When it comes to the confluence of music and architecture, maybe the first thing that comes to mind is Goethe's claim that "music is liquid architecture." Goethe, however, was writing before the advent of MTV: music videos have become miniature films, attempting to capture all the tone, undercurrents and context of a particular song and translate them visually. Even better, the way music videos use architecture isn't the same as any documentary or film location; the camera attempts to mimic the way people listen to music by cutting and weaving around, designed for listeners as much as they are designed for viewers. Hence we see protagonists turning to the side, important elements placed away from the center and shots that both explore and disguise spaces in an attempt to fit the songs' acoustics to the setting.
What this means for us is that music videos can relate to architecture and capture its underlying tones in a way that a film might struggle to. For an architect wondering how the public truly understand and interact with a piece of architecture or remember a style, music videos are an untapped goldmine, since every setting location and filming choice show off how our wider culture relates to a building. Read on after the break for seven music videos that tell us a surprising amount about the architecture they feature.
Following a group of women dressed in monochromatic lederhosen, the video for the Chemical Brothers' Go takes modernism to a conclusion. Set in Paris' Front-de-Seine, the choreography and costume design take cues from constructivism, using movements to suggest machinery. The camerawork uses multiple angles and reflections to focus the attention onto form and movement, a focus that is shared with the modernist towers that form the video's backdrop.
The addition of futurist elements and constructivist cues prevent this video from being another exploration of modernist architecture's alienating side. The angles and detail shots are attempts to create a sense of place more than an attempt to feature architecture, similar to the way the choreography suggests machinery rather than featuring it. As such, Go is approaching this architecture on its own terms; retro as much as it is futuristic, this video seems to suggest that the conditions that gave rise to modernism have not entirely been lost from our collective consciousness.
Omi Palome - Architecture
Static, black and white shots of London's brutalist constructions set up the simple concept of this video. The song is, after all, called Architecture, and the video treats these buildings as "pure" architecture, rather than buildings to be lived in, used or related to. Thus we see long-distance, artfully-composed shots that mimic the way art photography seeks out angles and details that attempt to elevate these buildings to Architecture.
What was behind the choice to feature brutalism? This video seems to make the case that of all the styles Omi Palome live with, brutalism is the most "architectural." The fact that the buildings are so stark and recognizable means that when this post-punk band wanted a style that seemed artistically detached, they went for brutalism.
Art Department - Walls
This animated video for techno song Walls takes Miami Beach pastels, an imagined Babylon of ziggurats and a retro-futuristic take on mid-century modern. These disparate elements combine surprisingly well, creating a visually striking utopian environment, using the imagined leisure of the Gardens of Babylon and the publicly understood aspirations of the 1950s modernism embodied by the houses of designers such as Richard Neutra.
The pink and turquoise color wash unifies everything beautifully, but also allows the video to explore the other aspects of mid-century modernism. The largely static shots with just one or two moving elements create a slightly unsettling, otherwordly feel matching the general tone of the song, while the color palette taken from postcards only adds to the artificiality. In this video, Neutra's style and his influence is understood as alienating, even a little decadent, a theme encapsulated in the video's climax as this imaginary city is quite literally engulfed in blackness.
Unit 4 + 2 - Concrete and Clay
At the beginning of the 21st century, brutalism's appearances in music videos have of course been colored by the 40 years of architectural discussion and both conscious and unconscious judgments of the style's worth. But stepping back to 1965, we have Unit 4 + 2's short video set in the growing foundations of what would become the Barbican in London. Setting the group in a construction site under an increasingly modern cityscape, the message of love eternal alongside references to crumbling concrete seems like a foresight now - certainly it seems odd to contemporary eyes to have such a romantic song set in a brutalist environment.
But the whole song is optimistic and upbeat. Framing eternal love against the construction of London may make a point about modernism's lifespan, but the video is nevertheless casting brutalism as the city's bright future - making it an interesting reminder for present-day viewers of the cultural conditions of five decades ago.
Leonard Cohen - In My Secret Life
Set in Moshe Safdie's Habitat 67, Cohen's exploration of the sprawling site is set among shots of people with oddly-shaped heads mimicking domestic life with varying degrees of success. This extends to mocking commercialism, something Safdie's radical building is only too eager to enable, as the complex geometry of Habitat 67 is used to make familiar routines appear confusing and convoluted.
Cohen wanders through all this as an outsider, framed against and below some of the most imposing angles of Safdie's construction. This video uses Habitat 67 to suggest some kind of procedurally-generated collective unconscious, and often projects some of the more surreal scenes onto the building's surfaces, making the eggs eating eggs part of the structure itself. There's intimacy here too: more than many videos featuring brutalism, this one actually uses the spaces as habitable spaces.
Ryan Adams - New York, New York
This celebration of New York was filmed only a few days before 9/11 in 2001. The World Trade Centre Towers were, of course, used heavily, and feature as the main element of the skyline backdrop from scenes focusing on Adams. Instead of pulling the video or reshooting it, the label chose to begin the video with the simple text "This video was shot on Friday 7th, 2001."
Unintentionally, this little message totally changes how the video relates to architecture. What had been a relatively inconsequential thematic backdrop suddenly becomes nostalgic in feel, despite being filmed only a few days before. The way the towers appear in the skyline - not looming, but dominating, a central feature of it - is one that could never be recreated now without the towers being too consciously placed there.
Cold Mailman - Time is of the Essence
A time-lapse video that uses architecture as a backdrop for an enormous light show, Time is of the Essence turns Oslo into a canvas. By simply turning lights in individual buildings on and off, the video visualizes the music across the cityscape. It's a simple idea, but using the domestic lighting of each apartment keeps the video grounded in habitable space rather than simply using the buildings as a background element, and emphasizes the connectedness of the city as a whole.
The lights are colorful and playful, and inherently tied in with the rest of Oslo's landscape by virtue of using the buildings' built-in lighting - the same as every other building in shot - except in a stylized fashion. Other videos that attempt to suggest life often end up too static, but this one makes the austere towers blocks seem loved and lived in, and playful in a way that almost brings adverts to mind.