and the silence became part of the space. All these

elements represented sounds and that was a reflection of the space as a composition. Silence as architecture, it was loud.

Often these subtle things are not something you usually notice. Often, it’s ignored, hidden in all the noise. The silence

and the void made all these little things enhanced and almost as if enchanted, screaming from the void. What was

noted as silence, has been amplified.˝

“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.” 

-John cage˝

In Cage’s 4’33, it establish there is nothing such as silence, instead there is noise everywhere. The subtle things we don’t

usually notice. Yet, when we are given ‘silence’, the lack of presence of sound, amplifies what it there but we don’t

normally notice. Which makes the idea of silence fascinating, you find sounds you don’t usually notice, it’s almost as if

it’s something new. ˝

It’s like silence is nothing, but if you look closer it is or was something that is in fact so noisy. There’s two ways of

looking at it, silence amplifies the presence of subtle things, or it is the noisy things that have been muted into the

silence. ˝

When John Cage stated there is nothing such as silence, often in his studies he referred to glass buildings, and he said ‘It

acts in such a way that one can ‘hear through’ a

piece of music just as one can see through some modern or see through a wire sculpture by Richard Lipoid or

the glass of Marcel Duchamp.” That the definition of ‘silence as the presence of ambient and unintentional noise rather

than the absence of sound.” ˝

Silence amplifies nothingness, and highlights the richness in what is often ignored. ˝

The concrete walls of the St Mary’s church, amplified the sensation of the void, yet you would notice every mark made

on the concrete. Or the sloped ceiling of the structure, creates this directionality in the space. ˝

It is almost as if you need nothing to find structure, need the silence to find sound, to find what is left when you remove

all the excessive ‘noise’. Once you do that, you truly see what is there in the composition. ˝

When you take away the sounds of the city, people chattering at the reception of the church, decorative flower signs,

tourist postcards, you’re left with the structure. The coldness of the walls, the fine edge of the window, the copper

instruments, the wide steps towards the alter. All these subtle things are almost made noisy, dynamic, as if they have

words to speak of their own, sounds of their own. ˝

Cage used the Mies Farnsworth house as a comparison to his piece 4”33. Comparing the idea of background noise in

silence, and what you can see through the glass, in the background. The glass representing silence, and the idea of

nothingness, turns into a frame. A frame that shows what is beyond what is known as nothing. With the Farnsworth

house, you can see through the building, the people living in it, everyday habits, the season changing, leaves falling,

squirrels running across the grass and so forth. The glass in fact, transforms into this magnifying glass, where things are

framed for it to be noticed. ˝

Similarly in Cage’s silence piece, it allowed the audience to react to the pause and the void. Using silence

to frame the background and for what isn’t usually noticed. Silence in fact is a tool to amplify subtleness, to deny the

idea of what is not there and encourages the audience to look further and beyond. Silence creates a very noisy

atmosphere, an isolated experience of architectural noise. ˝

As architecture is created through elements, and music is created through

instruments. The elements and instruments are the parts the that makes up the composition, which the effects of

each part would give an overall atmosphere. The parts itself, elements and instruments, and the effect they create is

the construction of drama mentioned in Pallasma’s text. In fact, all these factors makes the

space noisy, and when given a silent space, these silenced elements are amplified.˝

In a comparison to that, what is architectural noise? In the Fireworks drawing by Bernard Tschumi is designed in such

a way it is composed, and sequenced. The Fireworks project was created in 1974 and also recreated at the AA in 2007.

The fireworks was a visual translation of Tschumi’s manifesto. The composition was then translated into organisation

principles of the design for Parc de la Villette. It also served as well as a language for the firework performance, used to

showcase the relation between space and time. How he drew and composed fireworks again connected the relationship

between, time, space, architecture and music. It all comes together. The timing of the fireworks, spatially where and

how much it expands out, and that itself, the composition of space and the sound can be seen as both architecture and

architectural noise. If as we have discussed earlier, architectural noise are the effects and muted elements, than in both

architecture, and music, silence is in fact noisy.˝

Fireworks itself are loud, colourful displays, in an empty dark sky. They sound like gun shots and bomb explosions. It

would be classified as noisy from first thought, and is far from silence. But imagine the deafening noise of fireworks, it

is almost too much noise, everything is so concentrated that you cannot find anything, cannot isolate any of it to

identify it. Fireworks are like the opposite of silence. Fireworks are so noisy, it’s deafening which makes it quiet. Where

as silence is so quiet, that it amplifies every subtle noise. The line between silence and noise is actually really thin.˝

Fireworks is noisy physically, but so noisy is drowns everything out of it. Silence creates this frame of emptiness, which

in facts enlarges what is in the background. Silence drives you seek through nothing and noise, such as fireworks hides

and camouflage all the elements in the composition.˝

As a spatial study fireworks is quiet, intact, there are only so many factors you can see. ˝

