BLDGBLOG: On Sound

RM: And this is Geoff Manaugh

Geoff Manaugh (GM): My name is Geoff Manaugh. I’m an architecture writer and and blogger based in Los Angeles.

RM: And for seven years, he has written a website called Building Blog

GM: Which is about architectural conjecture, urban speculation, and landscape futures. I’ve always liked the sounds of things and the acoustic nature of walking through the city, or even the sense that, when you’re walking down a hall that has rich, lush wall coverings, the right side can sound totally different from the left side. I’ve just always been interested in the sorts of acoustic aspects of architectural space. Most architects, if they design for sound, what they’re actually designing to do is design for silence. They’re designing to keep sound out of the environments. They’re designing to make sure that you don’t hear the street sounds that are happening outside. Or that you’re insulated from cars driving by or from the gravel plant up the road. So it’s really an architecture of silence that people tend to be designing for. But that said, there was an interesting project a couple of years ago by an architect named Joel Sanders. It was basically an arhcitectural design. Instead of standard glass windows it would use parabolic microphones. Kind of like those things you see people holding on the sides of a football feild during NFL games. These parabolic microphones would be pointed at the sky or they would be pointed out into the woods nearby or, you know they would capture the sounds of airplanes flying overhead or birds in the forrest or, for that matter, kids down the road. It very consciously and clearly brings acoustics into the architectural equation.

GM: There was an article in a British magazine called The Wire. It was an article about generative sound, so to speak. It referred to this idea of a quote-unquote “sound garden.” Rather than being the 1990’s grunge band, they were talking actually about the idea that you would deliberately plant species of plants, certain species of flowering trees and that kind of thing in your back garden, so that you could actually time an acousitc event over the course of a year. There are certain species that when they bloom, the seed pod opens up with an audible pop. It’s kind of the acoustic equivalent of the dasies coming up through the ground or the tulips blooming. There’s all kinds of other species that have particularly silky leaves that brush against each other in the breeze so you can fall asleep at night to the sound of this kind of really silken, silvery sort of tree-brushing sound. That’s one thing I think is really quite interesting, that you can actually deliberatly build an acousitc eco system. You know, you could easily imagine that sort of thing added on to a kind of botanic garden, so that you’d pay money, you know, literally, to listen to plant life.

RM: Geoff Manaugh is also interested in archeo-acoustics. Good question.

GM: It’s basically the concern with, well two things. Not only how would a building have sounded, or what would have been the acoustic effect of a certain building when that building was standing, but then also the sort of sound culture of a given civilization or village. Old Mayan temples were built not just as spectacular mountain-like constructions, but specifically as acoustic devices that would amplify not only the voice of the priest, but also the sounds of things like the conch shells that would be played to do ritualistic music and that sort of thing. Their building was actually physically designed to be as echo-y as possible. The building themselves were like acousitic resonators or subwoofers, so to speak, that were deliberately made to help induce a kind of, almost like a psychedelic state in people. That’s archeo acoustics. It’s like Indian Jones meets John Cage. I think architects are too willing to sort of let acoustics and sound be taken care of by sound designers or taken up by other people. And I think it really would be interesting to see them think more in terms of how to integrate their building into the soundscape of a city. There’s a lot of talk with archtiecture of how to build something that’s contextually specific and really responds to its site, but the “site” quote unquote, is almost always, literally, a question of site. It’s an optical relationship to the city. It would really be interesting, actually, to think about architects going out to acoustically map the city block where their building is going to be and then figuring out a nice way to intervene in it and maybe reflect those sounds back at the neighborhood. Too much silence is no more interesting than too much noise.

RM: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Nick Van Der Kolk. I’m your host, Roman Mars. The program is supported by Lunar: making a difference with creativity. It’s a project of KALW, the American Insitute of Architects San Francisco, and The Center For Architecture and Design.

To find out more, including links to Geoff Manaugh’s BLDGBLOG, which is essential reading, you should absolutely go there, and Nick Van Der Kolk’s Love + Radio, which is a program he does for Vocalo.org and it’s stunning and brilliant and darkly fascinating, and Nick is one of the sonic innovators in the feild. Absolutely the best. I was going to include an excerpt, actually at the end of this program but man that program is for adults. I have 8th grade kids who listen to this. I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it. Anyway, you should absolutely check it out if you’re an adult. You’ll love it. It’s at loveandradio.org, and you’ll find a link to that at 99percentinvisible.org

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