Aural architecture

Aural architecture  

text and graphics: Aleksandra Wróbel ,
graduate of the Faculty of Architecture, Cracow University of Technology

oryginal version of the text : PL
translation to english: kreatura team

reading time: around 10 min

The beginning of aural architecture

Starting with considerations about auditory architecture, it is first necessary to consider whether the everyday acoustic environment in which we live takes the shape in which we can find ourselves. Looking further - can it become a medium for understanding the motives of human action and functioning based on the sounds he creates and which he is surrounded by?

In order to be able to understand what auditory architecture is and how it can affect the way we experience the environment, we need to understand the essence of both sound and silence and focus on the very process of listening.


First of all

The question about the role of sound in human life, although unwarily, has been set hundreds of thousands of years ago at the time when the first nomadic tribes were formed.
The nomadic lifestyle, despite many advantages resulting from the freedom to choose a place for residence and ease of change, was associated with the lack of any territorial affiliation and spatial identification with the area temporarily inhabited.
In such a situation, the element that sustained the tribal identity was a ritual, based in its original form on the sounds that determined the rhythm of tribal life and strengthened the ties between its members.

// The desirable effect of unity was particularly visible under the cover of the night, when, with the total reduction of visual incentives, the resonant music symbolically determined the zone of influence of the given tribe.

Its ending was a silence - an invisible border marking the area in between, creating a kind of a protective barrier and assigning a particular zone to a particular community, here and now.
Its transparent and ephemeral character was visible immediately when the tribe changed its place: both silence and sound followed people so in the new area they could be again revealed in the form of an invisible force, offering the tribe a substitute for a sense of belonging and unity with temporarily domesticated a piece of land.

There is no silence

Nowadays, an ever-smaller load, both emotional and symbolic, is attributed to the existence of silence.
More and more often it is undesirable and combated, tightly filled with sounds as if it is forgotten that silence is indispensable for the occurrence of sound.
What's more, the sound is a necessity inscribed in life, because everything that lives alive sounds, that is why silence understood as the lack of sounds does not exist in nature and cannot be ever experienced.
Silence is immobility, death, nothingness.

The American composer John Cage, during the research on understanding the meaning of silence, he wanted to experience the phenomenon of absolute silence, but even after finding himself inside the anechoic chamber, he still heard a series of low and high frequencies generated by his nervous system and heart.
As long as I live, the music will not die.
As long as we live, we hear ourselves.
Even in the case of hearing damage, a person still receives sounds coming from the inside of his body in the form of impulses conducted mechanically, therefore it is impossible to experience the total absence of sounds.

Cage's 4'33 "(1952) is the breakthrough piece of music, a paean in honor of sound.
Composed in order to reject the framework of classical-romantic music, the piece instead of the sequence of chords offers a free flow of sounds, and instead of a specific form - an undetermined course. During the performance of the song, no instrument is playing, because the composition consists of only silent pauses.

// It would seem that the concert hall will be filled with silence, but after a while, you can hear a wide range of sounds, which until now have been mistakenly equated with silence.

A whisper, the rustling of clothes, the clatter of heels, the coughing, murmurs.
All this creates a rich musical experience, where the listener becomes the composer, and it is his perception that both the overall interpretation of the song and the range of audible sounds depends on.

Cage proposes a careful act of contemplation aimed at sharpening the listening process and understanding the complexity of sound plans occurring in the space, which should lead to more complete reception of the surrounding soundscape.

There is a soundscape

At every moment in life, a man constantly experiences the presence of sounds around him.
Some of them are categorized as keynote sounds - background sounds which although recorded, are received only as a white noise, in most cases erroneously identified with silence. Figures that emerge from the background sound are signals - sounds with a specific, recognizable meaning, uniformly interpreted by a specific community or users of a given place.
Signals usually take on the character of information signals decoded by the recipient in order to trigger appropriate behavior and are the result of a social contract tailored to specific needs. These sounds must be consciously listened to, and this coercion is associated with a specific cultural affiliation.
Sound marks are also distinguished - unique sounds that require proper protection, which are usually characteristic for cultural heritage areas.

