Sunday, October 7, 2012

RECAP #1 - "The Sound of Architecture" at Yale School of Architecture

Yale School of Architecture
"The Sound of Architecture"
October 5, 2012  9:00am - 11:00am

“One man’s noise is another man’s signal.” - Barry Blesser

On Friday at 8:30am I pulled into the parking garage on York St. in New Haven and headed over to the Yale School of Architecture for the morning session of the symposium entitled, “The Sound of Architecture.” Though I missed the introductory lecture by Brigitte Shim from the night before, the main bulk of the talks were held on Friday and Saturday to a consistent, though relatively modest, audience often made up of other panelists and a few devoted attendees (like myself). I was surprised by this fact as I was anticipating a really large crowd, which only appeared on the Thursday evening keynote lecture given by Liz Diller of Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

The morning portion was presented in the basement auditorium in the Paul Rudolph building on campus and kicked off with the theme “Listening to Architecture”. And so the recap begins:


Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter “Spatial Design Changes the Eventscape”

               Barry Blesser, a short man with a graying beard and suspenders, structured his talk around the position that the “language of aural architecture” is one that is, as yet, unformed and in need of extensive development. His presentation of several terms including: aural mass, acoustic horizon, localization, enveloping reverb, and perceived aural distance, aimed to illustrate that a framework for meaningful discussion of the relations between the behavior of sound and the built environment is necessary and must be addressed. Blesser also stated that while auralization is underdeveloped in our culture it can be improved with formal ear training (similar to that of musicians) as nobody is born with a refined sensory awareness of sound. He was adamant that in order to change the lack of sensitivity to aural environments in the design field, ear training must be introduced into architecture schools. I certainly agree with the need to integrate the auditory dimension into the education of architects who shape the built environment and influence our ways of occupying spaces, however, I can see that is it quite an obstacle particularly as there are currently few programs which even address architectural acoustics in the context of their core courses (this differs from the generally required courses on daylighting strategies). Blesser continued by describing the unique characteristics of sound, for instance: that it flows around obstacles and in openings, that it reveals the interior of objects, and that it is never static, but most importantly (to me anyway), that there is no sound without ACTION. This fact is one that is crucial in order the understand the inherent complexity and unpredictable nature of sound and its perpetual interaction with architectural spaces, namely, that architecture is activated by its occupants and subsequently by the sonic environment produced by those activities. Within the next several slides of bulleted points (quite a dry visual presentation actually, consisting only of text, ugh) I honed in on another concept: that the ears control the direction of visual focus...the ears tell the eyes where to look. While this might seem obvious, I found that the more I thought about it, the more interesting this idea was to me. In a culture that is generally accepted to be dominated by the visual sense, we still depend heavily on the preliminary processing of signals gathered by the ears in order to filter and direct that which is taken in through the eyes. All in all, I was happy to have had the opportunity to hear Blesser speak, as I feel that he has a strong stance and a unique perspective (though not a designer) and through his book “Spaces Speak, Are you Listening” has become an invaluable resource to those of us delving into the study of architecture and its relationship with the sound that is both shaped by it and animates it.

Peter Szendy “Sounding Out”
               My notes for the beginning of Szendy’s lecture include a quote by Adolf Loos (“You can fool the souls of people, but not the souls of material.”) and the observation that for Franz Kafka, a door can have an almost bodily sound (see “Great Noise” by Kafka, 1911). My notes, fragmented as they are, render me unable to reconstruct the thread that tied these together (this will happen from time to time) so I will move on. Szendy soon peaked my interest with mention of “mediate auscultation,” a term first introduced by René-Théophile-Hyacinthe Laënnec. “Mediate auscultation” refers to the listening to the internal sounds of the body using a stethoscope. Laënnec was concerned with diseases of the chest, and by observing and appropriating the ability of a wooden beam to transport the sound of a pin scratching its surface on one end all the way to the other, invented the stethoscope. This new mode of listening (previously “immediate auscultation” required that the physician put their ear directly on the patient's’ body), allowed for the effective and less intrusive auditory penetration of the “thickness of bodies and its constituent elements”. In particular, auscultation was sensitive to the spacing of sounds and effective in discriminating where they occur. This type of analytical listening, or “sounding out” became evident as the theme of the lecture (hence its title) which continued with an engaging sequence that moved to comics (Daredevil’s radar) via military devices for listening, and ended by touching upon the echo-tectonics discussed by Athanasius Kircher, and a brief mention of the cave in Syracuse, Italy, known as the Ear of Dionysus famous for its acoustic properties. Szendy concluded by stating that “space is not a neutral background for hearing” and indeed it is not. Space is actively modulating and augmenting the aural environment that we perceive and as such must be considered as a mediator as profoundly important as the stethoscope.

Raj Patel and Alban Bassuet “Acoustics, Architecture, and Music: “Understanding the Past and Present, Shaping the Future”
                Patel and Bassuet, both acousticians at Arup, took us on a whirlwind introduction of the company’s work, quickly moving through images ranging from opera houses (Sydney Opera House, Oslo Opera House) to spatial installations (Serpentine Pavilions, Park Avenue Armory). They then stepped back in time with an image of the cave paintings at Lascaux illustrating that the paintings were specifically placed within the cave to coincide with the sound character of the animals depicted. They then quickly (it always felt “quick” because they both talked so fast!) moved from Tibetan stupas and the pyramids of Chichen Itza to the rooms for which European composers such as Hayden specifically wrote for. I felt as though all of this information had the potential to develop into several separate and rich lectures, however, they pressed on with a presentation of the ways in which the acoustic signature for designed spaces could be visualized. Here they stepped into the present day, discussing the current desire for immersive and multi-sensory experiences and the challenges it poses in terms of technical performance in conjunction with the human experience (illustrated with images of Gehry's Disney Concert Hall in LA, New World Symphony Concert hall in Miami Beach and current projects including the Constellation Center in Cambridge, MA and the Issue Project Room in Brooklyn). To wrap up, Bassuet and Patel spoke about the high-tech Arup Sound Lab, where, through a process of auralization, clients can listen to the “sound environment” of their proposed architecture acting, in a way, like an aural rendering of the site. The “Be Open Sound Portal”, recently seen on ArchDaily here, employs the same technique in order to allow visitors to experience the acoustics of a range of spaces (ie. Sydney Opera House) simply by sitting within their highly engineered pavilion in Trafalgar Square. Somehow I am not so excited by the prospect of divorcing the sound environment of spaces from the very architectures that define t
hem, but that just might be me...

Brian Kane
“Acousmatic Phantasmagoria”

                Kane presented a well organized talk which argued the interrelatedness of acousmatic phantasmagoria, transcendence, and techne. He laid out several points through which he developed this position, beginning with the definition of an acousmatic sound which is a sound one hears without seeing the source. Kane proceeded with examples including the obscured orchestra pits of mid-19th century German concert halls (an architectural form which came up in more than one presentation over the course of the symposium) as well as the strategically placed choir lofts (with obscuring grills) near the frescoed ceiling at La Chiesa Santi Domenico e Sisto. In this case, the choir loft location, with visual obstruction but acoustic transparency, succeeded in creating the illusion of heavenly voices emanating from the depicted heavens. These examples, Kane argues, illustrate the desire for transcendence, in particular with regards to musical performances, which could effectively be achieved through the splitting of the visual and aural using methods of physical obstruction and spatial placement.

Overall, the initial morning session was intellectually stimulating and quite engaging. I found myself eagerly awaiting the second half of the session, “On Stage,” though I became distractingly hungry early on which was most certainly detrimental to my note-taking and mental focus!


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