Walk into a great building, find an interesting spot and pause. Listen, feel, absorb the energy of the space. Observe the light; listen to the sounds.
Like a symphony the action is layered – beginning quietly, building in intensity, and ultimately returning to quiet. Experiencing the changes in activity, the changes of light from day to night, the sequence of spaces and people within are all part of the architecture.
Like architecture, a musical composition requires “listening” to the action. Conceiving of and coordinating the layers to assemble an amazing experience is a unique talent.
Robert Benson is such a listener – and as a design principal in our Chicago office, he’s also a composer.
“Music and architecture are all about composition, bringing many disconnected parts and pieces together to orchestrate something meaningful,” Robert notes. “While music is pure energy actively played in time, and architecture is matter resting in time, they share many conceptual notes in their creation and perception.”
Robert isn’t a musical performer, but he’s always been a committed fan, with an appreciation for all genres, including classical, jazz, hip-hop and pop (he’s not ashamed to admit he enjoys Taylor Swift). To him, the genre doesn’t matter, so long as the arrangement pulls him in and the story evokes emotion.
“Variety is critical when it comes to creativity,” says Benson. “I often say I’m monogamous in my marriage, but that’s where my monogamy ends,” he laughs. “If you take the same path every day, you’ll never know what else is out there.”
This desire for variety can be found in Benson’s work, too. His portfolio is eclectic. Recent projects include an advanced research building for Johns Hopkins University, an elementary school in Chicago (right), the new headquarters for Showtime in Los Angeles, an office space for a trucking logistics company, a student center for Western Michigan University, and Colorado hotel that fuses modern architecture with Victorian requirements in a historic gold-mining town.
On the surface, these projects may seem disconnected, but they’re all inspired by the same core ideas.
Architecture is about the body,” says Robert. “We design spaces to accommodate. The more the spaces that can be designed to transform, become a thing themselves, the livelier the architecture is. Regardless of the material that shapes the space, there is quite a bit in common between these projects.
The confluence of music and architecture can be found literally in Benson’s work. His first project with CannonDesign was a performing arts center for Northwestern University, and he’s currently designing a new performance hall for Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. One of his favorite projects, though, was a design competition for a conservatory for young adults. Not only was the building designed to house music, it was designed with music – after discovering that instrument frequencies carry with them different physical lengths, he designed the building skin to map different instrument frequency lengths through panelization and lines of light.
The transposition of this abstract musical texture into an actual, standing structure began how every new project begins – with a simple creative process.
“Everything starts with drawing a line. I also love technology and am always looking to incorporate and dream of new technologies. It’s the balance between these that I find rich,” says Robert. “There is a similarity in music. The full sound of an orchestra or the arrangement of a band is amazing, but the solo voice or instrument can be spiritually moving. Listen to Ryan Adams’s cover of ‘Wonderwall.’”
Benson’s music dips into passion projects, too. Last year, he teamed up with Lake Shore Symphony Orchestra – where his wife plays the cello – to create an architectural experience. The performance exhibited the interplay between music and architecture, using imagery, animation, light and shadows to bring classic Bruckner, Beethoven and Pärt compositions to life in new ways.
“Funny thing,” Robert starts. “When I designed the piece to be paired with the orchestra, I learned that we didn’t really know how long the piece would be. There was no way for me to time the sequences of projections ahead of time. This was a huge discovery as the pieces we were creating were part of the performance and had to be adjusted live. While completely stressed, this was very exhilarating.”
A well-designed space will always contain more energy than can be immediately seen or felt. In Benson’s way of interdisciplinary thinking, music is not just a sound, and architecture is not just a structure. When you listen closely, like he does, you can hear something even more impressive between those walls – a soul, a signature, a song.