What is soundscape and what does it have to do with architecture?


What is soundscape and what does it have to do with architecture?

At the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City, designed by Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe in the iconic Seagram Building, a rectangular swimming pool played the main role in the space, highlighted by four trees planted in pots at each of the peaks . The gentle sound of the water was becoming consecrated. In addition to giving personality to the room, it served to absorb the sounds of conversations (often secret) between the tables. Much like the way light enters a space or interior landscapes are perceived, sound is an additional characteristic of an environment, although it is generally overlooked by architects. This goes beyond providing efficient acoustics, but creating a sound atmosphere for a space. This is the concept of soundscape.

By Geslin George - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44406518
By Geslin George – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44406518

Sound is an integral part of everyday life, and you can hardly get away from it, even if you try. In 1952, the composer and conductor John Cage presented the composition 4’33 “, which corresponds to the exact length of time during which the musicians remain in total silence with their instruments. What we hear are small noises from the audience or from the instrumentalists themselves, like a song that only creates expectations, but does not play a single note; that is, the soundscape of the concert hall.

The architectural spaces and cities that surround us have sounds – pleasant or not – and materials shape and impact their quality and intensity. The concept of soundscape was born and was defined by a working group led by R. Murray Schafer (musician, composer, environmentalist, teacher and researcher). Derived from the landscape, it designates any audible human sound environment.

The Baths of Vals / Peter Zumthor.  Image © Fernando Guerra |  FG + SG
The Baths of Vals / Peter Zumthor. Image © Fernando Guerra | FG + SG

A good definition comes from its Wikipedia page, which states that “a soundscape is a sound or a combination of sounds that is formed or originates from a surrounding environment. The study of the soundscape is part of acoustic ecology or the ecology of the soundscape. Paulo Chagas Rodrigues emphasizes in his item that “unlike what is commonly discussed in traditional studies of environmental acoustics – that of noise control – the soundscape focuses on valuing and managing sound as fundamental elements in transforming acoustic environments into according to the interests of society. This does not mean that soundscape and environmental noise control are antagonistic approaches. On the contrary, they are complementary, as the holistic assessment of the acoustic environment from objective and subjective parameters becomes more and more important.

Schafer, in coining the term, also developed an interdisciplinary approach search line. His books such as “Soundscape” and “The Tuning of the World” have contributed to reflections on the understanding of this sound environment which surrounds us and, above all, on the evolution of these sound landscapes over the course of history, with the emergence of large factories, but especially after the advent of machines and even computers.

Karen Van Lengen, architect and professor of architecture at the University of Virginia, developed Soundscape architecture in collaboration with artist James Welty and musician Troy Rogers, Van Lengen. The sounds of iconic architectural spaces are recorded to create synaesthetic animations and musical compositions from the recorded noises. According to her, in an interview for the Urban Omnibus site in 2014, “We do not study listening in architecture, which has been promoted as a visual field since the Renaissance. Soundscape Architecture is a resistance to this purely visual approach. It asks designers to think about the sounds of spaces, how they could be more vibrant, and how they can enhance the visual aspects of architecture.

Cortesia by Soundscape Architecture
Cortesia by Soundscape Architecture

The representation of architecture itself has always favored vision over other senses, such as smell, touch and even hearing. To quote Van Lengen again, “sound is an intersection between space and the people in it, and this intersection is never the same.” german filmmaker Heinz emigholz takes an unusual approach and is definitely a far cry from the way architects are accustomed to recording and viewing photographic and cinematic recordings of buildings. In addition to several other peculiarities, such as the framing or mounting of the camera, the sound of the spaces is captured in a raw way, allowing the viewer to experience the space through this dimension.

Bringing the sound aspect to a project is a challenge, but there are examples that show how it can influence the experience of the space. David Libeskind, former musician, points out this sound was an essential aspect of the project of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. “The acoustics of the building, the sound of the building was one of the main dimensions in creating this empty space.” One of the most touching parts, at the end of the tour, is a dark all-concrete room with high ceilings and only a small opening through which between a little light and the wind can be heard, reflected off the surfaces hard gray.

Jewish Museum Berlin / Daniel Libeskind.  Image © Laurian Ghinitoiu
Jewish Museum Berlin / Daniel Libeskind. Image © Laurian Ghinitoiu

Mandai Architects’ installation Soundscape uses sound-generating glass, and each of the 35 sheets spread across the space emits a different sound from nature, thanks to a multi-source audio setup. “Just like on a real nature walk, this exhibition offers a multi-layered soundscape in which sounds can be perceived differently depending on where they are heard, in addition to providing each visitor with a distinctly different scene. to live. One visitor, for example, may hear the sounds of birds coming from high places that move intermittently, while another hears the sounds of waves coming from somewhere below, which combine to create “chambers”. Sound scattered and invisible throughout space. . “

Soundscape / Mandai Architects.  Image Cortesia by Mandai Architects
Soundscape / Mandai Architects. Image Cortesia by Mandai Architects

As a meditation and mindfulness exercise, focusing on the soundscape around us can be difficult, and we move further and further away from it due to the many stimuli we receive simultaneously. As Murray schafer Put it on, “when you listen closely to the soundscape, it becomes quite miraculous.” Whether it is a project or a city from another continent, each place carries a particular sound and our progress will influence the way in which we absorb this sound to which we are exposed. Being aware of how sound will be understood in each type of space or material can be an additional resource for us to create the desired sensations we want users of the architectures we design to have.

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