Dear Architects: Sound Matters
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN December 29, 2015
This is an article that I’ve adapted from an interactive online NY Times feature which can be found HERE.
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We talk about how cities and buildings look. We call places landmarks or eyesores. But we rarely talk about how architecture sounds, aside from when a building or room is noisy.
The spaces we design and inhabit all have distinctive sounds. The reading rooms at the New York Public Library have an overlay of rich sound. Your office may be a big room in a glass building with rows of cubicles where people stare into computer screens.
It may be sealed off from the outside, and you may think it is quiet.
Often the sound of a place is so pervasive that we stop noticing what we hear. Or we think the sound could not be otherwise — that is, until we, say, turn off the buzzing overhead lights.
Compare, for instance, the ear-shattering subway platform in New York City with a relatively silent station in Paris, where trains slide into platforms on whooshing wheels:
Sound may be invisible or only unconsciously perceived, but that doesn’t make it any less an architectural material than wood, glass, concrete, stone or light. It is shaped by design, albeit most architects rarely think much about it, except when their task is to come up with a pleasing concert hall or a raucous restaurant — and then acousticians are called in. That said, you don’t need to be a specialist to distinguish spaces according to the sounds they make.
You can probably conjure the lofty, uplifting sound inside a great stone cathedral, like St. Patrick’s in New York, just by thinking about it:
A bistro, like Lafayette in Manhattan, has a distinctive sonic profile that’s textured, enveloping, open, bright. You can imagine the clink of glasses and plates, the scrunch of bodies on leather banquettes, the hum of voices reflecting off mirrors and windows. The sound is inextricable from the experience, like the smell of roast chicken or freshly baked bread. It’s almost tactile:
During the Middle Ages, smell was the unspoken plague of cities. Today it is sound. Streets, public spaces, bars, offices, even apartments and private houses can be painfully noisy, grim and enervating. And we seek respite. The architects of the High Line did not focus especially on the sound of that popular elevated park.
But a good deal of the pleasure of walking along it — and of a visitor’s sense of escaping the city while being in the middle of it — derives from its height, some 30 feet above the street, and the corresponding change in the sonic environment. The rumble of traffic below the High Line physically assaults pedestrians at street level.
Atop the High Line, the sound of the street slips almost out of consciousness but never quite out of range, becoming a bass note, grounding the views in an aural landscape that remains urban and layered.
Nearly half a century ago, the critic Reyner Banham wrote “Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment,” in which he meditated on how heat, air, light and materials create habitats that variously influence our experience of buildings. He stressed the fact that such environmental considerations should be “naturally subsumed into the normal working methods of the architect.”
To Banham’s list can be added sound. We talk admiringly about green or energy-efficient buildings, with roof gardens, cross-ventilation and stairways that encourage residents to walk, because good design can aspire to improve public health. But we don’t talk nearly enough about how sound in these buildings, and in all the other spaces we design, make us feel.
Acoustics can act in deep, visceral ways, not unlike music (think of the sound of an empty house). And while it’s sometimes hard to pin down exactly how, there is often a correlation between the function of a place or an object and the sound we expect it to make.
So an expensive, solid wood door sounds better than an inexpensive hollow one, partly because its heavy clunk reassures us that the door is a true barrier, corresponding to the task it serves.
A floor-to-ceiling window on an upper floor in a luxury apartment tower in Lower Manhattan provides spectacular, wide-open city views.
The room can sound muffled and even seem a little claustrophobic without the windows open. Windows are not just about light and views but also about letting in air and, by implication, the rest of the world. They are transparent membranes and portals.
A room sounds very different when a window is open. Sound defines, animates and enlarges the architecture.
If only subliminally, we also know, by contrast, when sound spoils architecture because it fails to correspond to function. The bygone Shea Stadium in Queens was joyless partly because the design of its low, wide semicircle dissipated the sound of a cheering crowd into Flushing Bay. Fenway Park in Boston is the reverse; it concentrates hometown joy.
Sound and form go together. We presume it’s a truism that a large, airy space provides us with more aural room than a small one. But imagine yourself having a private conversation in a crowded elevator where a half-dozen other people are talking as well. Now picture yourself having that same conversation with only a single other person in the elevator.
In which case would you be more comfortable saying what’s on your mind? There can be privacy in a crowd.
A few years ago I accompanied Peter Zumthor, the Swiss architect, to a tiny chapel he designed in Sumvitg, Switzerland, a mountain village. The chapel is a shingled, one-room building, shaped a little like a ship. The latch on the door made a loud clunk when it caught the strike. My footsteps creaked on the soft floorboards. Mr. Zumthor had masterminded the effects, orchestrating materials, space and acoustics into a satisfying whole.
“Sound is really important,” Ricardo Scofidio, from Diller Scofidio & Renfro, who helped design the High Line, acknowledged. But then he said, unless you’re an architect designing a concert hall, “you’re not thinking about how you might produce a specific sound.” He added, “That’s partly because the process of making models and drawings doesn’t allow for it.” Besides, clients don’t ask much about what a house will sound like.
Mr. Scofidio called me back. He said that since we had spoken, he had found himself conjuring the sounds of certain places. He recalled the acoustics of a round elevator in the Cooper Union building in New York, as well as Grand Central Terminal, “where suddenly you’re aware of your footsteps, and that sound lets you feel your physical presence in the space.”
Ambient noise in Grand Central rises upward and outward, toward the hall’s immense ceiling, embodying the impression of the terminal as a soaring gateway to a great metropolis, promising adventure.
By contrast, Penn Station’s low ceilings suppress sound, which becomes hard to make out, an audible metaphor for its rat’s maze of architecture.
“You feel that your life is being lost in a room where sound dies,” pointed out the architect Renzo Piano. “We need reverberation.”
The other day I returned to the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, just to listen. Sound provided room to think. The beauty of the high ceilings and big windows was amplified, and humanized, by the scratching of chairs and the clomp-clomp of boots on hard floors. Readers pored over books, texted and daydreamed.
Even a place of shared silence is never really silent.