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Giuseppe Gavazza: Photo of the Arsenale, Venice, Italy.

Sonorous Architecture


By Giuseppe Gavazza

“Talking about music is like dancing about architecture”

I'm discovering that this phrase is a very controversial quotation: Google it, and you will see that it has many possible authors, like Frank Zappa, Steve Martin, William S. Burroughs, Elvis Costello, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Nick Lowe, Miles Davis, George Carlin, John Cage, Laurie Anderson. . . . 

Well: I'm writing about architecture. Does that mean I'm - slowly -  dancing about music? 
If so, it sounds good.

In truth I'm here writing about architecture and sound/music and I remember I had this phrase—which I was convinced came from Frank Zappa - dancing in my mind, like a Giga con ritornello, when I was walking the long path across the multi-stylistically old-fashioned green village of the Giardini and the wonderful, fascinating, and huge L-shaped brick building of the Arsenale, which are the two main venues for the 12th Venice Architecture Biennale.
I have visited many editions of both the Architecture Biennale and the Art Biennale exhibitions over the years, and I definitely prefer the architectural biennial to the art biennial: I found it more appealing, living, linked to contemporaneity and reality. 

Music walk

Wandering along the Giardini and Arsenale paths, I plugged on my digital audio recorder and my stereo headphones experiencing, as usual, an audio exploration of the soundscape, fading natural and artificial sounds. 

Walking with microphones and earbuds provides an uncommon perception of the audio environment: the distance between natural and artificial (i.e., speaker generated) sounds declines. Of course, this is because all sounds (both natural and artificial) arrive at our ears through the headphone's loudspeakers: hearing the world through sound technology would be comparable to looking at the world through video glasses. This levelling of audio inputs give us a precise perspective on the integration of ambient and art(ificial) sounds. 

Sound in art exhibition

More and more sound fills exhibition spaces, but rarely have I come across organic interactions with real spaces. It is different to  see and listen to a multimedia work conceived by an artist or an architect for a public showing:

- in a huge brick cathedral-like space like the Arsenale (looking and listening at muffled, liquid reflections of light and the sounds of the lagoon outside)         or
- in a Le Corbusier-like concrete building in the Giardini (giardini means gardens: trees and singing birds, steps on lawn and gravel)    or 
- in a white luminous space of a new modern urban art gallery (smothered urban basso continuo noise)


Each circumstance changes our perception of the work.

This attention to site-specificity happens more and more – though it seems to happen more in architectural exhibitions than in art exhibitions – but it concerning visual spaces and only rarely takes sound into consideration. It seems artists (and architects) seldom seek to make their works truly resonatewith the spaces where these work will be presented and received. 

Maybe the classical idea of music is one reason for this. A music composition is a sonorous work that is self-defined and autonomous from the sounds around it: it is not by chance that architects have created spaces for music rather then composers’ creating music for spaces. Probably this last case happens only in church with sacred organ and choral music, but since this concerns God it is not a ordinary human situation.


Classically a musical work, a composition, is not a “piece of sound” but a score: written pages of instruction to produce - in a specific place, ideally a concert hall – precise sounds; pages written in a very specialized “alphabet” for high skilled specialists on special instruments. But in the last century, with recorded and artificial sounds, many things have changed.

Photo by Giuseppe Gavazza, Wall Plan.

Visitors interact (1*) with the exposition's architecture/architecture's expositions

The organizers of the Architectural Biennale do not seem to have fully considered that visitors to an exposition will both see and listen in ways specific to the site (place and space). Beyond that,  by inhabiting the site with their bodies and voices they become co-authors of the exhibition. 

The title of Architecture Biennale 2010 is: “People meet in Architecture” and Kazuyo Sejima, Director of 2010 Architecture Biennale, writes:

“As an architect, I feel it is part of our profession to use “space” as a medium to express our thoughts. (….)  Space is not solely designed by architects but rather that built forms are realized through collaborations with other professionals. Likewise, the users of a building, play a large role, the determine both the practically of a building and have a chance to join in the creative process. Thus, in the Venice Biennale, visitors are important collaborators”

Meeting people at the Architecture Biennale strengthens Kazuyo Sejima statement: architecture is spaces where people meet.

But a statement by Paolo Baratta, President of la Biennale di Venezia reports:

“An architecture exhibition can help by using their language. This is not only documentation but also visual excitement, which leads to perceiving and considerating new possibilities that differ from the everyday and the usual.”

As the phrase “Visual excitement”: suggests, architecture reflects the dominance of the visual in our era.

Music walk

Please try to go to listen an exhibit, simply with your natural ears if you have no handy audio recorder + earbuds: this could be a revealing experience.


Giuseppe Gavazza, October 2010


 1* -  interact : communicate, interface, connect, cooperate; meet, socialize, mix, be in contact, have dealings, work together

Giuseppe Gavazza is a composer who lives and works in Turin, Italy.

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