The presented characteristics of sounds build the component of the soundscape, which is a key concept of music ecology, which is the field of musicology. This concept is understood as the sound environment in which the emphasis is on the way it is perceived and to a large extent depends on the relationship between the individual and his soundscape.

This concept was formulated in 1967 by Raymond Murray Schafer, a Canadian composer and explorer of the soundscape, which in the 1960s began the World Soundscape Project c- an innovative initiative to draw attention to changes in the sound environment, mainly related to its pollution as well as raising the issue regarding the quality of the listening process itself.

Considering the changes that took place in the soundscape at the turn of the century, its progressive degradation associated with increasing acoustic violence is noticed.
Initially, the landscape was filled with sounds of nature, which along with the development of civilization gradually gave way to the sounds associated with technological progress, which culminated in the industrial revolution, when the cumbersome and monotonous sounds of machinery and transport were introduced to the environment.

As a result of this process, there was a soundscape’s transition from the HI-FI state, which is defined by Schafer as a landscape in which pure sounds bearing the information about their source prevailed, to the LO-FI state - disorder, continuous noise, where it is impossible to read both the meaning sound as well as its origin.
In G. Follmer's book The sound of the City, the author expresses his fear that in the current state of degradation of soundscapes, cities are exposed to the risk that they all will sound the same.

The solution proposed by Schafer is the idea of tuning the world, presented in the book of the same title.2
The composer explains that a change is necessary to create a soundscape and return to the values presented by the silence and the distinctive, beautifully resonant sound associated with a specific place.
To do this, it is necessary to protect and care for unique sounds of a given area, as well as to reduce all negative auditory stimuli that pollute the space.
Above all, however, it is necessary to change the process of listening, which identically with the process of seeing, would become a mean of building a rich experience of being in a specific place, where the meaning of sound becomes consciously readable.

According to K. Wrightson, one of Schafer's most important achievements is the conviction that: "the sound of a specific area with its backgrounds, symbolism and sounds with a distinctive meaning can - like local architecture - express the identity of a given community to such an extent that inhabited areas can be recognized and characterized by means of their soundscapes.”

This means that the sound and, more broadly, the skillful shaping of the soundscape, can become a factor which shapes the experience of perceiving a space on an equal footing with architecture.

And architecture

The above considerations on the relationship between sound and architecture have become the basis for the research for an American couple of scientists, Barry Blesser and Linda Ruth Salter, who are contemporary theoreticians of Aural Architecture, claiming that "the acoustic of the given space shapes most of the experience of that space.”3
This trend is based on Schafer's research and his postulates regarding the sharpening of the listening process, which have been translated by the American pair into the architectural ground and formulated as the status of Aural Architecture:

// Aural architecture would, therefore, raise the awareness of auditory reception through thoughtful planning of the sound character of space. Aural Architecture is a must when we are exposed to an ever-growing range of acoustic sensations.

This idea is not a new trend in architecture, but on the contrary - a phenomenon that allows for an in-depth understanding of the principles of functioning of the existing space propose design guidelines for newly emerging buildings and wants to form a man through the sound.

Barry Blesser draws attention to the fact that currently, the architecture is completely visual-centric - the design process is limited to acoustic design sound within the requirements of the standardized sound insulation in the building envelope, but the aspect of the hearing relating to the impact that individual elements of the interior have on the acoustics of the room is very rarely taken into consideration already at the design stage.
In most cases, it becomes visible only in the process of using a given object, when the negative acoustic effects of the room affect the feeling of anxiety, grit and overwhelming, which often leads to reluctance to stay in a given space.
Unfortunately, the true cause of this phenomenon is very rarely discovered, superficially categorized as a lack of atmosphere of the place, and its detrimental effect on the well-being and relationships between residents, who are becoming more and more irritated.

