PLAN 72:
Alumnus Profile: Christopher Janney

Christopher Janney, SM’78

Alumnus Christopher Janney (SM'78) is an architect who makes music, a musician who designs buildings and an artist whose work can be found in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1976, three years after graduating from Princeton in architecture and sculpture, he entered the newly-formed masters program in environmental art at SA+P's Center for Advanced Visual Studies and began to experiment with combining his two great passions – architecture and jazz. Since then he has developed his own multimedia studio, PhenomenArts, touring the US and Europe with his sound/architecture installations and performance pieces. Most recently, he's been working on permanent pieces that he refers to as 'urban musical instruments' – landmark installations in airports, libraries, parks, plazas and subway platforms across the country that combine interactive technology, architecture, light and original sound scores into what he calls, in the title of his recent book, 'architecture of the air'. On a rainy afternoon this fall, we visited him at his home studios in Lexington.

Christopher Janney lives in a 1920s farmhouse with his own modernist additions, including a recording studio in the basement and a design studio in a converted greenhouse out back. Walking through the design studio, Janney explains his 'vision walls' – images, sketches, photos and other project pieces pinned to the walls underneath clocks that display the current time where various projects-in-progress are located. An open baby grand piano sits ready in the corner.

He takes us inside to the recording studio, and we listen to his latest jazz composition. He energetically describes his re-choreographing for 2009 performances of HeartBeat with the a cappella group The Persuasions as well as his 'Visual Music' projects, where music becomes color.

Now back out to the art studio to take some photos, noticing squares of colored glass splayed on a table like stray thoughts from Harmonic Runway in Miami Airport and Parking in Color in Fort Worth TX, both of which are interactive sound and light environments that provide euphonic beauty in a hectic, noisy place.

As Janney talks, we pass back and forth in front of a box that illuminates and cacophonously responds to our presence. The design studio is a sound studio, and vice versa. 'I like to cross over between them,' Janney says, 'to refresh and wash my mind clean of what I’ve been working on … I’m just thinking about it all the time. I like to think of design in music terms and music in design terms.'

As we move back and forth between spaces of sound and color, it's clear that Janney is a self-made synaesthete, a man for whom colors are sonorous and music is polychromatic. Like the German expressionist Wassily Kandinsky, whose paintings created a symphony in his mind, Janney creates designs that cross the same wires – linking sound with color, light and movement. In his Visual Music Project, for instance, pools of light and form are shown on a screen after being triggered by individual keys on a keyboard.

His synaesthetic projects are by definition interdisciplinary, which reflects an attitude he developed at SA+P. 'I saw a great spirit of cross-fertilization,' he says, recalling his work with students and faculty in several different disciplines, such as Woody Flowers in mechanical engineering, Bob Dezmelyk (SB’79) in electrical engineering, Heather Lechtman in anthropology and Eric Brown (SB'81, SM'83) in the Architecture Machine Group. 'Everyone was open to new ideas and new possibilities. This has become a critical part of my creative process.'

Janney's work as a student was infused with the ideal Gyorgy Kepes held for CAVS when Kepes established the Center in 1967: the 'absorption of the new technology as an artistic medium; the interaction of artists, scientists, engineers, and industry; the raising of the scale of work to the scale of the urban setting; media geared to all sensory modalities; incorporation of natural processes … acceptance of the participation of 'spectators' in such a way that art becomes a confluence.'

As a result of his experiences in SA+P Janney says he is 'forging a unique path between architecture and music.' Janney’s involvement with MIT still continues today: he has been invited back to lecture and to meet with research sponsors. According to Senior Lecturer Michael Joroff: 'Christopher's work creating mediated environments is definitely on the cutting edge in projects where the public realm delights people and engages them in the making of their own experience. His presentations have persuaded both government officials and real estate developers, from places ranging from Abu Dhabi to Zaragoza, to shape new kinds of 21st century public realms that blend physical and mediated fabric.'

Janney's advice for new alumni: 'Keep abreast of all the incredible endeavors going on at MIT. Even if you can’t get to campus, stay in touch. Let it continue to inspire you toward new possibilities.'

For more information on Janney, visit his website at and/or take a look at his book, Architecture of the Air: The Sound and Light Environments of Christopher Janney (Sideshow Media LLC, 2007). On March 1, 2009 the a cappella group The Persuasions and dancer Emily Coates will perform HeartBeat at a benefit for Summer Stages Dance at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts; for more info visit

Written by Stephanie Hatch