In his latest column for New York magazine, Justin Davidson argued a point that everyone can get behind: "[G]ood architects can give people places they want to go -- places where they can belong," he wrote. But he took the wrong route getting there, unnecessarily chastising the big-name architects of the last couple of decades who have turned out "ever-pricier baubles and feats of vertiginous engineering" before celebrating a handful of builders who are on a humanitarian mission.
The starchitects are the runway designers of the construction world. Like fashion, architecture relies on flashy statement pieces to draw attention and inspire awe. Not everyone is expected to live in a piece of haute couture, but that doesn't mean every architect needs to step off the runway and design buildings of modest size and vision.
Fortunately, for all parties involved, there are more ways to make a statement and to integrate art and architecture than just through size and scale. In their new book, Light Color Sound, architects Ana Maria Alvarez and Alejandro Bahamon explore recent applications of those three elements to the built environment. The thirty projects highlighted in the book, due out October 25, vary in shape, size and location. Many, at first glance, are less traditionally impressive than the skyscrapers that dominate big city skylines. Many, in fact, were conceived and constructed at the height of the recession. But they all have something in common: they interact with passers-by in a new and exciting way.
Our perception of architecture has been focused on sight and touch, leaving smell, hearing, and taste to one side. Buildings are created as striking images of instantaneous persuasion, as a photograph that produces a single description of an object, devoid of any dimensions or details. The last few years, however, have started to give rise to projects that investigate--from both the architectural and the technical viewpoints--the application of artificial light, color, and sound. Buildings of an interdisciplinary nature are being created to link and fuse art, architecture, and technology--projects in which the involvement of artists or the experience of an engineer are basic to the design and development.
Experimentation with light, color, and sound permitted the emergence of architecture that controls the sensations and perceptions of onlookers. These buildings act as an instrument of communication, totally connected with the senses; although color and light are perceived with the eyes and sound with the ears, all five senses react to them. Architecture is experienced with the entire body through the perception of the qualities, materials, and scale of the space: the constant interaction of all the senses articulates reality.
Amid today's constant bombardment of information, the choice of techniques and materials distinguishes a project and seeks to alter the way it is perceived. The achievement of sensory effects via architectural elements requires a long process of exploration, suggestion, and revision that will be different for every project. The impact of one building cannot be repeated or copied or transferred to another. The more provocative the stimulus for onlookers' perception, the freer the creative power and the greater the incitement to participate in the development of their environment. Effects of light, color, and sound are highly distinctive in architecture and render a building unique, giving rise to image-projects that represent a brand or insignia of communication.
Although every building is a declaration of intent (the creation of lasting experiences), its close connection with the current state of technology means that, while being fixed, it is also ephemeral and capable of being adapted and transformed according to the spectacle or context: architecture made to last as long as is appropriate and necessary. This ephemeral quality reflects the cultural moment of its creation. It triggers the need for new reading and, above all, the avoidance of an immediate impact that could make a building instantly obsolete. In this respect, the sensations produced by light, color, and sound are dependent on a building's setting, so the effects produced by its architecture turn it into an urban landmark. These values serve as a means to creating both aesthetic and functional effects: to make streets and squares stand out or become uniform, or to distinguish, articulate, or animate a building.
Architecture communicates specific ideas about our relationship with the world. The desired effect for a building to have on its surroundings is structured around the human body and senses. The projects featured in this book focus on the role of elements in a building that remain unseen: technical installations that make light, color, and sound a reality. The chosen examples constitute a small selection of strategies applied by architects from all over the world in order to make sensory effects the central theme of their design.
The development of architecture is closely linked to that of artificial light, although it was only at the end of the twentieth century that architects began to treat artificial light as an integral element of the design process, rather than a functional system or a cosmetic extra. Buildings themselves became light sources, not only fulfilling the basic needs of visibility but also creating an effect, an atmosphere, a condition.
The use of light was previously confined to areas devoted to entertainment and commerce: Times Square in New York, Sunset Strip in Las Vegas, the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, and London's Piccadilly Circus. In the early twentieth century, light accentuated the structure of buildings and made them expressive at night (through movement and rhythm). Both night and day began to be considered in the design process, in order to give equal importance to a building's nighttime and daytime appearances. So, the interior began to be reflected on the exterior by means of light: glass that would allow natural light to seep inside during the day became gleaming lanterns that would illuminate their surroundings at night.
In these circumstances, artificial light is more than just a functional medium. Architecture is transformed at nightfall. The appearance of forms and materials changes under natural or artificial light; surfaces look different and set up contrasts between day and night (for example, solidity by day, transparency by night). In projects whose design is based on light, the facade ceases to be an enclosure or a boundary between inside and outside to become a distinctive surface in its own right.
The surroundings of the buildings on display in this section are totally transformed, as the scale of their forms and spaces is altered. A building is not merely lit up, it becomes a veritable spotlight. White or colored lights or audiovisual elements can be used, rendering a building a huge screen that reflects the origin of the architectural design.
Color tends to highlight parts of a building; it can emphasize them, make them invisible or transparent, or conceal them. Once color is separated from its customary role, it becomes the guiding element of a design. So, the sensations produced by color in architecture depend upon its setting, history, atmosphere, light. Extremely complex effects can be created by taking advantage of new technologies and techniques. Color can be used to emphasize forms: if the color of a well-known shape is changed, our perception of it also changes and it is no longer so easy to recognize.
Color is also a memory. The memory of the cities we visit is often associated with specific colors: Paris is gray, New York blue, Tokyo red, Lisbon white. Color is a fundamental part of a city's skin, and it alters moods and perceptions. It has its own intrinsic properties, over and above being a layer on a surface. It transforms the experience of objects or, more precisely, it alters their state: reality itself is affected by them.
Color was fundamental in the conception of some key projects in modern architecture, albeit as a complementary element in their composition--for example in works by Le Corbusier such as La Tourette Monastery, in Charles Eames's own house, and the tower and home of Luis Barragán. During the last three decades of the twentieth century color took on a leading role instead of being a complement--the Pompidou Center by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, the total white of Richard Meier's buildings, the optical illusions with colored light in the first projects by OMA.
Although color is perceived with the eyes, all five of our senses react to it, so it is a means of expression by which an architect can illustrate the spirit of what he or she wants to convey. As a basic element in architectural composition, the relationship between the colors in a project establishes an alphabet: a building emits messages.
As regards the use and effects of color, the striking qualities of the projects described here demonstrate that it has ceased to be merely a decorative element and has become instead a means of emphasizing dimensions and defining the volume of spaces. Color underlines a project's artistic nature by dissolving the limits between physical and imagined space. It highlights a building's theatricality. Color makes a building stand out from its context, turning it into something unexpected and often surreal.
Like color, sound in architecture is a memory. Visual impressions are related to a sound which, ultimately, acts as the link across time between the project and the viewer. The echo of architectural space stays within the subject as an unconscious experience. This is how cities and buildings are remembered and related to specific sounds.
The constructions presented in this book are examples of experimentation with sonic architecture: their very structure, in interaction with their surroundings, produces or contains sounds. They are striking for their capacity to create sound with architectural elements and to make architecture on the basis of sounds. These projects cover not only buildings specifically designed as concert halls but also ones that resonate on their own or invite viewers themselves to produce sounds by touch.
Excerpted from LIGHT COLOR SOUND: SENSORY EFFECTS IN CONTEMPORARY ARCHITECTURE by Alejandro Bahamon and Ana Maria Alvarez by arrangement with Norton Professional Books, a member of W.W. Norton & Company, Copyright Alejandro Bahamon, 2010.