Why Some Buildings Sound Wrong

July 31, 2019

The acoustic properties of our homes, offices and public spaces can have a major impact on how comfortable we find them and may even affect the way we behave.

Step into the underground concourses of New York’s Penn Station and you might just feel an uneasy sense of claustrophobia that’s hard to explain. Stroll across the hardwood floors at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and a sense of calmness might descend on you. Why? Each of these buildings has its own unique voice – the way sound behaves in the structure.

Think of the way whispers travel in the circular dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in London and how the curved ceiling of the lower floor of Grand Central in New York can carry voices. Then there is the satisfying click of heels walking through an deserted hallway or the way your bathroom makes your singing sound better. This “aural architecture” can have a profound effect on the way you experience a building. (Read about how you can navigate a room using clicks alone)

“Aural architecture is about how we listen to buildings, the sound within buildings and how we react to them,” says Trevor Cox, an acoustic engineer at the University of Salford, in Manchester. Even though we primarily navigate our way through the world using our eyes, it seems our ears are constantly picking up information from our surroundings that unconsciously alters how we feel about a space.

Though they emit no sound, you can hear an empty room. You can find out if it has low ceilings and where its walls are just by the way sound reflects off these surfaces. Think of the echoing noise the click of a heel makes on a marble floor as opposed to the muffled padding from someone walking on thick carpet.

“You can walk into a room blindfolded and you can probably hear if there’s a carpet on the floor without stepping on it,” says Barry Blesser, a former electrical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who coined the term aural architecture. “We can hear all kinds of things. We just don’t pay attention.”

We have probably all been in a building that sounds wrong. Dingy offices where noise rattles uncomfortably between the floor and the ceiling, old houses where the creaks and groans of ageing floorboards carry hauntingly from room to room, train stations where public announcements reverberate until they are indecipherable.

While it may be hard to put a finger on why, these places can feel instinctively uncomfortable to us.

Now, there is growing recognition that buildings not only need to be designed to be functional and aesthetically pleasing, but acoustically satisfying as well – leading some architects and engineers to rethink how spaces are shaped and the materials they are made from.

Scientific research suggests they are wise to do so. Noisy work and home settings have been proven to annoy people, and noise annoyance itself has been linked to depression and anxiety. Furthermore, issues concentrating in the workplace due to office noise and intermittent noise has been found to significantly reduce human performance.

But the way sound interacts with a building’s physical structure can also significantly alter our moods and emotions. For instance, studies show that living in crowded housing can cause a feeling of helplessness. Rooms with loftier ceilings encourage more abstract thought as people feel more free in such airy spaces.

Consider the emotional impact of a structure like the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul’s famous former cathedral and mosque, which now houses a museum. Built nearly 1,500 years ago, its domed interior and marble floors and walls can elevate human chants into ethereal sounds that seem to emanate from the depths of the ocean and create a feeling of exaltation in the listener.

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