Bethoven Autograph of Sym. 9

Not these sounds (again) !

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Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was scored for a small orchestra (two of each in the wind family) whereas large orchestras (having four of each) were more to people’s taste in the late 19th century as audiences then, liked the volume turned up. The mid-20thC trend was for smaller orchestras and authentic instruments. The style was called HIP – for historically informed performance. It got mixed reviews.

51GqBUd5cBL._SX300_Harnoncourt, of course, made his name as one of the bright lights of historically-informed performance (HIP). He constantly pushed the limits of expression and took huge chances in his interpretations, which, more often than not, paid off in revelatory readings. This set, however, is not HIP. The Chamber Orchestra of Europe plays, for the most part, modern instruments in the modern way. Harnoncourt does make use of the valveless natural trumpet (for a very interesting reason; read the interview in the liner notes) and what sounds to me like natural-skin timpani. In short, the performance falls into the category of “modern, with slightly reduced forces.” 

The same phenomenon exists in architecture. Old favourites are continually re-photographed. I can think of several reasons.

  1. As with music, to suit the style of the times. Sometimes the difference is only slight but sometimes the change is huge.
  2. To obtain new, uncopyrighted phtographs. Later building activity has meant the old views can’t be replicated anymore anyway.
  3. To make them seem new again. Sometimes, the old photographs are just too old. They remind us that the building is slipping into history. I suspect this refreshing of imagery has something to do with rebooting our perceptions and stopping us from losing interest, of keeping the buildings and their myths alive.

New photographs for these three reasons all have the same function in that they are used to create a new media product in the case of books, or used as content on which to hang advertising in the case of magazines and, to an increasing extent, the internet. As a content provider of sorts myself, I’m not going to think about it too much – it’s the world we live in. It’s the world much architecture inhabits.

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Tastes in photography swing between the contrivedly dramatic and the apparently uncontrived – and then drift back again. Even buildings with a set money-shot can be photographed in a multitude of ways to freshen them up and make us look at them anew, even if only for a click.

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We should be thankful for photo-sharing sites such as flickr. Architects and photographers no longer have absolute control of what images of their buildings are published and circulated. The stage-managed money-shot is soon found out now we have a wider range of visual evidence on which to form our own visual aesthetic opinions. I say visual aesthetic opinions because photographs convey the warmth of timber or the coolness of marble, the aroma of timber, or the sound of a space. (I can’t think of an example where our sense of taste comes into play. This says as much about the essential nature of humans, as it does of buildings.)

Of the four sets of examples below, three are of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings and one is of a Le Corbusier building. I’ll order them chronologically.

The Robie House

The Kaufmann House

The Villa Savoye

The New York Guggenheim Museum

With music, and especially with pieces of music such as Beethoven’s 9th, some people know an awful lot about them even though it might sound incredibly pretentious. These days, in addition to scholarly essays and knowledgeable opinion, there are also applications such as this one.

9thBeethoven’s 9th Symphony for iPad presents four of Deutsche Grammophon’s legendary recordings of this iconic work, with the amazing ability to switch instantly between each performance at any point in the piece. As you listen, you can watch the synchronized musical score, be guided by expert commentary, follow Beethoven’s 1825 manuscript or immerse yourself in the hypnotic graphical BeatMap of the orchestra, precisely highlighting every note. The app also includes a treasure-trove of specially filmed video interviews with musicians, writers and great conductors discussing Beethoven and his masterwork.  

Bethoven Autograph of Sym. 9

Will this result in an understanding greater than a lifetime chasing orchestras between concert halls? Or will it perhaps result in a different understanding or perhaps more applicable insights into the process of creating symphonies? I don’t know. I shall find out.

But what would be an equivalent app for architecture?

It’s easy to imagine a virtual model of any building, and for that to be bundled into an app with a set of drawings and a walkthrough with ACTUAL PHOTOGRAPHS and VARIOUS COMMENTARIES by VARIOUS COMMENTATORS. But what new knowledge would this produce, given that we can’t be the original users and have the experience that was theirs alone? (And why should we? They paid for it – we didn’t.)

Such applications exist. 

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Just as talking about something endlessly is easier than actually understanding it, collections of the same old visual and audio information re-marketed as ‘interactive’ because it’s on an iPad or something do not represent new understanding. Seeing something from a different angle or on a different device is not the same as seeing something in a new way.

It could of course be that we’re seeing more than there actually is to see. It could just be that the imagined timelessness in these buildings lies in their ability to act as a subject for new people to generate new content on which to hang new advertising. If learning how FLW did it was ever the objective, then we would have more FLW looky-likey buildings as subsequent architects tried and failed, or perhaps bettered the guy. We don’t. People learning how to replicate a real or imagined architectural magic is the last thing an architect’s PR machine wants to see. Especially a posthumous one.

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