The sound of good architecture

I had a life-changing – at least for a while – experience today, when I had my ears syringed. Not only did previously muffled sounds become louder, but I started hearing things that had previously been inaudible – the rustle of my clothes, the clicking of my mouse. What happens if your ears become blocked is that, almost imperceptibly, you use detail in the sound of your environment.

There is an analogy with architecture. In fact, sound is a much under-rated element of architecture. Acoustics are not just important in special places like concert halls, or in classrooms where students may miss a vital point. They are also vital in shaping the feeling of a space. Jo van Heyningen of van Heyningen and Haward believes that too little attention is paid to acoustics, and prides herself on having designed the only Oxbridge college hall where you can actually interpret speech. Her practice also paid a great deal of attention to the acoustic design of its own office, creating a feeling of calm and intimacy which is very special. She talked to me about it for the content of a book I have written, and her insights were fascinating.

But it is not only acoustics that matter. In all elements of design, where value engineering is king, detail can easily be blurred and lost in the same way as happened with my ears. I could still function, and so can most compromised buildings. But how much richness we lose when we compromise our architecture, in the same way that I compromised my hearing.







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