Through Rooms of Music: Heidi Locher and Frederick Paxton’s Hotel Kalifornia

The year coming to an end conduces to thoughts about transience – and about the zones wherein whatever comes and goes might abide for awhile.

Pieces of music can provide the shelter, while music in general is perhaps one of the best possible symbols for shelter as such in its peculiar duality: in its durability the latter ought to outlast by far whatever is to be housed, yet its own inherent vulnerability, and the care it therefore requires if it is to survive, can greatly exceed the attention its erstwhile inhabitants may stand in need of; and so, insofar as music on its side evinces a similar twofold condition, grounds are given for apprehending a very close likeness between it and architecture, each considered as being not only a result but also as an activity. Perhaps it was above all this similarity that stood in the back of his mind when Schelling (in his Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Kunst, pt. II, sec. IV, §§ 107 and 116 (the latter has been erroneously numbered 117 in the fifth volume of the Sämmtliche Werke)) suggested that architecture could be called “eine concrete Musik” or, more pointedly, “die erstarrte Musik” – translations of this term have raised some contention amongst the scholars (not to mention the scorn the term itself has met with), but here I’ll venture a paraphrase of my own: music at a standstill – which would seem to entail, conversely, that music is or can be a mobile architecture.

One body of work in contemporary architecture whose character as realized seems especially musical – and here the “music” does not remain “immobile” – is that of the English architect, Richard Paxton, who passed away some years ago; his buildings draw inspiration from the distinctive modernisms of Robert Mallet-⁠Stevens and Pierre Chareau in equal measure while manifesting a formal flair all their own, having fully incorporated into themselves today’s and tomorrow’s technologies, as though they were imagined for California while yet being built under London skies: his machines for living sought to bring the outside in, in the midst of surroundings both spatial and climatic that were somewhat less than propitious – often in response they encompass features such as retractible roofs and small indoor gardens and pools – in order to maximize the play of moods they could foster throughout the course of the day and night.

A necrological website is currently being constructed, and it will most likely become a prime resource for his work.

The varieties of spatiotemporal experience elicited by Paxton’s buildings come across nicely via the photographs provided on the pages (here and here) dedicated to them on the website of Arcaid Images, while the especial attention he devoted to the interior light and sound conditions is well registered in these two excerpts about them from a short television feature.

In these videos one meets Paxton’s professional partner and widow, Heidi Locher, who has since gone on to augment her architectural activity by an additional career as a visual artist, and their children, of whom one, Frederick Paxton, likewise inclined, is currently completing his studies at the School of Visual Arts in New York and has already begun to profile himself as a film-maker.

In a recent exhibition entitled “Hotel Kalifornia” mounted by Locher at the Londonewcastle Project Space, art, architecture, film, and music all came together in what must have been a subtle investigation of vulnerability and transience – that is, if the eponymous film, a collaboration between Locher and Frederick Paxton, is as representative of the whole as I imagine it to be. (Although I did not see the exhibition, the film is featured on his website and may be viewed there; for the sake of convenience I’m also embedding it here.)

And it was not only the human being’s vulnerability and transience which Hotel Kalifornia inquired into with subtlety, but also the room’s – the room in whose solitude he, or rather, she spends much of her life, and where often the most intense, the most dramatic parts transpire unseen and unheard, to an oddly timeless tempo engendered by a space that’s overwhelming in its sheer strangeness: a dispensation of existential intensity which, in conjunction with the distinctive pace of the montage, the exquisite sadness of the Latin liturgical music – of all sorts of music the kind that perhaps best embodies eternity or rather the passion for it – very effectively underscored.

Both the title of the exhibition and of the film were taken from the well-known song by The Eagles, and this loan goes a ways towards establishing what the work is actually about: the hotel room in the particular way in which it, for a definite period, both houses human beings while also divesting them of a home, does itself indeed furnish an evocative metaphor for the span of time that’s been allotted to us. But as a guide to this work of art, to my mind, in Locher’s artist’s statement there are a few sentences which take one in a somewhat different direction, and a bit further.

“Hotels are like a musical instrument to me, they have a certain kind of rhythm. I can read them and the people in them and hear their inner workings. I feel I can pick up the vibrations, the intensity and the mood. Hotels have a heightened frequency where tensions lurk and rituals are acted out in an extreme atmosphere which is not really like everyday life.”

Not really like it – yet in its very exaggeration perhaps akin to it after all, insofar as what one now generally calls “everyday life” is comprehensible as being an impersonal kind of shelter which conduces its inhabitants to other rhythms, intensities, sensations – to other modes of music – as though they were away from home on a trip their whole lives long. Then one begins to wonder: these days, what have all our lives become if not so many hotel rooms, and as such the settings for variants of what we are given to observe in Locher and Paxton’s film?

But – to leave matters of this kind to one side, for the year is itself nearly gone, and there’s no more time now to touch on them even briefly – is there then nothing further that’s unsettling about the manner in which the film addresses itself to our eyes and ears?

Well, the architectural music in this film – the dramatic, which is to say, quasi-musical qualities not only of the set, but of the lighting, the camera work, and the montage as well – somehow suggests what the result might have been, had Baroque painters had at their disposal not brushes but movie cameras and sound equipment.

In the clair-obscur that the film offers to the eyes, the room is deepened in an enigmatic manner; here we witness the emergence of everything lit out of a fuscum subnigrum, the nearly black hinter-region in that era’s paintings from which colors – and perhaps even the visual altogether, or more broadly and better, visibility as such: that is, whatever is seen as well as the ability to see it – spring forward and into which they will again vanish when their measure of time is up. Then, of the artists’ capacity which set things up in such a way, would it be better to aver that it has constructed or that it has composed this evanescent mise en scène?

When the work in question is actually about transience, it may unsettle us to realize how akin to one another architecture and music often can be, their differences in mobility or solidity notwithstanding, if for no other reason than the very similar need of their compositions and constructions for some shelter.