Dancing about Architecture

'Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,' said someone, once. To this day, nobody is quite sure who said it first; some think Frank Zappa, others Elvis Costello. Whoever it was, they captured something important – the delicate relationship between music, rhythm, and architecture.

What might it mean to ‘dance about architecture’? It’s a lovely phrase, partly because of its impossibility – one might dance in architecture, but to dance about it? How does one do that? The point of the quote, perhaps, is to show that writing about music is an impossibility – one can no more write about a song than they can dance about a building – and yet, the saying has stuck. 

Maybe the quote has captured the imagination because it echoes an earlier quote by the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: 'Music is liquid architecture; architecture is frozen music.' Goethe gets to that special relationship between music and architecture by implying, on the one hand, that music is structural, maybe even spatial, and on the other, that there is something unfixed, fluid, melodic, about a building.

Music is liquid architecture; architecture is frozen music.

When we think of buildings we probably think the opposite of this: that buildings are hard and fixed and immovable. That they aren’t like music at all. But look again – pull back your curtain and peep outside the window – at the first building you see. Chances are you’ll notice different shapes and lines – a slanted roof, perhaps, or maybe a curved facade, or the repetition of squiggly details underneath a window. If you can read music, maybe these shapes will remind you of a musical score. 

Still not convinced? Look at all of the parts of buildings that do move: a window, a door, a shutter. And then look at the people, flowing in and out – because a building is never just bricks and mortar. It is also the spaces it creates, inside and out, and how we, as people, move in and through those spaces, like musical notes floating on the air.

The modernist architect Le Corbusier made Goethe’s quote a reality when he designed the Philips Pavilion in 1958, in collaboration with the Greek-French composer Iannis Xenakis. The building was based on Xenakis’s experimental music scores – look at the sharp, sweeping curves of the building, rising and falling like a glissando (which is just the fancy word for the continuous slide between two musical notes, like with a trombone). And look, also, at the little square windows, dotted across the side of the pavilion like crotches and quavers.

Or look at Frank Gehry’s mind-boggling Dancing House from 1996. We might not know how to ‘dance about architecture’ but, as Gehry shows, architecture sure knows how to dance around us.

Words by Mae Losasso

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