Acoustics have been a key element of architecture for at least 3,000 years. Actors could be clearly heard by audience members in the last row – 60 meters away from the stage – of ancient open-air Greek theatres. Temples, churches and other sacred spaces were built with soaring rounded ceilings to amplify music, song and voice.
Sound has the ability to soothe or irritate, calm or excite. The design of any public space should take aural qualities into account. All across the country, architects and designers are relearning what ancient engineers knew about acoustics. Stanford University is currently running an Onassis Seminar series entitled Aural Architecture: Music, Acoustics and Ritual in Byzantium. At the University of Virginia, Karen Van Lengen is leading an exploration, entitled Soundscape Architecture, of 13 public spaces ranging from the New York Public Library to the Taj Mahal.
Because architecture is primarily a visual discipline, the impact of sound on the public’s interaction with a space is often overlooked. Think of the clattering dishes in a noisy restaurant or the incomprehensible bleating of loudspeakers in an airport. By considering the element of sound as a key ingredient in the overall experience of a structure, architects, designers and space planners can make significant improvements in people’s enjoyment of public space.