The acoustics of architecture

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Photo by Yanan Wang.

Before last weekend, David Burt ARC ’14 said he barely noticed the sounds that occur around him on a daily basis. But walking up the stairs in the School of Architecture’s Loria Center on Friday, he said he was aware of every noise his footsteps made.

Burt had just finished listening to the keynote address of the school’s first symposium this year — “The Sound of Architecture” — which aimed to explore the relationship between buildings and their acoustic dimension.

“[The symposium] was not only about what [the speakers] had to say, but also how they made us think about sound,” Burt said. “It’s the question of how an architect makes people listen.”

Based on the premise that “architecture is not tone-deaf,” the symposium brought together a comprehensive group of professionals from a wide range of disciplines — from art historians to composers, acousticians to architects. Joseph Clarke GRD ’15, who organized the symposium along with the school’s Director of Graduate Studies Kurt Forster, said he hoped to initiate discourse and critical thinking about the sonic dimension of buildings, which is too often dismissed as an afterthought.

Symposia are typically held in the school’s Hastings Hall lecture facility, but Architecture School Dean Robert A.M. Stern said the event’s organizers moved it elsewhere since Hastings has poor acoustics. School of Music professor and composer Ingram Marshall said that though Yale has several good performance venues, it lacks “one terrific, first-class place.”

And although performance spaces both at Yale and elsewhere face a myriad of sound-related problems — the Alice Tully Hall in New York’s Lincoln Center has been renovated multiple times due to acoustic problems — the intersection of musical science and architecture is not often discussed in the educational context, Stern said.

“I don’t think there has been such an event anywhere for a long time,” he said.

 

Architects sound off

Clarke, who is writing his Ph.D. dissertation on the history of architectural acoustics, began planning the symposium one and a half years ago because he believed architects do not pay enough attention to the intersection of sound and design, Stern said. An architect by training, Clarke said there is a tendency to view architecture as an entirely visual discipline, though emerging technologies in sound simulation have made it possible to imagine a space’s capacity for sound during the design process.

“Thanks to new digital simulators, architects can be much more deliberate in creating particular acoustic environments,” Clarke said.

Raj Patel, an acoustic consultant who designed a 3-D studio modeling system called SoundLab, said during a panel discussion that the software allows architects to create a virtual listening room in which they can simulate the sound of their designs.

But SoundLab has few equals, whereas there is an abundance of software available to help architects manipulate the movement of light within structure, Carl Hodgetts of the LA-based firm Hodgetts+Fung said, explaining that in comparison to how developed light analysis is, sound is still a rudimentary science. Architect and University of Toronto professor Brigitte Shim agreed, saying that most people are prone to “privileging the visual.” Architects consider light in every project they undertake, yet they seldom evaluate sound when they are not designing a performance venue, she added.

Patel attributed this discrepancy to biology, explaining that a simple Google search for “optical illusions” yields far more results than one for “auditory illusions.”

“It’s very easy to trick the eye, but it is much harder to trick the ear,” Patel said.

Most architects, faced with the inherent difficulty in understanding sound, are afraid to manipulate it to their advantage when designing buildings, said Caroline VanAcker ARC ’14, who attended the symposium. And while the challenge of incorporating sound into design is mandatory when confronted with a performance hall or musical practice space, School of Architecture professor Joel Sanders said that architects should be paying attention to the sonic atmosphere of everyday spaces such as cars, telephone booths and restaurants as well.

But two of the three audience members who spoke at “Designing Architectural Soundscapes,” where Patel spoke about his software, expressed skepticism about the extent of sound’s relevance to architectural design.

“Acoustic scientists b—- and moan about why no one is taking them seriously,” said Barry Blesser, a leading audio engineer. “They want [architects] to learn their language, but the architects are the clients. [They] don’t need rules or equations.”

 

The sound of Yale

The Yale administration told the News in September that it has prioritized renovating Hendrie Hall, the practice space for Yale’s bands, orchestra and Glee Club. There are a number of acoustic limitations to the rehearsal space, which Music School public relations and media manager Dana Astmann said she hopes will be addressed in the renovation process.

“Acoustically, it will be expected to represent the needs of having a lot of things going on in the same building,” Astmann said.

Marshall said that the Morse Recital Hall in Sprague Hall, while currently the acoustically best performance space at Yale, needs to be a third larger to accommodate a full orchestra. Woolsey Hall, while larger, is “sketchy,” he added.

“People jokingly call it ‘the bathtub’ because there is so much echo,” Marshall expalined.

Clarke acknowledged in his closing address that the symposium left them with as many questions as answers. But two undergraduate architecture majors said that they might be able to incorporate a heightened awareness of sound’s influence on design into their work. Melissa Weigel ’13 and Colin Sutherland ’13 said the issues tackled by the symposium are relevant to their current studio work, for which they are collaborating with Music Haven, a School of Music nonprofit organization that brings string quartet performances to the city’s poorer neighborhoods. As part of a senior assignment, they will be designing hypothetical performance and rehearsal spaces for Music Haven’s new central facility, to be located on Dixwell Avenue.

“There’s a real scientific component to it that is not studied much in the [Yale undergraduate architecture] program,” Sutherland said. “It’s good to remember that architecture includes an aural component.”

And while some professional architects do consider sound in their practice, the incorporation of aural technique into design is hard to teach, Cristian Oncescu ARC ’14 said. VanAcker echoed these sentiments, noting that the school has offered few classes on sound in the past.

Stern said that Yale students are too media-saturated, making a connection between the current lack of awareness of sound and the listening habits of the emerging generation of architects. He hopes the symposium drew attention to the nuances of the sound environments all around campus, from the bells of Harkness Tower to the unique sounds of each residential college courtyard.

“We need to get your generation to take its earphones off and rediscover the real world,” Stern mused.

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