Be aware of sound

This past weekend architects, engineers, historians and artists convened at the School of Architecture to participate in “The Sound of Architecture” symposium. Organized by professor Kurt Forster and Joseph Clarke GRD ’15, the symposium attempted to explore the complex relationship between architecture and sound. Should architects learn how to design spaces for the consumption of sound such as concert halls or amphitheaters, or should they focus on how the everday sounds of the built environment impact people’s perception of space?

The discussion of sound in the discipline of architecture addresses many challenges. As many of the speakers noted, humans have developed in a primarily visual-based culture. Whether walking through a city or staring at a computer screen, we consume thousands of images everyday and are able to montage and reorganize visual information in our minds. In contrast, our culture has learned to control and separate sounds. We have turned into connoisseurs of the recorded sound while discounting the everyday sounds created by interactions with our designed environments.

Overcoming the difficulties inherent in discussing architecture and sound, Elizabeth Diller best addressed this relationship in her keynote address “B+/A-” in which she spoke about her firm’s recent renovation of Alice Tully Hall at the Lincoln Center in New York City.

Tully Hall was designed as a center for music performance, and Diller detailed the engineering challenges in making it perform to acoustic standards. More importantly, however, Diller’s lecture focused on the desire to create intimacy through the space’s design. Her link between sound and intimacy is useful in discovering how sound can become a spatial construct. Architects can design spaces that intentionally manipulate sounds through the use of materials, proportion and form.

Diller demonstrated that when architects are challenged to define intimacy, much less create it, issues of design get much more complicated. Architecture in its most primitive function brings people together — it instills a sense of community, provides shared experience and connects people to their physical environment. Architecture provides both physical stimulation and emotive effects through materials and spatial relationships. As a sensory phenomenon and cultural production, sound is as integral a dimension of architecture as the materials with which we build, as Kurt Forster noted. It is impossible to inhabit a room without being aware of the sounds that are unique to that space.

In the end, should architecture concern itself with engineered acoustics or everyday sounds? This question was ultimately the basis of the dialogue’s strength. Architects should focus on neither and both at the same time. The symposium left participants with a deeper awareness of the complicated and rich relationship between sound and architecture and its latent potential. Architects may not understand yet how to implement these themes into their work, but they will certainly be aware of these intersections and possibilities. When walking down the street, sitting in a classroom or clinking glasses at a reception in Rudolph Hall, we will all be listening more carefully to the world around us.

Ashley Bigham is a student at the Yale School of Architecture.

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