SMa.rt Column: “The Music of Cities”

Just returned from 4 weeks of Classical Tahoe and found last year’s article every bit, if not more meaningful, in echoing the beauty of music and environment, in contrast to the accelerated direction and deterioration of our city’s environment.

I spent the last 3 weeks at the 10th anniversary of my daughter’s “Classical Tahoe” music festival in the majesty of Lake Tahoe, meeting and listening to world class musicians from leading orchestras all over the country and remembering in my first architectural college class, being taught that architecture is “frozen music.” Listening to sequential rhythms and movements were similar to designing, articulating, and walking through spaces. Whether listening musically from movement to movement or being led from sidewalk to courtyard to lobby – there is a profound artistic similarity when done with a sense of feeling and poetry. This music festival provides a glimpse, or rather a broad vision into creative collaboration.

The classical music of Mozart, Brahms, and Copeland from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries was inspired by the classical architecture and planning of European cities and the countryside of that time.

But music today emulates a harsh and staccato rhythm of life, as do our solid, rectangular buildings that fill our residential neighborhoods and commercial streets – tall, block-like, stationary design experiences – instead of the integrated artistry and rhythm of sculpted buildings with landscaped courtyards and terraces. Sadly, contemporary architecture no longer sings, chants, or even hums. It no longer embraces its environment or exudes a texture that draws a smile – or even a gaze!

And unfortunately this extends well beyond the architecture of single buildings or entire neighborhoods, well into the “movement” and confusion of our transportation and other mobility systems, our zoning codes, our piecemeal development. There is the lack of an integrated composition of all the instruments or pieces within the city. Where is a Schumann or Mendelssohn to organize our “movement,” our way of life into the beauty of a classical overture or into a zoning ordinance that wholly would interweave our interior and exterior spaces into a sculptured, uplifting “movement.” Just as musicians collaborate, we need the same spirit and creativity within all segments of our city – not improvisational, “piecemeal” development.

We have a rich and diverse landscape – urban & rural, inland & coastal with a strong interdependence between people and their environment. But we’ve gotten away from real architecture, from what historically architecture has been about, from what “arch” and “texture” is about. Instead we’re just making boxes which our zoning code allows! Even though the Grateful Dead inspired us with the strong beat of their music – instead we have buildings that look like coffins.

The only rhythm left in buildings today is contrasting a rectangle to a square or the texture of repetitive balcony railings similar to computer punch cards. Please City Council, bring music back into our lives. I’m retired now, but am speaking from 61 years of designing a range of residential, commercial, and institutional projects, working with developer clients, along with developing my own projects, who consistently found that “good design is good economics.”

If my daughter can deal successfully with a range of problems – Covid restrictions, Dixie fire smoke & air quality, intermittent wind & rainstorms, flight cancellations & programming – surely City Council you also can! Santa Monica has such a rich heritage of landscape courtyard designs. We need to protect this heritage and safeguard our future. I challenge you to amend our zoning code and authorize a master plan which will go a long way toward avoiding our recent history of piecemeal decision making and budgeting – a master plan that will take approximately 2 years & $2 million – 1/3 of 1% of our annual budget!!! We need to safeguard our future.

It’s time to salvage and build on the past, not to discard it in favor of economic return, but instead to include social, cultural, and environmental return as well! Just as this festival has grown from a small tent with a tree growing through it to a beautiful outdoor pavilion housing a world renown Classical Tahoe Orchestra, so can Santa Monica. We need to wake up and tackle this issue before we lose the Santa Monica we all love – our nature, our culture, our way of life all integrated with our built environment. There should be pleasure and inspiration wandering downtown or on our boulevards – walks that should talk to us in a harmonious way instead of a brutal, discordant manner. How about wider sidewalks with landscaped setbacks and courtyard entrances instead of narrow, shaded sidewalks – do we have the vision?. I challenge the City Council to amend and create a zoning ordinance that interweaves these exterior and interior spaces into a sculptured and uplifting movement – ​​where is the Strauss, Beethoven or Tchaikovsky to life into the beauty of a classical symphony, into a master plan?

The connection between music and city planning & design can be profound. When you marry art, music, and architecture, you create cities like Florence and Venice where people are still visiting 500 years later. This music festival provides a view into creative collaboration. This kind of vision and magic happens when artists and community leaders come together, work together – not fragmented into groups with selfish and contrasting philosophies! And all accentuated in the midst of an ongoing pandemic.

Santa Monica is struggling financially and environmentally with piecemeal decision making and budgeting! So how then do we create an inspiring environment? How do we highlight the human factors important to a community instead of the economic return for developers and financial corporations? Our cultural and natural heritage is not just about preserving our past, but shaping our future. These composers were reacting to the environment they lived in – to the rivers, the sounds, the cities. Design matters, community planning matters! City Council, I challenge you to change the rudderless direction of our city, to amend our zoning code, and to authorize a master plan which will go a long way towards avoiding piecemeal decision making and budgeting – and instead will protect our heritage and safeguard a sustainable, greener future! Just as a gifted master conductor creates musical excellence, we need gifted master planners to give overall direction and comprehensive planning to our cities. Here’s to a conductor (master planner) and an orchestra (hopefully our City Council and staff) that once again allows Santa Monica to keep humming – to enjoy our oceanfront environment, our courtyard architecture, and our sense of community.

Ron Goldman FAIA

For SMa.rt
(Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow)

Thane Roberts, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Architect, Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Planning Commissioner, Marc Verville CPA Inactive, Michael Jolly, AIRCRE

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