Calgary, Alberta, Canada
PASSPORT Magazine|October 2017

Music is liquid architecture,” wrote Goethe. “Architecture is frozen music.” It’s a pithy, oft-quoted turn of phrase that makes intuitive sense. 

Jim Gladstone

One needn’t read music, let alone study architecture, to understand that rhythm, structure, harmony, and precise detail amid sweeping grandeur are common elements of the two artforms.

Another common factor: unlike paintings and literature, which are largely passive, requiring us to approach their frames, to open their covers, music and architecture reach out in our direction, playing inevitable parts in our daily lives.

Until last year, North America had no major music museum with a building befitting its subject. Then came the opening of the spectacular and stirring Studio Bell, home of Canada’s National Music Centre in Calgary, Alberta (850 4th St. SE. Tel: 403-543-5115. www.studiobell.ca). It’s a deeply satisfying building to explore, seeming to unfold around you as you move through it. Like the best symphonies, it is at once majestically scaled and compellingly intimate.

What did we have before this? Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is, to me, Pei’s knock-off of his own Louvre Pyramid; it looks like an award-ceremony trophy, with none of music’s emotional resonance.

And while it might be argued that the Seattle edifice originally built as the Experience Music Project, Frank Gehry’s most garish major building, resembles a frozen chunk of 1970’s Moog synthesizer sounds, the design is untethered to any coherent vision. With no essential change to its appearance, the building was rechristened last year as the Museum of Pop Culture (aka MoPOP) and now houses a hodgepodge collection “spanning science fiction, fantasy, horror, fashion, sports, and video games.” Studio Bell is on another plane altogether.

Designed by Allied Works Architecture, a firm based in Portland, Oregon and Manhattan and led by Brad Cloepfil, the complex’s interior, including extensive exhibition areas, several performance venues, and recording studios, is composed of nine interlocking curvilinear towers clad in silver-gray terra cotta tiling. Their voluminous rounded forms were inspired by the shapes and function of musical instruments: elegantly structured hollows that vibrate with activity from within.

The museum’s exhibits encompass all gen res of music, but go beyond the expected historical memorabilia. Science-rooted interactive galleries help visitors understand how music is processed by our minds and bodies and hands-on opportunities allow experimentation with instruments and recording equipment.

That said, there’s no shortage of pop nostalgia on offer, including the Rolling Stones’ mobile studio and a collection of performance costumes. There’s a special focus on Canadian artists, from Neil Young to K.D. Lang to Justin Bieber.

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