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Feature — 13.01.11

Sound and space

Peter Veenstra

The two-day symposium entitled ‘An inquiry into the spatial, the sonic and the public’ took place at the NaiM/Bureau Europa in Maastricht late last October. The relation between designed space and how we experience it acoustically was illuminated in eleven lectures and four performances. For two days artists took centre stage in the architecture centre, and it was interesting to see how built space was approached from a totally different perspective, one that was a good deal more subtle than many (landscape) architects and urban designers are accustomed to.

Sound has cropped up as a theme on many architecture agendas recently. Over the past months the Arcam architecture centre in Amsterdam has hosted an exhibition about sound, and the Amsterdam Academy of Architecture organised a lecture series devoted to the same subject. Prior to that, OASE devoted an issue (nr. 78 – Immersed) to sound. And it’s a popular subject internationally too. A sound installation by Janet Cardiff was one of the big hits at the last Venice Architecture Biennale, and next year the Tuned City sound and architecture festival will be staged again in Tallinn on account of its major success.

So why all this interest in sound and architecture? Bureau Europa director Guus Beumer, who opened the symposium, explained it as a renewed interest in architecture as an autonomous discipline. If we consider reality and abstraction, then over the past decade architecture has largely concerned itself with the former, with plenty of attention for the political and social significance of architecture. Even though this is important, there should also be space for the vulnerability of abstraction. Sound and music can form an aesthetic inspiration for spatial design. That is not an original idea, since Pythagoras had discovered similarities between harmonious proportions in architecture and harmonious consonance in music, and he believed that both reflected a universal harmony. Inspired by this idea, Goethe described cathedrals as the frozen music of the medieval world. But in modern architecture too musical composition was an important source of inspiration for architects like Libeskind (professional pianist before he became an architect) and Xenakis (chief designer of the Philips pavilion at the World Expo in 1958).

Sound, of course, has more than aesthetic significance. It facilitates the conveyance of essential information in everyday life. Our sense of hearing and sense of sight are the most highly developed of the senses, which together enable us to communicate, to orient ourselves, and to recognise danger. As we move through the city, nature or a building, all the meaning and information we take from it comes through our audio visual experience. It is even the case that if we lose our ability to see, our sense of hearing is able to ensure our perception of the complete spatial experience. By means of echolocation, blind people are able to walk through the city by relying on sound alone. They can perceive buildings and even ride a mountain bike through a forest. The importance of aural impressions is obvious in many creative disciplines. Images and sounds are always carefully combined in the production of theatre, film and games in order to construct a convincing simulation of reality. Sound design is also an increasingly important aspect of industrial design too. Whether we are dealing with cars, washing machines or coffee-makers, the sound of the motor and of each button is precisely designed and tested on users. A well-known example is the Senseo coffee-maker, which only became a success after the sound of the original, unsuccessful version has been redesigned.

Within the realm of physical planning, we chiefly find this more practical side of sound in measures aimed at minimising noise pollution, among them sound barriers, so-called ‘quiet areas’, and a range of sound-insulation construction materials. This concern for noise pollution is understandable given the negative effects on health (after particulate air pollution, traffic noise is the form of environmental pollution that shortens life most). But sound is almost never the active subject of design aimed at intensifying or improving the experience of public space. The consequence of that is that the ‘soundscape’ of public space is nothing more than an accidental by-product. In The Tuning of the World, published in the late seventies, Murray Schafer described for the first time how the sound of the city, influenced by industry, traffic and air-conditioning, was becoming increasingly similar to white noise. The city resonates, reverberates, echoes, muffles or isolates all urban sounds and thus exerts a big influence on the soundscape. Designers can respond by planning traffic and schools and the like in particular ways, by determining how hard facades are and how open street walls are, by planting trees, and by specifying the materials for hard surfaces. Similar opportunities await inside a building, where matters are less complex and easier to control, since predictions about reverberations and other acoustic effects can be made more precisely than they can outdoors. Nonetheless, few architects dare to dabble in this area.

Sound artists react in different ways to designed space as left to them by architects, landscape architects and urban designers. The type of sound art depends on the degree to which the artist influences the space. For example, one group leaves the space totally intact and only records existing sounds. Just as with photography, the recording itself is the creation, which can later be resampled. The same attitude inspires the creation of sound walks along acoustically interesting routes to encourage participants to listen more closely to everyday sounds. However, most artists use designed space as the setting for temporary interventions. New sounds enable the acoustic properties of a building to be examined and exploited, and that can result in a unique spatial experience. Moreover, existing sources of sounds, such as human activity, wind or buzzing equipment, can be used and distorted to create an aesthetic play of sounds.

These temporary interventions (re)load the space with an event and alter our perception of the space. Architect and sound artist Raviv Ganchrov, for example, played a wonderful recording he made in a hangar in Tallinn. The roof of this building consists of three domes that, even though they forms one big space, acoustically produced a much more complex structure of spaces and connections. Finally, there is a growing group of artists that make permanent installations for public spaces and buildings. These are what you could call sound sculptures that engage in a lasting relation with the space and exert a permanent influence on the acoustic space of the place. At the symposium, Janek Schaefer presented proposals for a sound pool in a park in Bradford where a pond acts as a sound mirror for a permanent sound installation. Probably a better example is the Cultuurmijl (=Cultural Mile) in Enschede. This is a route along which a number of permanent works of sound art are being erected. The works draw the visitor, as it were, from the town centre to a number of cultural institutions in the Roombeek neighbourhood. Sound art starts to function here as a real cultural layer that complements the physical design of public space and strengthens the route.

Plenty of wonderful examples were shown during the symposium, but critical questions about the significance of sound art were also voiced. Raviv Ganchrow asked why sound in architecture has never become an expressive element in the way that light has. Many reasons can be given, among them the fact that the majority of media within architecture are visual (magazines, blogs and books). On top of that, it is almost impossible to make a sound recording that produces the same spatial experiences as the original design. According to Esther Venrooy, many sound artists are so sensitive in the way they work with space that the equipment available is not perceptive enough to capture this degree of subtlety. That makes sound difficult to fully appreciate, just like fine wine. After all, few people are able to appreciate the value of a Chateau Mouton-Rothschild from ’45.

Another question asked was whether sound is indeed an artistic medium that can convey any message at all. Israeli sound artist Eran Sachs started his artistic career with abstract work that he wanted to preserve from political infection. He later became politically active, and that resulted in what he terms a ‘sarcastic little approach’ aimed at bringing about a change in mentality at a small scale. Sound turned out to be insufficient for that, since it is abstract and not narrative; it cannot convey any meaning. For example, his soundtrack for Yannun Yannun consists of recordings of a Palestinian village whose inhabitants have been tormented away by Israeli colonists. You can hear birds, trees and a few children at play, but these sounds possess no political content whatsoever without an accompanying explanation. Without the possibility of a narrative message, sound art is sometimes in danger of becoming something safe and decorative, something nobody can really object to, as is the case with many examples of light sculpture.

The symposium programme was wide ranging but lacked depth as a result. Which was unfortunate, because depth is what is needed to develop sound art further and turn it into a mature art form. That said, enough inspiring examples were displayed to convince us that sound is unjustly ignored in architecture. Technological progress is improving the possibility of calculating acoustic effects and recording, simulating and playing sounds. This will probably lead to the emancipation of sound in spatial design. Until then, however, sound art will remain a small but exciting world.