What Is Soundscape and What Does It Have to Do with Architecture?
At the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, designed by Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe in the iconic Seagram Building, a rectangular pool played the leading role in the space, highlighted by four trees planted in pots at each of the vertices. The soft noise made by the water became consecrated. In addition to giving the hall some personality, it served to absorb the sounds of conversations (often secret) among tables. Just as the way that light enters a space, or how interior landscapes are perceived, sound is one more characteristic of an environment, though it is generally overlooked by architects. This goes beyond providing it with efficient acoustics, but creating a sound atmosphere for a space. This is the concept of soundscape.
Sound is an integral part of everyday life, and we can hardly abstract ourselves from it, even if we try. In 1952, composer and conductor John Cage presented the composition 4’33”, which corresponded to the exact duration in which the musicians remain in total silence with their instruments. What you hear are small noises from the audience or from the instrumentalists themselves, like a song that just creates expectation, but without playing a single note; that is, the soundscape of the concert hall.
Architectural spaces and cities around us have sounds – pleasant or otherwise – and materials shape and impact their quality and intensity. The concept of soundscape originated and was defined through a working group led by R. Murray Schafer (musician, composer, environmentalist, professor and researcher). Derived from landscape, it refers to any audible human sound environment.
A good definition comes from its Wikipedia page, which states that “A soundscape is a sound or combination of sounds that forms or arises from a surrounding environment. The study of soundscape is a matter of acoustic ecology or soundscape ecology.” Paulo Chagas Rodrigues points out in his article that “differently from what is commonly addressed in traditional studies of environmental acoustics – that of noise control – the soundscape focuses on valuing and managing sounds as fundamental elements in the transformation of acoustic environments based on 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 increasingly important.”
Schafer, in coining the term, also developed a cross-disciplinary line of research. His books such as “Soundscape” and “The Tuning of the World” contributed to reflections on the understanding of this sound environment that surrounds us and, above all, on the changes in such soundscapes throughout 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. Sounds from iconic architectural spaces are recorded to create synesthetic animations and musical compositions from the recorded noises. According to her, in an interview for the Urban Omnibus website in 2014, “We don’t study how to listen 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 reinforce the visual aspects of architecture.”
The representation of architecture itself has always privileged 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 far removed from the way architects are accustomed to recording and viewing photographic and film records of buildings. In addition to several other particularities, such as camera framing or editing, the sound of spaces is crudely captured, allowing the viewer to experience the space through this dimension.
Bringing the aspect of sound to a project is challenging, but there are examples that show how this can influence the experience of space. David Libeskind, a former musician, points out that sound was an essential aspect of the project for the Jewish Museum in Berlin. “The acoustics of the building, the sound of the building was one of the main dimensions of 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 where some light enters and the wind can be heard, reflected off the hard gray surfaces.
The installation Soundscape, by Mandai Architects, uses sound-generating glass, and each one of the 35 sheets spread across the space emits a different sound from nature, through a multi-source audio configuration. “Just like when taking a real walk in nature, this exhibit provides a multi-layered soundscape in which the sounds can be sensed differently depending on the location at which they are being heard, in addition to providing each visitor with a distinctly different scene to experience. One visitor, for example, may hear birdsong from high-up locations that moves around intermittently, while another hears the sounds of crashing waves coming from somewhere below, all of which combine to create scattered, invisible “chambers” of sound within the overall space.”
As an exercise in meditation and mindfulness, concentrating on the soundscape that surrounds us can be difficult, and we are increasingly moving away from it because of the numerous stimuli we receive simultaneously. As Murray Schafer put it, “when you listen carefully to the soundscape, it becomes quite miraculous.” Whether from a project or from a city on another continent, each location carries a particular sound and our path will influence how 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 a supplementary resource for us to create the desired sensations that we would like the users of the architectures we design to have.