An Interview with Boris Brott

Posted Apr 9th, 2022 in Design, Current Issues


Sunday May 17, 2015
By Ian Ellingham , MBA, PhD, OAA, FRAIC

Originally published in OAA Perspectives, Fall 2015

BROTT: I enjoyed answering these questions. Bravo and thanks.

ELLINGHAM: You participated in the 2015 OAA Awards Jury. That must have been interesting, in particular, relative to your usual activities in creating and understanding music. You were heard to make a number of very intriguing comments, so you might not find it unexpected to be contacted by OAA Perspectives magazine and asked to expand on your jury comments, to offer OAA members more insight into the connections between music and space. Your background as a musician obviously led you to assess what you were seeing differently from other jury members. How do you think the mind of a musician is able to assess visual design differently than that wider population?

BROTT: I would not be so bold as to say I saw things differently from other much more experienced jury architects.

In fact, I felt humbled by the knowledge of my confrères on the jury. That having been said, a classically trained musician worships extended musical forms – a sonata, a symphony, a fugue. These “forms” are the skeleton upon which “developed” music is based. The celebrated German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said that “Music is liquid architecture Architecture is frozen music” so from that perspective, I think I see architecture lyrically as music.

Music is abstract and architecture more material and physical. A musician can examine the materials in-between differently because they act upon a third sense – that of hearing.

ELLINGHAM: In the jury session you noted that some buildings “sang to you,” while others did not. Can you explain this a bit more? How was this singing expressed? Do different buildings sing in different genres – or voices? You were particularly interested in the sauna building – how did it sing, and can you tell us what qualities made some other buildings sing to you? Do any buildings bring specific pieces of music to mind?

BROTT: Expanding on what I said in answer to your earlier question, the forms of music are the skeleton on which the body, the melody, harmony and “sounds” of music are draped. There are buildings which literally show their skeleton (as for example the McMaster Hospital) and they have a certain beauty, much as the cheek bones or hips of a female form would have a lyrical quality.

The sauna building with its free-form wooden sculpture has that lyrical quality. The buildings of Frank Gehry, the Disney Concert Hall or Guggenheim Museum in New York by Frank Lloyd Wright are examples of other buildings having that singing quality in my view.

ELLINGHAM: What commonalities did you observe relative to the assessment of music and architecture? What were some notable differences?

BROTT: Because of my musical sensitivities and training I instinctively “see” music in everything – a landscape, a cityscape, a poem, a painting, the roar of a jet plane, a legal argument – everything is transmogrified into music in my brain. I guess I am hardwired that way by my earliest influences and the nurture of my parents and grandparents who were highly musical. Perhaps that hardwiring is even part of my genetic makeup. Who knows? I do enjoy the “musical” way I see life. It helps to put even the most grotesque aspects into perspective.

ELLINGHAM: What can architects learn from musicians? I don’t mean about acoustics, but about the wider sense of creativity.

BROTT: Freedom, especially. Musicians (and here I especially extend the term to non-classically trained people who mould music in all its forms) see more freely than most humans.

Different genres of musicians express this freedom in different ways. Thus the improvisation of Jazz is highly liberating, as is the rap of a rapper or the brutal noise of hard metal rock.

ELLINGHAM: I presume you have opinions about the places in which you have performed. Do you have a favourite concert hall? Why? (I will refrain from asking you what is your least favourite, but if you have some nasty comments about a place not done by an Ontario architect we might include your thoughts). What is your favourite place outside an expected performance venue? (subway, open field, your basement, etc.) Why?

BROTT: I see concert halls from two points of view. First there is the outside structure as a building. I love the freedom and whimsy of Gehry’s Disney Hall and Arthur Erickson’s “tree trunk” Thompson Hall in Toronto and Trevor Garwood-Jones’s Hamilton Place, with its industrial flying buttresses.

But what counts more for me is the “inside” architecture of the concert chamber itself, and its acoustics. The contemporary genius in this was Russel Johnson, whom I had the honour of helping in the design of several concert halls, notably Hamilton Place and the St. David’s Hall in Cardiff, Wales. In the recent OAA competition, I loved both the new Isabel Bader Hall in Kingston, Ontario, and the new Mariinsky Hall in St Petersburg, Russia, of which Jack Diamond is the architect. We gave awards to both of them.

“Classical” music requires a reverberant space in which the hall itself becomes an instrument acting upon the ear of the listener. Russ Johnson designed a moveable ceiling canopy structure which I believe he called a “cloud” and which not only brings out the best in the musical performances but also helps the musicians in an ensemble hear one another better.

Many halls built in Canada have to be “multipurpose” to justify their existence financially. This means that they have to host amplified rock groups, live theatre, university graduation celebrations and even boxing matches as well as symphonies. Too often acoustics are given a lesser importance than outside design or inner seating comfort, with the result that “all purpose” becomes “good for no purpose at all!”