Lack of the project awareness, which demands that the acoustics of space be placed on a par with its visual determinant is a basic mistake that does not respect the twenty-four-hour listening system, which cannot be "turned off".
Because man has no natural mechanism to block listening, similar to the action of the eyelids that stop the process of seeing - the sound always surrounds everybody, from every side, even when we are not prepared or directed at this.
This fact also testifies to the natural necessity of listening, which is inscribed in the life of a human being, which, to a significant extent, builds the degree of reception of space, sense of identification and security.
The newly emerging architecture should, therefore, take this fact into account, thus becoming a sanctuary of sound, slowness and cultural continuity to defend people from the loss of their identity and to strengthen their sense of reality and cultural continuity.

And sound

Every move in space makes a sound. The material used, the configuration of objects, the shape of the room, or its height.
All this generates a sound, which is then subconsciously processed into feelings - positive, if the sound has the appropriate meaning, i.e. it coincides with our imagination and the visual impression of space or negative when these factors are perceived as omitting.

For example, the texture and material of the path that emits the right sounds can intensify the feelings which a person may not be aware of but would feel better and say that there is an original mood that will result from a specific acoustic climate.

Quoting the Finnish architect, Juhani Pallasma:
“every building and every space has its characteristic sound of intimacy or monumentality, invitation or rejection, hospitality or hostility.
In contrast to seeing, the hearing strengthens the feeling of being inside architecture, immersing in it and continuous communication with it”

The human ear creates architecture in the same way as the human eye.
Why then do we pay so little attention to the phonic understanding of the space that surrounds us?
Why is the architecture design process still giving priority to the eye, marginalizing the sound effect generated inside the room?
Does it not surround a man more than the physical items located around?
Moreover, when trying to get a deeper sense of architecture, will a man resist on, first of all, the sense of hearing?

// Buildings are not able to respond to human eyes, but they can reflect sounds back to the ears and give a sense of the complexity of forms, geometries and shapes.

The experience of space is created by means of moving sound, allowing to determine the dimensions of a room and to establish the spatial relationship with a man.
It is the sound that is able to describe the space that is at the same time an indispensable aspect of the experience of sound.

Robert Łosiak, soundscape explorer associated with the University of Wroclaw, adds: „(…) the sound unites, surrounds and embrace the listener as opposed to the eye that distinguishes and differentiates”5, therefore it is so important for the architecture to be defined not only by the visible coating, as it may mean that nowadays, a man loses a lot of understanding what is the true meaning of architecture.

Architecture is not only a living machine, a packaging or a shelter equipped with the necessary products, leading independent priority of the existence.
It is also something more than a game of solids in the light, because it cannot be divided dichotomously between the Architecture of Life and the Architecture of Art, because its true meaning lies in the middle and it is every sound that resonates inside it, every observed light, each texture touched, taste of every meal and every smell, both new and old age

So it is not only looking

In order to be able to look again at architecture - to see its fullness as the key to the multi-sensory experience - it would be - paradoxically - to close our eyes and not to see, but to feel it with our all four senses and open ourselves to a completely different experience.
Perhaps it is this eye that often bothers us to see what is most important?
Perhaps we often look only with our eyes, instead of looking at the same time also with hearing, smell, taste and touch?
The sight does not have to be limited only to looking.
Perhaps that is why blind people - contrary to the popular theorem - are often able to experience architecture to a deeper extent than those who really see.

1. Beata Stylińska, Żyjemy w epoce Cage’owskiej,,Zyjemy- w-epoce-Cageowskiej, [dostęp: 15.06.2018r]
2. R.M. Schaffer, The tuning of the World, MIT Press, 1977
3. B. Blesser, L. Ruth-Salter, Spaces speak are you listening?, MIT Press, 2016
4. J. Pallasmaa, Myśląca dłoń: egzystencjalna i ucieleśniona mądrość w architekturze, Instytut Architektury, Kraków 2015
5. S. Bernat, Dźwięk w krajobrazie, podejście geograficzne, wyd. Marii Curie-Skłodowskiej, Lublin 2015