12/20/2012 02:45 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2012

Imagining Music in Physical Form

Watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

"I try to imagine my goal as a reality, and then work backwards to figure out all the steps I need to take to make it so" - Janet Echelman

Janet Echelman's TEDTalk, "Taking Imagination Seriously," is an inspiration, both in how it reveals the creation of a new physical art form, and in its articulation of the creative process, one born not out of a prescribed formula, but solely out of the imagination.

In the design of a recent concert hall, I found myself asking 'what does music look like?', faced with the challenge to employ architecture, the most permanent of arts, in the service of music, the most ephemeral. Beyond all the exacting technical requirements necessary to produce a space with the acoustics demanded of any modern hall, regardless of the type of music to be performed, the architect must imagine and execute a space that will promote intimacy, immediacy and community. I watched how Echelman gave free reign to her imagination, allowing it to open up new possibilities for creation, and pondered the elusive notion of where inspiration comes from.

In addition to acoustics, there is the matter of aesthetics to be considered, and how they can be employed in a cohesive, coherent way that is at once accessible, serene, and centering. Everything must come together to clear the mind and open it to the experience of music. For centuries, architects have looked to classical models for both architectural form and ornament as tried and true ways of imbuing architecture with meaning based upon our shared past of myth and tradition.

Think of a canonical example, like the Musikverein in Vienna, home to the Vienna Philharmonic and famous throughout the world for its warmth, beauty and fabulous sound. First glance reveals that columns, capitals, caryatids, clerestories, chandeliers, plaques, panels, patterns, all adorned with gold leaf, cover every surface of the room in a riot of richness and ornament, all within a classical temple form. But look a little closer and you find that all of those shapes, whether the curvaceous caryatids or the myriad shaped moldings, are diffusing and bouncing sound around the room in all directions. This play of sound is the secret of the Musikverein's musical experience.

So how do we translate music into an architectural expression that is of our time? I tried to imagine how music could be rendered in physical form and attempted to create an architectural vocabulary of surface and ornament, one drawn directly from music, science, and art.

I was inspired by a series of paintings by Robert Mangold, known as his "column" paintings. These works are composed of varying sine curves overlaid upon each other, apparently spiraling around each other in vertical compositions. Using 3-D software, we "spun" similar forms in three dimensions about each other, creating continuous, wavelike random patterns, not unlike the surface of water rippled by wind.

Through acoustic analysis and the abstraction of the fundamentals of acoustic science, we know that a rich sound is the product of varying frequencies, or wavelengths, of sound waves, arriving at the ear at slightly different times. These differences, measured in milliseconds, can be classified as early middle or late reflections, and together provide a richness of sound that would be lacking if all arrived simultaneously. This effect, known as "reverberation time", is the central tool used by acousticians to create what we hear and feel as the warmth, depth and richness that a great concert hall should provide. At the same time, any repetitive pattern is to be avoided, as it would create waves of similar lengths and thus flatten the sound. It is randomness that is desired.

Randomness is an intriguing concept for those of us that like to have a controlling hand in the details as it involves a sort of surrender. Echelman's journey was one solely of exploration without a predetermined expectation -- a liberating process.

Richard Olcott is the founding partner at Ennead Architects (architect of the new Bing Concert Hall at Stanford University opening 1.11.13).

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