Bernhard Leitner’s Field Compositions

When sound becomes your design medium, the landscape becomes your venue.

By Michael Dumiak

Cylindre Sonore. Photo by Sophie Chivet, copyright Atelier Bernhard Leitner, Vienna.

Probably not for the first time in his 40-year career, the Austrian architect Bernhard Leitner is explaining that he’s not a musician. “My background is in architecture. I’m an architect,” he says. “But I was always very interested in the musical experiments of people like Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono.”

Radical and moving experiments with acoustic engineering and composition, along with the sonic ferment of the late 1960s, absorbed Leitner so much that he decided to work with sound itself as a building and sculptural material, marking and filling and emptying spaces. When he was finally able to realize his works in outdoor environments, the landscape elements of chance and organic forms—blowing bamboo plants, say, or passing birds—added new dimensions to the designs.

His works include a prize-winning theoretical collaboration on pathways around Frei Otto and Günter Behnisch’s 1972 Munich Olympic Park; a sonorous concrete cylinder in Paris’s Parc de la Villette; and a simple vault set inside a small temple to amplify the sounds of water spilling at the source of the Danube. Leitner, who is 76, recently opened a show at the Architekturzentrum Wien that runs through July 15 in Vienna.

Bernhard Leitner. Photo by Maik Schuk, copyright Atelier Bernhard Leitner, Vienna.

“In 1969, I went with the idea that sound is a building material—that this is a new field in which you can form and compose spaces, sculpturally speaking, architecturally speaking, in sound,” he says. This notion was sketched out in his first Soundcube, showing affinity for a vibrant minimalism that was at the time blurring the lines among media and methods. The composer La Monte Young with his Dream House concepts was part of this scene, as was the classical violist John Cale when he took up the clanging sounds of “Sister Ray” on the organ with the Velvet Underground. It was as vital a part of the culture that year in New York—where Leitner resided until 1982, working at one point in the Manhattan city planning office—as the music festival upstate in Woodstock.

Leitner continues to show the same sort of variability in approaching his works today. He tries to be precise in controlling effects and technologies—if you are delineating and characterizing space using sound, that’s important—while allowing for surprises. He recalls going to check on one of his better-known installations, the Cylindre Sonore in the Parc de la Villette in Paris. The Cylindre is a double-walled circular structure of 15-foot-high perforated cast concrete sections pierced by walkways sitting well below street level in a valley of bamboo plants. Speakers positioned at different heights behind the panels emit different kinds of sounds, drawing people into the resonating space. The cylinder began as stark concrete architecture, but the bamboo now surrounds the cylinder as a kind of alien artifact; the branches swing over and into the concrete panels.

“The wind now plays an important role, creating new background sounds. One day I came there to check on it and I thought, ‘What’s going on? I can hear it from far away. The volume is not properly set,'” Leitner says. “But no! Birds live in the bamboo and they can pick up sounds. They picked up my very high-pitched sounds—which I call ‘prickling space’—and they sort of played them back. I had the prickling sounds that I had composed, surrounded by the prickling space created by birds. It was a wonderful experience that I had with one of my works in nature.”

Aerial Spaces San Francisco 1973 b
Project for the Hotel Embarcadero, San Francisco, 1973–1985. Copyright Atelier Bernhard Leitner, Vienna.

Leitner’s favorite outdoor spaces can be equally wild or composed. He describes having been in Monument Valley on the Utah–Arizona line. The scene was still and completely silent, not to mention blasting hot, on the way to one of the beautiful natural arches. Coming back, it was getting dark, and the temperature had changed completely. “It was so loud you couldn’t believe it. Every animal which had anything to say came out,” he says. “It was a fantastic sound experience, totally inspiring.”

Michael Dumiak writes about architecture and science. He is based in Berlin.

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