Towers of babble

There’s an odd silence about sound these days. Pick up any design magazine or treatise on architecture from the past 100 years – by the likes of Le Corbusier, Robert Venturi or Rem Koolhaas – and it appears that we now design only for the titillation of the retina, following Corbusier’s famous dictum that architecture is the “masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light”. In other words, we appreciate the built world from an optical distance: we don’t touch, smell or hear it, we move through it like film scenery.

This effect is compounded by the direct leap from the computer screen – the birthplace of design ideas – to their reception on the retina screen: so much new design looks like a built photograph without real, multi-sensory presence. Some clever commentators (such as the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa) have pointed out that this sensory denial results in social and psychological alienation: it goes beyond a question of aesthetics to deeper considerations of how we belong in the world.

Turn the clock back to the Renaissance and Antiquity, though, and you’ll find a lot of noise about noise. Vitruvius (who wrote the first surviving treatise on architecture in 15BC) devoted a disproportionate section of his Ten Books to the theatre as a building type, and expounded a rather poetic theory about sound propagation and its relation to Greek music theory. He stated that architects should also be musicians, following the Platonic maxim that architecture is frozen music (or, inversely, music is defrosted architecture).

Leon Battista Alberti, following in the footsteps of Vitruvius nearly 1,500 years later, offered a slightly different vision of sound quality in auditoria (approaching modern, scientific notions); and Andrea Palladio, founder of the first great international style in architecture, based his system of spatial proportions on sonic harmonies, making space “sound” by “strumming” these proportions as we move through them.

Our omerta on sound cuts us off from a whole range of expression and experience in design. Vision is axial and focused, but sound reveals what is behind and above us, how big a space is and – to a certain extent – how it is made, whether it is dense or soft, reflective, simple or complex in form. It brings the world inside the body rather than keeping it at a distance, and we feel sound not just through our ears but also in the vibration of our chest, our bones and our teeth; vision, though, is constrained to the tiny portal of the pupil.

Sound gives us myriad sub-conscious clues to urban space, how to behave, how to be aware of each other (just think of the clumsy, misguided path of any MP3-cocooned, earplugged pedestrian, sequestered in their own sound space). Unfortunately, we have almost no non-scientific vocabulary to describe noise, and therefore we find it hard to register, let alone reproduce, profound sound qualities and environments.

I recently heard Brian Eno, god­father of ambient music, explaining that the idea for his seminal album Music for Airports arose during a hellish layover at Cologne airport imprisoned in a soundtrack of jolly oompah music. “What if,” he asked, he “could create music which would allow you to step in and out of it at different times, which could be present if you wanted to hear it, but not offensive if you wanted to tune it out?”

Eno has set us the challenge of looking into the complex question of urban sound, the shifting between semi-private and public space. Enter a shopping mall and you expect to hear the gentle muzak that indicates (more powerfully than a phalanx of security guards) that you are in a socially controlled environment. The choice of sound has been made for you and it’s likely to be a low common denominator: more Celine Dion than Motorhead. In a bar you expect a soundtrack that reinforces the shared identity of the customers, whether goth, hipster, geezer or princess. Start to play ambient Celine Dion in the common space of the city street, though (some French towns do so in summer), and it is suddenly invasive and pernicious – we can’t shut our ears as we can our eyes.

I’m talking here about purposeful, active sound, which we can turn on and off. Perhaps it’s more important to consider passive sound, how spaces shape the noise that is produced by environment and use. Hagia Sofia or Notre Dame, without their echo, would probably lose much of their spiritual force, which resides in their sonic vastness, their ability to transport even tiny sounds to a seemingly infinite destination. These spaces also engendered forms of music – polyphonies or chants blended in ultra-long reverb – which have a specific theological purpose. Churches built since the Reformation, made for the intelligibility of an ideological, spoken message voided of aesthetic obfuscation, lack this poetic force.

Peter Zumthor, one of today’s most engaged and sensitive architects, produces what could be called a sonic spiritual atmosphere in his thermal baths in Vals, where the hard surfaces and profound atmosphere gently condition a contemplative mood, rather than the splashing and laughter that one might find in a less serious aquatic space with a similar function.

Le Corbusier matured into a well-rounded, sensual architect: his youthful visual objectivism may have had something to do with the fact that he had only one functioning eye, and therefore no sense of depth, a biological accident that has had an untold effect on modern architectural history. In his later work, such as the monastery of La Tourette, there is a wonderful attention to echo and texture, to near and far, as they are united in light and sound wavelengths striking hard or rough matter (he co-designed this building with the composer Iannis Xenakis).

I have a sonic bone to pick with the aforementioned Rem Koolhaas. Koolhaas recently designed the masterful chef Inaki Aizpitarte’s second outpost in Paris, Le Dauphin. The restaurant has marble floors, walls and ceilings; my iPhone decibel meter reads deafeningly off the scale there. At a recent reunion with friends and family, it was so utterly impossible to communicate that we scoffed our (delicious) meals as quickly as possible and moved on somewhere else to catch up.

I challenged Aizpitarte about this (shouting into his ear to be understood); he shouted back that “Rem wanted it very lively, very intense”, and then admitted that there are some foam panels on order: baffles will soon temper people’s bafflement as they waffle over their waffles.

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