Probably my favourite halls to perform in would include the Morton Meyerson in Dallas, the Musikvereinsalle in Vienna, Austria, the Centre in the Square in Kitchener, Ontario, and Hamilton Place, in its original iteration. Even something as simple as floor paint can hugely affect acoustics.

I look for a space which literally “improves” the quality of the performance; where the musicians can hear one another superbly and where the sounds magically blend perfectly.

I generally hate performing out of doors, as the sound dissipates immediately without having the chance to blend with the building. One exception was the former Forum at Ontario Place, which was brilliant structurally, as the stage was a giant turntable which rotated slowly through the performances so that the audience could be seated 360 degrees surrounding the performers, and somehow they all heard a blended performance. Some genius in the Ontario Government decided to destroy it in favour of the ugly and unpleasant sounding Molson Amphitheatre, which currently occupies the same location.

ELLINGHAM: Of course, the concert experience is more than just the music. Does the architecture of the venue affect the response of the audience? How important are the visuals in adding to music appreciation?

BROTT: Attending a performance is an all-encompassing experience. The architecture is a partner in that experience. Entering the hall, the inviting nature of the structure, the atmosphere of the lobby, the lighting all add to the magic and the sense of anticipation of what is to take place within.

Attending evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London is a magical experience. Conducting opera at most of Italy’s turn-of-the-century opera houses (La Scala, La Fenice, Petruzzelli, Maggio Musicale) where the velvet-draped boxes and the plaster decorations, the vaulted and frescoed ceiling and chandeliers all commingle with the music to inspire both audience and performers. Even some amazing outdoor spaces – Arena di Verona for example – add magic to the performance. The venue, the music and the audience all are part of the experience.

You cannot replace that with the most sophisticated home sound systems.

ELLINGHAM: How does the venue in which you are performing affect how you approach the music you are performing?

BROTT: As a conductor, I try to encourage orchestras to adapt to the venue. A “dry non-reverberative environment requires a “finishing” of every note – you have here to “create” your own reverberance as much as possible. The tempos of the pieces alter with an acoustic. For example, a very reverberant hall will encourage you to take slower tempos in order to enjoy how the hall adds to the music.

ELLINGHAM: In both music and architecture there is a relationship established between the creator and the recipient. What are the similarities and what are the differences?

BROTT: We humans react on many different levels to our environment. Creation is “godly”. Whether it is a transient creation, as in music, or a lasting structure in a building, the objective is to establish and nurture the relationship.

The transient nature of music is that the relationship is created over and over again and we constantly have the opportunity to better it. A building, like a work of plastic, graphic art or sculpture, is more lasting and we have fewer opportunities for tolerable mistakes!

ELLINGHAM: Some architects actually do play instruments. Have you encountered them – and if so, does an architectural background help or hinder them?

BROTT: All knowledge and experience in any creative and thinking field is cumulative and makes for greater understanding and depth of the human emotional and intellectual response. The wider the person’s experience in any field, the greater the impact upon a person’s primary field of endeavour.

I learned a great deal from being a part of the Jury at the OAA.  The interchange with colleagues in different fields was highly enlightening to me and made me look at both musical and concrete structures with greater sensitivity.

ELLINGHAM: I suppose there are things to be said about dissonance, consonance and rhythm. Do you want to offer any thoughts?

BROTT:  Wow, what an all-encompassing question! It’s hard to give a pithy answer. These three words – dissonance, consonance and rhythm – are the building blocks of intelligent human life.

Art in any of its forms is an expression of the synthesis of these words. Thus a building, as much as a piece of music, plays with the constructive and destructive elements these words describe. Harmony, whether in a building or a piece of music, is made up of the interplay of dissonance and resolution (consonance). Rhythm is the heartbeat of time, which accelerates, decelerates or propels the creation in time. You need the conflict of the dissonance to resolve it harmoniously. It is this process that catches our eye, that lends life and interest to the creation.

When we assess a composition, a performance or a building, we are allowing the interplay of these three elements to react with our conscious and subconscious. The addition of our prejudices and experiences and the extent we allow ourselves to venture into “new” and “uncharted” intellectual waters all meld together in an “assessment”. But the fulcrum is constantly changing so what we thought of as “revolutionary” over time loses its bite and can become trite or usual and therefore not particularly interesting.

One thing is certain: we need to encourage the freedom to express ourselves without reservation. Only time can dictate whether what we are creating is of any lasting value.

ELLINGHAM: Is there anything you would like to say about the jury process? Should more musicians be included on the juries? What would that result in?

BROTT:  I don’t like competitions wherein first and second prizes are awarded. They can easily damage to confidence of a sensitive person. I prefer a system in which juries of peers can express delight and single out a variety of different creations and provide further opportunity. I was honoured to be part of the OAA jury and would be pleased to serve again.

  Boris Brott was killed by a hit-and-run driver on April 5, 2022, in Hamilton.

  Ian Ellingham was Chairman of the OAA Perspectives Editorial Committee and a part-time clarinettist