Sound and Space

By Michal Unterberg


Architecture is the poem of mankind. Its accents are composed, movements are constructed and thoughts and symbolism are given shape. The letters formulate syllables, producing words which set in motion a geometrical poetic law. When we move through the built composition, our bodies are actively affecting the structure, as the structure, and its environment, is simultaneously transmitting through and impressing our body- consciously or subconsciously, willingly or unwillingly. When entering a structure we are building an internal sense of space not strictly visually but aurally as well. As vision can only illustrate the surface of things, sound will reveal the interior state of the subject. The location becomes clear to the listener by the dimensions, material, form and occurring activities that are embedded within the soundscape. “Sound acquires its power by the lack of experiential separateness between source and listener.”[1]

The acoustic architect holds the tools and ability to make you move and experience the built structure in serenity and tranquility, releasing oneself from the notion of inhibition, connecting the interior of one form with the interior of the other. Whether it be by suppressing the natural sounds of the built space (its material, surfaces, formation and all activities that have an audible manifestation) in order to welcome an interchangeable foreign sound, or conversely, celebrating and utilizing the natural soundscapes to enhance the architectural experience, the architect is creating another means of communication between the place and person. The key is to maintain the listener’s undivided attention. This can only be done if the acoustic architect works with sound to define his space, to create realms of privacy or society and thus produces a sense of space; a space that conveys melodies, cultural knowledge and tradition. Soundscapes become alive when we enter them.  Because soundscapes are the result of the rhythm, structure and tone of the aural architecture, an individual can create a clear sense of what is happening by simply listening to the lullaby of the architecture and/or its inhabitants.

[1] Blesser, Barry, and Linda Salter. “Introduction.” In Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? Experiencing Aural Architecture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007.




   There has been a growing understanding that the contemporary architect must design for all the senses. By neglecting a vital component such as sound, we simply gain poor understanding, decrease learning skills, lose undivided attention and increase of stress levels. Designing with and for the senses we are producing new forms of experience and intellect while granting essence to what seemingly could be a shell. There are many ways in which architects today are experimenting with the effects of sound, not only by managing the soundscapes but also by figuring out how sound, or the interpretation of sound, combined with computer systems, can help structure the form and surfaces of the building.

In collaboration with Arup Ltd. (an independent firm of designers, planners, engineers, consultants and technical specialists), three designers from the design research practice, RVTR, designed and developed “Resonant Chambers”. Three origami-style “sound clouds” were installed in the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture. “Our aim is to develop a soundsphere able to adjust its properties in response to changing sonic conditions, altering the sound of a space during performance and creating an instrument at the scale of architecture, flexible enough that it might be capable of being played,”[1] Like a giant shape-shifting speaker, the prototype responds to sensor data and optimizes its position based on a range of inputs, from acoustic goals to the movements of listeners below.

Resonant Chamber2

The design studio Coop Himmelb(l)au, an architecture, urban planning, design and art firm, has designed “Pavilion 21 MINI Opera Space”. This is a mobile performance structure, suitable for 300 visitors, which was first situated on the Marstallplatz in the city of Munich and then traveled to other locations for the annual Opera Festival in 2010. “The design approach studies the impact of physical influences on our hearing perception and how to apply soundscape effects to alter our sensation through transforming and adopting building volumes and their material specifications… Analyzing the frequencies of the sound file and linking it to the computer generated 3D model, the scripting tool then parametrically transforms the shell into pyramid shapes like spikes.”[2] By selecting sequences of songs and tunes, in this case Jimmy Hendrix’s song “Purple Haze”, they become dynamic forces that result in a spatial form.  



[1] “Resonant Chamber.” Architizer. January 1, 2012. Accessed March 5, 2015.

[2] “Pavilion 21 MINI Opera Space.” Architizer. January 1, 2010. Accessed March 5, 2015.




