In Dear Architects: Sound Matters, Michael Kimmelman has written a fascinating article on sound as a component of architecture. The article uses multimedia elements that allow the reader to hear the images, which makes the piece all the more powerful. Kimmelman believes that sound is an element that adds texture to a space, for example the ambient noise in Grand Central which “rises upward and outward, toward the hall’s immense ceiling, embodying the impression of the terminal as a soaring gateway to a great metropolis, promising adventure.” He also acknowledges how noisy cities have become, noting that:
During the Middle Ages, smell was the unspoken plague of cities. Today it is sound. Streets, public spaces, bars, offices, even apartments and private houses can be painfully noisy, grim and enervating.
It is the failure to consider sound when designing spaces, particularly public spaces, that allows sound to become overwhelming, to become noise. This failure of design can be heard in almost every new “it” restaurant (and the wannabes) where the only consideration appears to be the space’s visual impact. This is disconcerting because “[a]coustics can act in deep, visceral ways, not unlike music (think of the sound of an empty house).” And there is no respite from the sounds of the city when your attempt to escape the crowded and noisy streets leads you to a crowded and noisy restaurant, bar, or enclosed public space.
One hopes that architects and designers consider how the design of a space and the materials used allow the people who will use the space to appreciate the sound of their footsteps as they cross the floor or, as Kimmelman observed, the reassuring “heavy clunk” of a solid wood door over a hollow one. He adds that “we don’t talk nearly enough about how sound in these buildings, and in all the other spaces we design, make us feel.” No argument here. It is the failure to consider the affect of competing, discordant, and uncomfortably loud sounds that has made city living more difficult over the last few decades. So let’s hope that architects and designers consider how unnerving and uncomfortable spaces become when they are designed only for their visual impact and without a thought towards how they sound.
Thanks to Daniel Fink, M.D., a noise pollution activist in the Los Angeles area, for the link. Dr. Fink serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association.