The colourful lights in the sky, possibly people celebrating. ˝

Compared to St Mary’s church as silent architecture, the church has more to offer although it is intended to be a quiet

and empty space. It has all the materials spoke of and the intangible effects it reflects to the visitor. Tschumi’s

performance of fireworks, itself is an example of a silence a space, and the church as ‘noisy’ architecture. ˝

The lack of architectural noise, meaning the lack of elements, detail is then silence. Like the fireworks example, there

isn’t a lot of parts to it, it is one thing and that is all. ˝

Which makes it silent. ˝

Architectural silence on the other hand, is the framing that amplifies architectural noise, the effects which the elements

gives off.˝

There is a need of noise to appreciate silence, and the need of silence to acknowledge noise.˝

There are different definition of silences covered in the essay, literal silence which is represents absolutely nothing, like

the deafening noise of the fireworks.˝

Then there is the silence which amplifies the background, the silence John Cage references to.˝

There is also the architectural silence, that is introduced in the essay, as elements being ‘silenced’ into their effects, such

as angled concrete walls, where its cold, solid, yet rich in detail when you look carefully at the panelling of it and the

markings made due to it’s age.˝

As silence helps the visitor to appreciate presence, architectural silence is the framing of how architecture elements

represent noise in their it’s on forms. In the three different definition of silence, each has a slightly different

atmosphere.The literal silence provides an emptiness and nothingness, Cage’s silence creates a frame, which makes the

audience curious to look for more. And the third, the architectural silence creates this very busy composition where

every bit from different elements, to their materials to light and spatial effect are amplified.˝

Architectural silence removes un-mutes and allow these elements to be noticed, to perform and amplified. It removes

the subtleness of the elements and as a composition, creates a noisy atmosphere. Every detail then adds to the piece and

creates architectural noise. Architectural silence is what makes you notice the noise of these elements. Noise and

silence cannot exist without one of another, and in all form of space and time, the two co-exist. ˝

You need nothing to find the structure, and the need of deafening noise to create actual silence. ˝

In music, silence highlights the background noise, in architecture, silence showcase the empty space, the contained

space and the container of the space. ˝

The elements and what is beyond that void. Silence makes you more aware of your presence, every little movement,

detail, object and sound. ˝

Architectural silence showcases what is beyond the void and what is beyond ‘nothing’.˝

Bibliography˝

Cage, John. Silence. 1st ed. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1961. Print.˝

Kloos, Maarten, Machiel Spaan, and Klaas de Jong. Music, Space And Architecture. 1st ed. [Amsterdam]: Amsterdam Academy of Architecture, 2012. Print.˝

Martin, Elizabeth. Architecture As A Translation Of Music. 1st ed. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1994. Print.˝

Pallasmaa, Juhani. The Eyes Of The Skin. 1st ed. Chichester, West Sussex [U.K.]: Wiley, 2012. Print.˝

Xenakis, Iannis, Sharon E Kanach, and Carey Lovelace. Iannis Xenakis. 1st ed. New York: Drawing Center, 2010. Print.˝

CAGE, John. Silence. (Lectures And Writings By John Cage.). 1st ed. Calder & Boyars: London; printed in U.S.A., 1968. Print.˝

Footnotes˝

Img 1. Sketch by Gigi Tsz Yan Wong/ Own Material˝

Img 2. Sketch by Gigi Tsz Yan Wong/ Own Material˝

Img 3. Kloos, Maarten, Machiel Spaan, and Klaas de Jong. Music, Space And Architecture. 1st ed. [Amsterdam]: Amsterdam Academy of Architecture, 2012. Page 60˝

Img 4.Taken during the my visit to St Mary’s Church/ Own Material˝

Img 5.Taken during the my visit to St Mary’s Church/ Own Material˝

Img 6. Taken during the my visit to St Mary’s Church/ Own Material˝

Img 7. Taken during the my visit to St Mary’s Church/ Own Material˝

Img 8. Taken during the my visit to St Mary’s Church/ Own Material˝

Img 9. http://www.tschumi.com/projects/47/˝

Img 10. http://www.tschumi.com/projects/47/˝

1, Kloos, Maarten, Machiel Spaan, and Klaas de Jong. Music, Space And Architecture. 1st ed. [Amsterdam]: Amsterdam Academy of Architecture, 2012. Print. Page 127˝

2. Pallasmaa, Juhani. The Eyes Of The Skin. 1st ed. Chichester, West Sussex [U.K.]: Wiley, 2012. Print. Page 25

3. Pallasmaa, Juhani. The Eyes Of The Skin. 1st ed. Chichester, West Sussex [U.K.]: Wiley, 2012. Print. Page 55

4. Cage, John. Silence. 1st ed. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1961. Print. Page 3