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Designing with sound.

Architecture clothes the human body with an intervening body of air.

We live under an ocean of air which fills at high pressure the space between solid walls and liquid body. As a city we all speak and breathe into one connected body of air modulated into squares and streets, alleyways, courtyards and rooms; all interconnected.

As we live we make sound, voluntarily and involuntarily, and architectural space comes alive with inhabitation. The sounds of daily life are real activities in space and time, and all human life involves water. Architecture encloses this activity, reflecting sound back into itself as air meets wall, the sound modulated by the shape, materials, and micro-porosity of its surfaces.

Water is our horizontal. Our sense of three dimensions comes from the fluid-filled labyrinths of the inner ears, and hearing is three dimensional and spatial, in all directions. Our soundscape is part of a multi-sensory understanding of place in time. The range of ear-audible sounds can be expressed as wavelengths in air whose size easily relates to those of the body and architecture. The smallest sound we can hear is the size of a fingernail (17mm); the most sensitive fist sized, mouth sized; the average the distance from mouth to belly; the sound of a baritone the size of a man; the longest, lowest the size of a ballroom (17m). Beyond sound heard as tones, operating at slower rates of repetition and longer wavelengths are the sounds we hear as rhythm, giving us no upper limit to the perception of wavelength except our ability to recognise repeated events. So the range of hearing can be said to extend from the size of a fingernail to the size of a city and beyond.

Listening, we can consider the vast array of sounds we all make through our own bodily actions and the machinery of city life to explore not only the form but also the significance of the sounds we make and hear. This significance, cultural as well as biological, helps us understand what is meant by noise and its opposites: quietness, useful information and music.

We modify behaviour according to the place we are in, according to how we and it sound. Architectural acoustics can be used as a design tool to modify the perception of self and space and thereby affect mood and behaviour. A background room acoustic or ambience can be made formal, cosy, intimidating, confusing, consoling, larger or smaller than it actually is. If we consider the human activities of a place and the sounds that evidence them, we can, by modulating sound, create appropriate and supportive environments.

There are many tools available to the designer, not only in architectural form and materials, but also by working with sounds of wind, water and its many voices as it entraps air, the sounding, resonating and amplifying elements of the building itself, and the careful disposition of sound sources.

A design method begins and ends with the human body. From large to small scale, it considers how the human body relates to the form and topography of the existing city, how the layout, arrangement, organisation, sequence and narrative of interrelated places affects soundscape and ambience. Rooms are considered in themselves as enclosing human activity, but also connections and permeabilities, visually and acoustically. Wind and water are seen as latent sonic elements, the building potentially a musical instrument itself within a landscape of sound. Finally it considers active acoustic interventions and their effect on human health, mood and behaviour, from fountains to muzak, mechanical hums, pink noise and alarms.

© Marcus Beale 2015

Related Essays & Articles:
Designing with Sound lecture notes 2015
Urban Renewal through music – Sensuality and Proportion
Architectural Acoustics - an emerging course
The City as Music - Some Conceptual Tools
The University of Westminster
Sound Media Research Group (SMRG)
“Architecture as Interactive Music”
Wed 27th September 2000

Vibrations of a stretched string or enclosed column of air - the early harmonics.
Night traffic.
Modulor man with an organ pipe and a voice.