Architecture for the ears

Music and sound have informed architecture for centuries, but recent design experiments in 'soundscapes' herald a second renaissance.
Written by C.C. Sullivan, Columnist (Architecture)
Reviewed by Heather Clancy
How's your soundscape? If you're not sure, you better find out. Fast. "Soundscape" could be the most important new buzzword in architecture. The concept is the focus of an experimental design approach created by Karen Van Lengen, an architecture professor at the University of Virginia, who records the sounds inside iconic building spaces and then "interprets them visually, acoustically and aurally." 

Soundscapes are also a focus for architects, performing artists and groups of all kinds seeking to create better and more meaningful sound experiences.

Wonder what one looks like? Several Van Lengen visualizations appear below.

In Los Angeles in February, a series of events called Skyline showcased how music interacts with cityscapes. A student design competition called "Frozen Music" (sponsored by construction materials company Kawneer) reveals radical ideas for new music halls. And in early March, Chicago architect Jeanne Gang's work with a physicist on a Thodos Dance Chicago performance had its debut. Even the British metalcore band Architects suggests some sort of synergy between sound and where it's created. 

So why are music and sound an emerging focus for 3-D design today? It starts with our health and then aspires to art.

First, spaces and buildings meant to help us hear better are now seen as more productive, comfortable and safe. Yet they are rare, and architects don't really get paid for the aural health benefits of their design, says Julian Treasure, a sound consultant whose TED talks have raised awareness of "sound health." It seems our increasingly noisy world is bad for humans. As Treasure implores, it's time "to start designing for our ears."

But there's more to it. Sound and music are relatively unexplored turf for the design community. A new book scheduled for publication in fall 2014 by Fast Company editorial director Tyler Gray and composer Joel Beckerman—The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms the Way We Think, Feel and Buywill show how "to use sound as a rich storytelling strategy" to influence audiences, gain competitive advantage and express a brand's core mission.

The idea of soundscapes goes far beyond the soundtrack you might recall from a trip to Disneyland. And it could be a missing link in architectural history.

Goethe famously called architecture "frozen music" almost 400 years after Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti described how “musical terms such as rhythm, texture, harmony, proportion, dynamics and articulation” are equally important to architectural and musical compositions, as the influential critic Charles Jencks notes in a laudable essay in The Architectural Review.

Yet Jencks describes elemental differences in how music "is experienced over time, whereas architecture is grasped as a spatial whole." This distinction between the architectonic and the sonic—"as different as light waves from acoustic waves"—is losing favor today.

Architects and allied designers have reason to see it—or hear it—otherwise. "Architecture is often best understood through movement in and around it, so it is also experienced over time," says Andrew Franz, an architect I've worked with who collaborates often with performing arts groups. "And music can have a totalizing aspect, and like architecture one can perceive it as a whole."

As Gang has said of her collaboration with choreographer Melissa Thodos, "As architects, we are interested in how the body's physicality and the mechanism of performance catalyze community and creative discovery." The project is a means of "exploring parallels between the worlds of audience and performer, art and science, movement and stasis." 

Artistic explorations like these—and proud alliances between Frank Gehry and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen last year in Los Angeles; the Paris music school Conservatoire Claude Debussy and Basalt Architecture (debuting this month and pictured below); and Calgary's National Music Centre of Canada by Allied Works, which just began construction—are increasingly being studied, built and celebrated.

Can we thank our acoustic consultants for any of these design advances?

Probably not, I'm sorry to report. Acousticians are essential and valuable, and yet they largely are viewed as a necessary evil by most architects. Better acoustics are called for by the LEED certification systems and other sustainable design techniques for schools, based on years of studies linking poor grades with noisy, reverberant classrooms. Ironically most building designs seem to leave acoustics last, leading to the poor performance documented in the white paper "Sound Matters" issued by the General Services Administration last year. In fact, a recent Buildings magazine article notes how green building approaches can degrade acoustics.

On the bright side, more architects are using building information modeling (BIM), and other specialized software tools to study acoustics earlier in the building design process. This gives the design team a head start on proper and beneficial soundscapes.

Some digital tools now offer sound visualization capabilities—not as pretty as the images created by University of Virginia's Van Lengen pictured above, but certainly as valuable—and quantifiable evidence of acoustic problems. That means that when an acoustical consultant is brought into the project, there's less aural mess to mop up.

These advances also presage even closer ties between the world of sounds and the world of buildings and public spaces. "With these design approaches, we'll see a much stronger connection between the fields of architecture and music," Franz says. "We can now perceive our sonic environment just as well as our visual environment, which is beginning to allow us to build and adapt spaces with specified input from artists or composers on how they would like to control both music and noise."

One result will be a flourishing alliance between architects and the performing arts world, experts predict—and better listening for all.

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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