The Influence of Buildings

By Ken Collins 16/09/2011

We sometimes get things appearing out of left field that proves to be thought provoking beyond its original purpose. And so it was with this video clip of David Byrne (lead singer of Talking Heads for those old enough to remember back that far) that a friend sent to me.

In this 16 minute clip David discusses how music has been influenced by architecture. More specifically how musicians were influenced to write music that suited the building or environment they were going to be playing it in.

He explores how this has been true from the time of classical music in earlier centuries, through to modern times. One example given is the music that Talking Heads created while performing in the CBGB club,

The CBGB Club
The CBGB Club

which is shoe horned into a small downstairs bar. The music that sounds great there is lost in a big concert hall or stadium. As opposed to music that became known as stadium rock, where Queen’s ’We Will Rock You’ and ’We Are The Champions’ comes to mind.

While the clip in itself is interesting, the extrapolation of this is — how many of the things we do every day are influenced by the built environment we inhabit? And do we really create or modify buildings to suit the function? Especially when function and use changes over time.

Many of us have experienced moving into a new house, and then working out how we can fit our stuff in and how we are going to use it. Features like a big lounge for entertaining or a cozy sun drenched space that is ideal for reading, have subtle effects on the things we do, that maybe we didn’t do before.

Queen at Wembley Stadium
Queen at Wembley Stadium

Scale this up to an entire office building, a laboratory, a public space, and the influences can have a greater effect. Especially when the technology, or user needs change over time. We create work-a-rounds, or modify the scale of things to suit our built environment, often subconsciously or in subtle ways that are obviously apparent at the time.

That is until a critical point is reached where the cost of not altering the environment is greater than putting up with what we already have. Where the cost (not only in dollar terms) of a new building or a major refurbishment becomes justified.

Even buildings designed for highly specific functions aren’t immune. Think of court houses, laboratories, or sports facilities. Changing needs has an effect on all parts of our built environment, and vice versa.

The numerous unused petrol stations that now dot our roads are an example of how specialised buildings can struggle to find alternative uses, and those that have been found alternative uses sometimes seem to be an un-natural fit.

It has long been known that the built environment influences us all, to varying degrees. But to what extent, and how consciously, this happens is so often lost in the hum of daily life.

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