‘Sonic’ Architecture

I have started a collaboration with architect Lara Karady, with the aim of creating some human-scale public architecture that engages people with sound: this provides a novel opportunity to take a spatial approach to sound rather than a sonic approach to space. This blog post is the first in a series of three and gives some background on work that has combined the sonic and the architectural. The next two document our first project together, in which we designed and built wearable listening devices for workshops at the National Media Museum in Bradford as part of National Science Week.

Every built (and non-built) structure is a sonic proposition, which is animated by sound and which animates sound. Some architectural endeavours consider sound more than others, for example, the development of an ‘ideal’ acoustic in a concert hall, or the creation of a quiet working environment in a noisy city. There are also pieces of functional architecture which exist for a solely sonic purpose, such as containing sound for clearer communication. This is evident in the designs shown in the photos above and below.

I am interested in the practise of creating sonic structures that connect people to sound by provoking though or reflection about the behaviour of sound. The works in the following paragraphs all engage with sound have different aims and engage with different approaches to listening. They tell us something about the relationship between sound and space and adds depth to how we think about the spatial experience with regards to the role of sound.

Haroon Mirza’s A Million cm3 of Quiet Space, acts as a one-person anechoic chamber which cancels sonic reflection and creates a silent and acoustically dead space that envelopes the listener. The placement of this piece inside a larger, reverberant space acts to starkly contrast the inner with the outer. This in turn provokes thought about the nature of each space and the listener’s place within it. 

Haroon Mirza’s A Million cm3 of Quiet Space

Artist / architect collaboration mk+h ‘s works Suspended Sound, Stair and Hear There also play with perception of acoustic space. Suspended Sound, Stair uses multiple hung layers of fabric to progressively deaden the acoustic of a stairwell as one moves from bottom to top, creating an acoustically liminal space. Hear There is an audiovisual intervention which invites a participant to compare the visually and acoustically different spaces of a churchyard and a church. This is a piece which creates a cognitive dissonance around being in one acoustic space and experiencing another. By placing an emphasis on this, it asks, ‘what kind of information is ignored or overlooked because we so often take senses other than sight for granted?’

Suspended Sound, Stair

mk + h, Hear There

Architect and sonologist Raviv Ganchrow‘s Passages is an architectural design, which asks, ‘what happens to form if you start from a question of acoustics?’ It is a pedestrian underpass, which uses the environmental sound of passing traffic as a basis for creating an ‘orchestration’ of potential forms of sound with resonators and other sound shaping designs. The design therefore, is only complete when listeners pass through it: here, sonic form is equal to physical form.

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Raviv Ganchrow, Passages

Architect and composer collective Liminal‘s Organ of Corti, like Ganchrow’s Passages, modulates environmental sound. It consists of a sound crystal array, which acts to attenuate and accentuate aspects of the frequency spectrum of environmental sounds around to ‘offer a frame to experience the sounds that are already around us’. This was developed as part of a Wellcome Trust funded project exploring sound, health and our environment. Mimicking the organ inside the ear of the same name, the piece invites a consideration of the volume and nature of environmental sound. 

Liminal, Organ of Corti

Architecture practice Studio Weave‘s Polyphony consists of an enclosure studded with parabolic horns or ‘auricules’. These act to amplify and focus sound in three dimensions, and in doing so, accentuate and reorganise the directionality of outside sounds. Those who engage with the device are deprived of visual stimulation, something which acts to heighten the auditory experience.

Studio Weave, Polyphony

These works all explore sound through constructed form, but take considerably different approaches. Works by Liminal and Raviv Ganchrow act to acoustically modulate environmental sound, drawing the listener into an awareness of the sounds that surround them. The act of doing this for Liminal seeks to expose the musicality of the everyday, whilst for Ganchrow the motivation comes from a question of architectural form and the role of sound within this.

Haroon Mirza and mk+h’s interventions lay their focus on the acoustics of existing spaces. Here contrast is used as in important tool in order to draw a listener’s attention to the nature of an space’s acoustic quality. In other words, the focus is not on the intervention itself, but rather the an awareness of the acoustic space in which it intervenes (the exception to this rule is suspended sound, stair).

Studio Weave’s device focuses on directionality as a mode of listening. It accentuates the listener’s experience of directional listening by splitting the normally homogenous field of hearing into a three hundred and sixty degree array of segments. This combined with a lack of visual stimuli encourages the listener to almost ‘see with their ears’ and therefore stretch their ability to hear directionally.

These works provide a good basis of thought and a ‘jumping off point’ for the collaboration with Lara. Have a look at my next post to read about our first piece of work together- making ‘listening devices’.