The constant murmur, hollow and deep, of rushing traffic, gusts of wind brushing up against and in between skyscrapers, the faint, short-lived, sirens coming and going, the noise of two car horns, a faint explosion in the distance and the almost unnoticeable underground vibration of the accelerating subway trains are just a few of the sounds we hear and experience daily, informing us that we are in a city environment. But when we enter a building or room we naturally expect a transformation in the soundscape’s infrastructure to become applicable to the purpose of the structure. For example, when in a library- the car’s honking, the crying of a baby, the chirping of birds and the ring of a cellphone are expected to morph into whispers of readers and librarians, the swooshing of pages turning, hollow footsteps on carpet and the delicate sound of air.

Listeners never experience a sound which is unaffected by its acoustic environment. “Spatial acoustics produces reflections, resonances, reverberation, dead zones, focused intensity, sonic channels, dispersion, and so on, all of which have an audible manifestation.”[1] The acoustic engineer is thus responsible for the equation and appropriation of the soundscape to the functionality of the structure, while taking into consideration human and technological activities removed from the physical architecture. Acoustic cues direct, construct and determine our emotional and physiological state within a space.

Since each building serves a unique purpose, it therefore requires its own acoustic equation. We can divide aural architecture into two sectors: acoustic horizon and aural arena, [2] and thereby into two kinds of architects: the acoustic and the aural. The former deals with the science of suppression, manipulating the soundscape and its surrounding structure in order to produce a distinct performance. An example of this suppression would be that of a concert hall or a recording studio where the natural sound is eliminated (as much as possible) to make room for the desired instrument. The latter works in conjunction with the sounds of the environment and materials to define the built space and a sense of placement. This can be seen in Frank Lloyd Wright’s house “Falling Water”. Wright intentionally built the house in such a way so that the resident must walk outside to see the waterfall. In doing so, the resident must listen to the water[3] and experience his natural space through its emanating sounds. Both types of architects use their own tools to phonetically imitate, resemble or suggest the source of sound that it desires.


[1] Blesser, Barry, and Linda Salter. “The Other Half of the Soundscape: Aural Architecture.” Http:// Accessed March 5, 2015. WFAE Mexico.pdf.

[2] Blesser, Barry, and Linda Salter. “Aural Architecture.” Research Design Connections. January 1, 2007. Accessed March 5, 2015.

[3] Hamilton, William L. “The World of Sound.” Dwell. November 3, 2012. Accessed March 5, 2015.




Our social relationships are strongly influenced by the blending of sound with space. Throughout history and culture, we can find firm evidence to the significance of audible infrastructure in physical spaces contributing to the human fabrication. From prehistoric multimedia cave paintings, Greek open-air theaters, Gothic cathedrals, acoustic geography of French villages, to modern day recording studios and virtual home theaters, the human’s auditory spatial awareness is a vital tool for the knowledge of emplacement and belonging. We learn to “see” objects with our ears. [1]

The listener’s perception of sounds emerges from his immersive environment, together with the comprehension and mediated relations with those living within it; also known as Soundscape ecology. He can then formulate an internal sense of space. By the various activities that consist of an audible manifestation, which can be caused by nature, animal and human beings and man-made artifacts, one can pin-point his location and adapt appropriately. For example, it would be strange, or even quite alarming, to walk in the city and not hear the sounds of cars driving by, sirens fading in and out, people walking and conversing (perhaps shouting), construction from afar etc. whereas in a village the silence would seem completely normal and expected.

The soundscape of each space reveals the “story” of the specific environment and assists in our perception and assessment of placement, time, motion and communication.  We take in the external world, mainly with our ears and eyes, and thereby develop a sense of self and positioning. However, vision, as opposed to hearing, is what we could call a voluntary sensory. Vision is controlled and dependent; it requires light, focus, accessibility to targets/ objects and is weakened when sensing fast and rapid movements. Whereas sound (without the presence of earplugs) is constantly engaging, informing and can be used as a warning medium to our surroundings. It is a give and take relationship- the soundscape is constructed by man and man is constructed by his soundscape.  We listen, assess and adapt to the environment’s soundscape for the suitable and required behavior.

[1] Blesser, Barry, and Linda Salter. “Introduction.” In Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? Experiencing Aural Architecture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007.

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