Art is how we decorate space; music is how we decorate time.
When most urban planners and architects consider music in public spaces, it's typically in the form of predictable concerts in the park, acoustic tiles that cover up bad design, and Muzak to ease open consumers’ wallets. In other words, music and sound are features most designers overlook when creating public spaces. Oh, what these folks are missing out on.
Various studies prove that music shapes one's perception of public spaces and has a greater positive impact than art, something planners should consider before shaking hands over insanely expensive and controversial public art projects. But why should designers and planners embrace soundscapes and acoustic environments in their urban spaces?
Just like that incredible DJ at your friend's wedding or the bagpipes at your father's funeral, music has the power to mark a special occasion, evoke emotions, and bring together a community. Urban geographer Oli Mould describes the effect music has on places where people gather:
Public spaces [can be] mundane, but with the introduction of music, the place comes alive. Music enlivens public space via eroding people’s social inhibitions. It breaks down class, ethnic and gender boundaries, and brings to the fore more visceral, atmospheric and non-representational experiences. It is a collectivising force, and can help bring urban dwellers together, and can open up possibilities of what public space can be, sometimes politically.
Beyond thinking of ways to enliven public spaces, I'm always looking to the past for lessons relevant to planning the present and future. After exploring Chernobyl and the decaying dinosaurs of Yugoslavia's foray into socialism, I've thought a lot about permance and have come to the conclusion that the more self-sustaining and carefully thought-out something is, the better it fares in society. Pretentious architects and governments with deep pockets and lousy budgeting skills come and go, as does electricity and technology, so buildings and urban spaces should be planned to live beyond a fiscal year or two. (You know, how buildings were designed in the past.) How can urban planners and designers create amazing public spaces that outlive trends, give more than they take, and promise a long and useful life?
I present to you Zadar's sea organ.
The sea organ is exactly what the name suggests: an unusual musical instrument activated by the continuous ebb and flow of the Adriatic Sea, an "Orchestra of Nature" emitting unique and calming harmonies. The organ itself is an elegant arrangement of marble stairs extending to the sea, steps situated atop chambers and pipes that project melodies when the water pushes air around. Zadar's sea organ opened in 2005, a creation of Croatian architect Nikola Bašić and installed as a means of breathing life back into a city devastated by war in the 1990s. In just ten years, the sea organ has been a massive success, attracting millions of visitors and prestigious international awards. This urban sound object is truly a brilliant example of great public spaces, combining winning elements of music, people, accessibility, local features, and simplicity.
7 reasons why Zadar’s sea organ takes the prize for public spaces
1. It’s accessible – Both physically and sensorily. Anyone can visit the sea organ, and it's just a few minutes' walk from Zadar's car-free Old Town. The small area is protected from vehicular traffic, so children (and adults) can safely explore the area, and the steps to the sea let visitors safely reach the water. The site is easily accessible to those with disabilities, and even people with hearing impairments can people-watch and take in the seaside.
2. It's appealing to anyone and everyone – Locals, tourists, kids, the elderly, brides hungry for a stunning backdrop for engagement photos; everyone loves the sea organ and the old adage about people attracting people couldn't ring truer.
3. It’s free – Nothing brings in crowds like this four-letter word, especially for a delightful and refined musical performance. And while the sea organ certainly wasn't free to construct, it definitely cost less than public art projects in, say, New York City.
4. It's continuous – Visitors know that they can come to the sea organ after a morning run, before a late lunch, or after a romantic evening date; this reliably simple, permanent feature will always be on the water's edge, gently stirring hearts with its soothing arias. A constant and organic flow of visitors allows public spaces to become essential and eternally gratifying parts of the urban landscape.
5. It’s low- or no-maintenance – The sea organ's technology-free and self-sustaining design means it requires little or no maintenance, making it a truly sustainable piece of work. (Have power outages and gasoline shortages taught us nothing about relying less on energy and technology?) The constant presence of people, the object's beloved status, and sturdy construction protect the organ from vandals and damage. A hundred or a thousand years from now, I'd like to think that Zadar's sea organ will still be there playing its soulful melodies, even if there are no humans around to hear them.
6. It’s unique to a place – Bašić harnessed the natural, unique features of Zadar within his thoughtful project, and the outcome is a public space drenched in authenticity and sympathetic to its surroundings. The sea organ is not only compatible with nature and the city, but it is a welcoming space that has added positive value and identity to Zadar. If only more public spaces took their cues from nature.
7. It’s welcoming and calming - Without the sea organ, who knows if this area would be as popular of a gathering spot. The organ was installed where a monotonous and hostile concrete wall previously stood, but thanks to creativity and thoughtful design, it is now a lively place for people to sit, relax, and enjoy Mother Nature's magnum opus.
After visiting Zadar’s sea organ, I became curious about music and public spaces. If this small seaside city in Croatia created such a unique masterpiece, what were other cities doing around the world? After hours down the Google rabbit hole, I didn’t glean much from my online search, so either music sustained by nature in public spaces is uncommon or no one is talking about it. Apart from a few other sea organs in San Francisco (built in 1986, meaning it could have influenced Bašić) and the UK, I came across only one similar but ultimately disparate project: four over-sized trumpets by the name of “The Hear Heres” outside of a house museum in Derbyshire, England. The projects are interesting in that they offer a free and technology-less audible connection to the landscape, but they are difficult to access, benefit a single person or two, are prone to vandalism, and offer no reason to stay and enjoy the setting (i.e., awkwardly positioning one's body to listen to stagnant water gets boring, and painful, after about thirteen seconds).
As for the public places that aren't blessed with a sea to churn out a never-ending stream of masterpieces, one way to introduce music without significant investment, technology, or public backlash is busking. (No, the thinly-veiled attempt to drive out "loiterers" with classical music at public transit stations is, literally and figuratively, a tone-deaf solution for public spaces.)
Traveling to so many cities around the world, I am fortunate to experience a variety of buskers and get lost in their beautiful and creative performances. Some days, I see more value in buskers than urban planners for revitalizing urban spaces, as I’ve never come across a street artist I didn’t like. Busking is a win-win scenario for public places, a simple way for people to celebrate a place, take their mind off of reality, and even earn an honest living; I personally believe buskers should have the freedom to set up shop wherever and whenever they want without jumping through permitting hoops.
So, take a bow, sea organs and buskers, you deserve it for the marvelous energy you inject into public places. What? An encore?? But of course.