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The World of Sound

You could call it the next frontier of architecture and design, but you have to close your eyes to “see” it. The ear inhabits a space, and captures a place, more acutely than the eye.

Ear illustration by Dan Winters

“Listen!” said Peter Zumthor, the Swiss architect, in a lecture delivered at Germany’s Wendlinghausen Castle in 2003. “Interiors are like large instruments, collecting sound, amplifying it, transmitting it elsewhere.” Since sound, unlike instantaneous sight, travels over time, the ear also remembers. For Zumthor, sound is the memory of childhood.

Sound Lounge illustration by Joel Sanders Architects
Cone of Silence

Architects Joel Sanders and Karen Van Lengen worked together on the Sound Lounge at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, where Van Lengen is a professor. Students can sit beneath large lamplike cones that are wired for sound and share playlists as they study, activating a descending sphere of enveloping sound, which is also a casual social unit. Illustration Courtesy Joel Sanders Architect.“Critics of new media argue that ubiquitous new devices isolate us,” Sanders says. “But mobile technologies like iPhones are audiovisual. Sound now plays an increasingly important role.”

“What always comes first to my mind is the sounds when I was a boy, the noises my mother made in the kitchen, ” he recalls. “They made me feel happy. If I was in the front room, I always knew my mother was at home because I could hear her banging about with pots and pans and what have you.” As an adult, Zumthor designed a small chapel in Sumvitg, Switzerland, that formally suggests a ship.

“I put a slight warp in the floor to make a creak, which would exist just below your level of consciousness,” he explained in an interview last year with the New York Times. “Call it romantic, I guess. All music needs some kind of container, and this container must be designed. That’s what architecture can do.”

When we think of sound in design, we think of acoustic engineering and the science of suppression. With the shapes, surfaces, and materials of spaces, we manipulate sound—to produce its best performance, in a concert hall, for example, or in a recording studio, where we erase it. We rarely celebrate sound in design, but it should be explored, expanded upon, and invited in as we would a view or a soft light.

John Storyk, an acoustician and architect, began his career by designing Electric Lady, Jimi Hendrix’s New York studio, and has subsequently created private studios for Alicia Keys, R. Kelly, and Jay-Z. Isolation by way of separating individual players, an important issue in recording-studio design, is critical at home as well. As Storyk explains, it’s important to separate busy, reverberative places like open kitchens from quiet, intimate spaces like bedrooms. Furnishings do this naturally—upholstery and curtains absorb and dampen sound. With new technologies, walls and partitions can be more efficient without being thicker, with products like Topakustik (micro-perforated wood), QuietRock, and StarSilent (acoustic drywall). Storyk advises against neglecting the ceiling, an oft-forgotten expanse with huge sound repercussions.

Storyk spends much of his time as an “acoustic tourist,” visiting some of the world’s fabled sound sites: Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France; Louis Sullivan’s Auditorium Theater in Chicago; and Jean Nouvel’s KKL Luzern Concert Hall in Switzerland. Not surprisingly, one of his frequent pilgrimages is to Fallingwater.

Architect Philip Johnson reading a book

Architect Philip Johnson, renowned for the four-sided view from his iconic Glass House, could be called an aural architect. The house’s approach is a gravel path that crunches loudly underfoot, announcing arrival. The house is tightly sealed, as silent as a church. And it is then, because of the perfect absence of sound, that the glass walls spring to life, like huge cinema screens, animated with outdoor images. Photo by Nora Feller/Corbis

“Just close your eyes and go there,” he says. “Wright made the decision not to see the waterfall from the house. You have to walk away from the house to see it. In doing so, he demanded of the residents that they listen to it.”

Wright could be called an “aural architect,” a field of study in architecture now developing alongside a rise of interest in sound among artists, acoustic ecologists, sound designers, acoustic archaeologists, psychoacousticians, and other professions. Aural architecture looks at sound as design: how sound defines space, creates realms of privacy or society, and produces a sense of place.

Acoustics can, ideally, provide a neutral backdrop. In medieval Japan, castles were built with floors that creaked by design, as security devices that signaled the tread of intruders. The Japanese call them nightingale floors, for their innocent song of warning. Traditional Zen gardens are sonically and spatially integral: By obscuring the sources and sound of trickling water, for example, distances in a courtyard seem far greater than they are. Bells and chimes struck randomly by wind keep the ear off balance, which prevents the eye from comprehension. The static landscape changes, refuses to rest or to be one thing. This all encourages constant contemplation.

We are all aural architects at home. The ear resides in a way that the eye can’t. Juhani Pallasmaa, a Finnish architect considered a pioneer in taking modern architecture beyond the prevailing reign of sight, has designed two buildings—the Finnish Cultural Institute in Paris and the International Moscow Bank—with a series of ramps suspended in courtyards meant to broadcast the sounds of visitors’ footsteps. “I have always found a special pleasure and intimacy in hearing my own footsteps echoed from walls and buildings in the streets of old towns, especially in the quiet of the night. I wanted the visitors to my buildings to have the same momentary experience of spatial interaction and belonging.”

What might have been an ordinary atrium, as impersonal as a space can get, became a chamber for the music of the small life of a town. “Our ears have been blinded,” Pallasmaa wrote in his treatise, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses, which was reissued this year.

Let’s open them, and see.

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