Soundscapes and Architecture — a New Love Affair or a Long-Term Relationship? Part II

But do we tend to associate certain sounds with certain rooms? Do the spaces speak?

Hogarth webIt is a common knowledge that we experience places not only by seeing but also by listening. In Spaces Speak, Are You Listening?, Barry Blesser and Linda- Ruth Salter take advance of his long career in audio engineering and her experience regarding space, and they examine auditory spatial awareness. They introduce the notion of aural architecture, integrating contributions from a wide range of disciplines such as architecture, music, acoustics, psychology, art and many others. According to them, when we think of architecture, we tend to visualize the properties of space that can be seen, especially boundaries like walls and surfaces. In contrast, aural architecture has aural boundaries. Moreover, the aural and acoustic attributes of a space have an influence on the moods and feeling of those who inhabit it. Searching for a certain high-impact space is easier than trying to construct it, since it is impossible to auralize a space that has never been experienced. So, it is obvious that we tend to listen to the unique voice of certain spaces but without realizing it most of the times.

But what happens when we leave our home? How we tend to aurally experience the city? The French philosopher and phenomenologist Jean- Francois Augoyard at the Centre de researche sur l’espace sonore et l’ environment urbain (CRESSON) at the National School of Architecture of Grenoble and lead soundscape researcher, makes an innovative approach. In his book, Sonic experience, a guide on everyday sounds, he introduces the notion of sonic effect, and he provides a sourcebook full of auditory examples with a distinctive architectural and urban context. Nevertheless, he clearly uses the notion of R. Murray’s soundscape and Pierre Schaeffer’s sound object. Augoyard believes that never before has the everyday contemporary soundtrack of urban space been so cacophonous, and he hopes to enrich our understanding of what it is to listen and the role sound plays to our environment.

kentrikos stathmos tokxolmiFollowing the same path with CRESSON Bjorn Hellstrom, the writer of Noise Design: Architectural Modelling and the Aesthetics of Urban Acoustic Space, takes a structural approach to urban acoustic space. While most regulations adopt a defensive attitude towards noise, as unwanted sound, Hellstrom believes that urban noise, transient and immaterial as it is, makes public and private space less predictable and less monotonous, having a direct connection to transparent and fluid space, which is a central principle of contemporary architectural composition.

But is this transformboston-symphony-hallation of the contemporary urban soundscape in the Western World, the result of major cultural and technological changes that took place in the beginning of 20th century? Emily Thomson, in her book The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933, agrees that the dramatic transformations in what people heard and how they listened, were the result of the prevalence of a neradio-city-music-hallw aural culture. The new sound of the modern technology changed radically the experience of sonic space. This is a fact that you can visually notice for example when you experience the architecture of Boston’s Symphony Hall, which was built in 1900s and the architecture of Radio City Music Hall, which was built in the 1930’s. The architectural composition of these two stages is mainly the result of acoustics but its function changes entirely in these two cases.

The result of this journey is that; the connection between soundscapes and architecture is not a new but an ancient one. While the soundscape of the world changes, as R. Murray Schafer has stated in his book that introduced the notion of soundscape, modern man should learn to inhabit a world with an acoustic environment radically different from any other era. I believe that contemporary architects should stop designing for people without senses and focus on real space rather than space constructed by bits!



Blesser, Barry and Linda-Ruth Salter. Spaces Speak, Are You Listening?: Experiencing aural architecture. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2007. Print.

Auguyard, Jean-Francois and Henry Torgue. Sonic experience, a guide on everyday sounds. Quebec: McGill- Queen’s University Press, 2005. Print.

Hellstrom, Bjorn. Noise Design: Architectural Modelling and the Aesthetics of Urban Acoustic Space. (Doctoral Dissertation, School of Architecture, Royal Institute of Technology, KTH) Gotenborg: Reproman AB, 2003. Print.

Thomson, Emily. The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004. Print.

Schafer, R. Murray. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Vermont: Destiny Books, 1977,1994. Print


Picture sources:

Second photograph is courtesy of Alex Stogiannis; Stockholm’s central station January 2013.

“Surprising Sounds” by Viv Corringham

Some sounds take you by surprise while others make you work to hear them. Knowing that my first blog was coming up I thought I’d write about the listening experience that has made the most impression on me so far this year. The obvious choice seemed to be the one I had to research, walk several miles to reach, and hunt for when I arrived.

But then just last week I was walking around a lake in Minneapolis on a rare Spring-like day. Everyone was out. Beneath the conversations and laughter of joggers, walkers and cell phone users I heard an intriguing, tinkling sound like bells. The ice on the lake was finally melting and breaking up into small crystals which were being pushed together by the wind. These collisions caused a delicate chiming that was even more delightful for being barely audible.

In some aspects, such as its subtlety and bell-like quality, it reminded me of the sound I had intended to focus on in this blog: the suikinkutsu, a musical device found in Japanese gardens. In February this year I finally tracked one down in the Taizo-in Zen temple in Kyoto. I was in Japan for a revisit after 30 years, but on my first visit I hadn’t even heard of the suikinkutsu. I read about it in 1995 in David Toop’s book Ocean of Sound. He wrote that after listening to this minute sound “all auditory senses are heightened”. I wanted to hear this for myself.

And so at last, after a long walk to Taizo-in and some searching in the temple garden, I was listening to a quiet but resonant “bing!” and then “bong!” near and below what appeared to be a hand-washing basin. After recording these gentle sounds for a while, I finally realized  that it is the act of washing the hands that plays the suikinkutsu. The device consists of a pot buried upside down with a hole at the top and a small pool of water, usually on a bed of gravel, inside the pot. The hand-washing basin collects water from a bamboo pipe and lets it drip through the hole into the resonating pot. Once I began to let water pour through the hole, splashes started to bounce off the sides and streams of pure, rich tones rang out in the pot.

Apparently it is quite rare nowadays to find a suikinkutsu without a bamboo listening pole to amplify the sounds, but I was lucky in my choice of Taizo-in temple as this was a quiet garden and no pole was necessary. Apart from enjoying the variety of sounds produced, I really like the fact that the suikinkutsu (often translated as “water koto cave”) is discreet and surprising and the device is hidden from view. It is, in a sense, a sound maker that is played by accident and that gives a different listening experience to each person.

(To hear a suikinkutsu, I recommend John Levack Drever’s recording, also at Taizo-in Temple.)

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Viv Corringham is a British vocalist, sound artist and composer, currently based in the USA, who has worked internationally since the early 1980s. Her work includes audio installations, music performances and soundwalks. She is a 2012 and 2006 McKnight Composer Fellow through American Composer Forum and has received many grants and awards. She has an MA Sonic Art from Middlesex University, London, England and is certified to teach Deep Listening by composer Pauline Oliveros.

In the previous 12 months, work has been presented at Around Sound Festival, Hong Kong 2013; Tempo Reale Festival, Florence, Italy 2012; Soundworks, ICA, London, UK 2012; Her Noise Festival, Tate Modern, London, UK 2012 and Deep Listening Institute, Kingston, NY, USA 2012.

Articles about her work have appeared in magazines and books: In the Field (UK), Organised Sound (UK), Musicworks (Canada), Playing With Words (UK) and For Those Who Have Ears (Ireland). Recordings are available on Innova, Deep Listening, Emanem, Slowfoot, NoMansLand, ARC Music, MASH, Slam, Rhiannon, Jungle Records, SSWA, Move, Artship and Third Force.