Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Musical analogies are frequently used to describe architecture. Rhythm is one musical concept that transfers effortlessly into the world of architecture.
Everybody knows what rhythm means in music. To be clear: rhythm is the pattern of musical movement through time formed by a series of notes differing in duration and stress. (All definitions from American Heritage Dictionary.) Describing rhythm in words almost obscures the meaning. We know what rhythm is and what different kinds of rhythm there are by listening to a jazz composition or a waltz or a rap tune. They all have different rhythms and we understand them through direct experience. The dictionary also provides a definition of rhythm as applied to visual arts: A regular or harmonious pattern created by lines, forms, and colors in painting , sculpture , and other visual arts. This gets closer to an architectural definition but is incomplete. We experience architecture with all our senses in both time and space. So, in architecture, rhythm can be seen not only in the surface patterns and decoration, but in the pace of interior spatial progressions. The interior of a barn, as interesting as it may be, is devoid of rhythm because there is simply not enough there to establish a rhythmic pattern.

The following floor plan illustrates rhythmic interaction in the public spaces of a residence. Starting at the foyer, moving up the curved stairs to a hall, then into the great room, the vertical axis demonstrates an “ABA” rhythm. It is important to understand that this a spatial rhythm. The floor plan alone cannot convey this fully. You have to imagine what the spaces feel like. The two “A” spaces are large, with higher ceilings and a change in floor levels; the “B” space is relatively narrow, compressed with a lower ceiling. One could extend this idea of rhythm to the exterior spaces as well. At the covered patio in the rear and to the covered entry outside the foyer. Since these are both relatively expansive spaces the rhythm could be described as AABAA. A minor rhythm, “DCBCD” runs perpendicular to the main rhythm. The two rhythms cross at “B”. The second rhythmic sequence is counterpoint – borrowing another musical concept. The “D” spaces are minor vestibules to the children’s bedrooms on the left and the master suite on the right. Though rhythm is repetitive, it is not necessarily about symmetry. The two “A”s are not identical; they’re simply similar in quality. The same with the two “D” spaces.

If all of this sounds too analytical, remember it is the three-dimensional experience that really counts.

Here is the same analysis for the same project in photographs instead of plan:
Does any of this really matter? It certainly does not matter that we analyze these things when we visit a place, though it may enhance our understanding. In the end, it is only the space that counts and how we react to it. But it does matter that these relationships exist. This is the how of architecture. Experientially, the effect is largely subconscious.
Spatial rhythms are the most complex expression of rhythm in architecture. Other uses of the concept are very direct and plain to see. We can see rhythmical patterns in building fenestration (the arrangement of windows) as in this example of Louis Sullivan’s Wainwright Building (St. Louis,
For a residential example we can turn to a model home for a speculative development in Tyler, Texas designed by Bruce Goff (c. 1974).
In the Wainwright Building you almost hear the music. Deep, deliberate basso rhythms in the blocky chunks of the first and second floors, moving to a higher-pitched rhythm of alternating verticals as the building ascends. Sullivan was a master of rhythmical composition. In the Goff design the band of windows is a clear and firm statement that is reemphasized in the clerestory. No misunderstandings are possible about the rhythmical theme. Notice the staccato counterpoint of the extended mullions that travel with the windows.

Below is another residential example by Lloyd Wright (Frank Lloyd Wright’s son) in Los Angeles. (Navarro House c.1929.) This is rich with complex rhythms. Repetitive patterns in the decorative copper. Rhythmical offsets in the massing. Vertical and horizontal modules in the fenestration. All of this interlocks like a Bach fugue.
For a larger scale example, more like the rhythm of a symphony, we only have to turn to more complex buildings, like the great cathedrals. Enormous spatial sequences establish a rhythm that is enriched by underlying rhythms of ribbed vaults and columns. Numerous other incidental rhythms are threaded through the whole to enrich the experience.
It was stated above that a barn is too simple to demonstrate rhythm. That is not entirely true. Alternating boards and spaces in the walls would generate rhythm, as would overhead beams and bracing. When that happens it may be interesting but it is largely accidental. The difference between a barn and a cathedral – or any serious work of architecture – is that real architecture is controlled with purpose in mind. In truly great architecture every aspect is coordinated. A theme is established and underlying rhythms support the whole. A piece of music must be disciplined by the structure of rhythm. A work of architecture is no different. Rhythm establishes order in the midst of chaos.

Once you become aware of the existence of rhythm in architecture you begin to see it everywhere. In decorative elements like these trellises. (Herb Green’s Cunningham house, Oklahoma City, OK 1963.) In stonework and architectural sculpture. (Bruce Goff’s Boston Avenue Methodist Church, Tulsa, Oklahoma 1929.)
In skylights (Paolo Soleri’s Cosanti Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona, begun 1956.)
Rhythm surrounds us and provides a framework for artistic expression. The arches and lights of the Auditorium Theater by Louis Sullivan (Chicago, IL, 1889) illustrate how the bones of a building all but require a sense of rhythm. To close the musical analogy, the lyrics of Ira Gershwin sum things up pretty well: “I got rhythm…. Who could ask for anything more.”

Credits: Photos illustrating ABA and CBC rhythms by Rob Munger. Cathedral with blue roof by Rob Munger. All other photos by MJK. Architecture for floor plan example by Michael Knorr & Associates, Inc.