Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Harmonious and Dissonant Proportions 2: Downtown Oakland, California

Earlier this month I made a trip into downtown Oakland, California, just south of where I live, to see a concert. I saw an interesting range of buildings in this city center, which shows that you don’t need to have winding medieval streets to create a pleasant environment in the city.

Along with a host of other grey-haired or balding, and portly rock fans, I saw the British progressive rock band, King Crimson. For those who are curious, they had their first hit album in the days when you still had vinyl albums, in 1969. They were always slightly edgy and avant-garde, delving into dissonant classical forms and eclectic rhythms and (dare I say it, as I struggle to make a valid connection), employed both harmony and dissonance in their music. Their guitarist, Robert Fripp, is now in his seventies. They were the sort of band that you wanted to people to know that you liked, as it branded you as a rebellious and bohemian 17-year-old intellectual. This was certainly the image I was seeking at that age; I wasn’t good at rebellion, but I alluded to it by being seen with a King Crimson album tucked under my arm at high school. Anyway, here you go…

This video is from about three years ago, but it is pretty much the setup I saw, with three drummers up front, and the musicians in the back. Unusually for a rock band, there was no dynamic light show, and the stage persona the musicians projected was one of a concentrated introspection. There was one small change occurred during this song, which is from an album called Red; appropriately, the lights went red during this song and then went back to white again once they had finished. No songs were introduced, there was no banter with the crowd. However, the rhythmical interplay of the drummers as they overlaid different and obscure time signatures provided a fascinating and mesmerizing visual dynamism. I’m thinking that this minimalism was deliberately created to contrast with the usual gaudy visuals a rock audience is accustomed to, not simply as a gimmick, but rather so that audience would focus on the musical rhythm and motion as much as melody, harmony, and counterpoint…

…speaking of harmony, (and finally getting to the point of this post) as I was walking from the parking lot to the Fox Theatre in Oakland, I was struck by the lively café culture of that part of the center of town. It probably doesn’t suit the more liberal inhabitants of the city to acknowledge that a process of gentrification is going on there, and furthermore, that the city is benefitting from it. That part of town felt safe due to the buzz of so many walking around and hanging out in cafés and restaurants.

The architecture of the buildings is interesting. Unlike the subject of my article of two weeks ago (Bedford Park in West London), these are not Victorian. They were built, I am guessing, in the first part of the 20-century, and have a neo-classical/art deco feel to them. They are just old enough for the architects who designed them to have some feel for harmonious proportion.

Remember the key feature of proportion as described last time - differing magnitudes of parts that relate to each other in such a way that, typically, the ground-level story is greater than the second, and the second greater than the third. Where there are multiple stories, as here in Oakland town center, the architects have done a number of things to retain the impression of proportion without reducing the windows every time (which would have forced them to make those of the upper layers so small that they would be the size of a postage stamp.)
This is the theatre where King Crimson played. What we see here is a large ground floor and then two small, shorter stories above, indicated by the window size. Because the artist doesn’t want the third story to be shorter than the second, he suggests the idea visually in a different way, by splitting the windows on the third floor into two parts, and so making them visually less important than those below.

Below are some office buildings and civic buildings in proportion, and also some new buildings which are not. As you look at them, remember from the last article the key elements to look for:
Above: I particularly like what the architect has done with the two buildings on the left that are part of this block. He has subdivided the whole building into three vertical sections. The lower is made of light stone, the middle brick, and the upper, right up in the clouds, is light stone again. In the lower section, he has created something which is on a human scale by subdividing it up into three, and using harmonious proportion in those three windows. Then in the middle section, he repeats that window dimension as he goes up, and then finally in the upper section he has smaller windows. Not only is the progression of the window size proportionate at each reduction, but the magnitude of the three large sections is also in proportion with the largest, in the middle, relating to the next in size on the ground, which relates to the smallest, the top section.
We can see in the buildings above, the architect has done something similar. I am glad that they haven’t demolished these but appear to be preserving the shell in the hope of finding a modern use for them.
This building is not in proportion and seems sterile and cold in comparison. It is such a shame: even using concrete, metal, and glass, the architect could have proportioned the parts to work in harmony with the older surrounding buildings. This is an example of architectural monotony! (See another previous article - Cacophony and Monotony, the Modern Principles of Architectural Design. In the meantime here’s a question for you: if I like the combination of dissonance and harmony that we hear in some music, such as that of King Crimson, is this going to affect my taste in architecture? If so, is this music contrary to a Catholic culture? I say not, but I’d be interested to hear your views!
Here are some more photos to study in light of this:
It’s a shame that the grand view of the city, above, obscures some of the buildings lower down that are harmoniously proportioned. The overall impression is of sterility and blandness. Anyway, back to street level...

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