Built in major & minor keys

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Campus of The American School in Switzerland (TASIS) near Lugano. (Screenshot from video)

David Mayernik, who teaches at Notre Dame’s school of architecture and has designed the campus at The American School in Switzerland, overlooking Lake Lugano, recently presented his views on the language of architecture and definitions of the classical and traditional to a symposium on humanism at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid. The symposium was sponsored by the Rafael Manzano Martos Prize. Mayernik’s lecture was entirely sensible, but I’d like to introduce his video of it with some thoughts on the major and minor keys in music from Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s biography, Mozart.

No one has ever satisfactorily explained the different emotional effects of the two modes. No one will deny that, different as night and day, major and minor awaken the most opposite feelings; indeed, no other artistic discipline commands a contrast even remotely similar to this polarity, as clear-cut as turning a switch on and off. Why (to reduce the question to its simplest form) does the minor third make us sadder than the major third?  …

He continues, explaining that “within the radius of objective reception” there are differences in how two people might perceive the two keys differently in some of Mozart’s music. He adds:

Even where interpreters agree about the “tragic” content of a piece, the degree will vary and with it the descriptive attributes applied. Of course, we can never prove that the composer felt the way we do.

Likewise, no two people will feel the same reaction to a work of architecture. And many people confuse the terms traditional and classical. I often conflate them myself, in the desire to achieve a larger clarity. As Mayernik writes in his blog’s intro to his video talk, “Why it matters is that if we don’t know what we’re doing, we don’t know what we’re doing. Simple as that.” Very true. Mayernik’s lecture, which is linked to from the blog, describes astutely some of the vagaries involved in seeking clarity on this matter.

Classical and traditional architecture share a distinct but overlapping language, the language of the classical orders. Classical buildings (ancient or neo) are built according to a more or less strict interpretation of those orders. Traditional buildings generally include elements of those orders but stray. So you might have Gothic or Romanesque or Victorian buildings, but they all share more in common than they diverge from the classical canon.

The difference between the classical and the traditional in architecture is quite unlike the difference between the major and minor keys in classical music. And yet, as Hildesheimer suggests in regard to Mozart, there are degrees, and a degree to which the architect of a building can never be sure what chord it will strike in the eye of the beholder. Music and architecture express ideas in ways that cannot often, or ever, be translated into the far more specific language of words. Thus the observer of a building can never be sure what precise idea, if any, its architect intended to convey.

However difficult it may be to explain why we perceive major keys in classical music as joy and minor keys as sorrow, architecture’s “frozen music” in today’s world is keyed likewise, after a century of modernism, in joy and in sorrow. The explanation is amply clear to most people, however sophisticated their ear, or rather their eye, may or may not be.

Off with our hats to Eric Daum, who sent David Mayernik’s blog and video.

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View toward Lake Lugano from TASIS. (Screenshot from video)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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