Sound And Architectural Vision

Editor’s note: Sam Stubblefield is a designer at NBBJ interested in how technology, architecture and art influences culture. His clients include Microsoft, Boeing, Amazon and Google.

In the race to build the newest, coolest and greenest tech offices, architects and their clients are sparing no expense on the best materials and features. Curved glass? Check. Rooftop parks? Check. But many of these buildings omit one of the most important architectural materials of all time: sound. As sound expert Julian Treasure says, architects are designing buildings with their eyes, but not with their ears.

This is a missed opportunity because sound is amazingly powerful. Canadian researchers say listening to music boosts the body’s immune system and reduces anxiety better than drugs.  Oscar-winning sound editor Walter Murch – whose films included “The English Patient,” “The Godfather” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” – says, “In the same way that looking at paintings makes you see the world in a different way, listening to interestingly arranged sounds makes you hear differently.”

Just think of the possibilities. If sounds were better designed and implemented into the design of everything from offices to hospitals, could we increase happiness, health and productivity?

Luckily, things are starting to change. Some designers, musicians and artists (including some at my firm, NBBJ) are using software like AbletonMax/mxpMechanical Turk and Mind Mixer to create sound installations that intentionally evoke specific emotions in new ways for people as they travel through buildings, parks and cityscapes.

For instance, a public alleyway that funnels 6,000 people per day into a neighborhood in central Seattle suddenly seems a little brighter, even on a rainy October day. Or maybe walking into a hectic office happens to feel more rhythmic than chaotic. Imagine a hospital waiting area that could adapt to maintain a warm and nurturing feeling, regardless of whether a patient was sitting alone or was surrounded by other anxious patients.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Sounds are original and uniquely crafted for each space. This is achieved by recording with binaural microphones and by making and capturing sound within the exact environment we are trying to recreate. Choosing the right location is essential: A violin will sound dramatically different when recorded in a sound booth versus a forest.
  2. We can then post hundreds of these isolated sounds online to get crowdsourced feedback on each, preferably from the exact audience that will experience the sounds in the final installation – the future occupants of the building or place. At the same time, this feedback automatically indexes each sound with properties like “introspective,” “evening,” “optimistic,” “fun” or “technical.”
  3. The sounds are then arranged and played back to create “atmospheres.” If you want to create a space that evokes feelings of “thoughtfulness,” “rhythm” or “connectedness,” this can happen by calling up files indexed with similar properties. We might then have the space gradually shift toward feelings of “vitality,” “city,” and “future,” recoloring the space without making a tangible change to its physical makeup.

Additionally, sounds can be augmented or make dramatic shifts according to real-time inputs: for example, time of day, time of year, position of the moon, the number of people experiencing the installation, the ambient noise levels created by those people, unusual swings in outside temperature, a sunny day after several consecutive days of rain, Internet traffic trends, direct input from mobile devices, stock prices or mentions of certain key words from people standing near the installation.

Each of these has a name: installations with real-time inputs are called “live atmospheres”; those that respond to occupants of a room are called “responsive atmospheres”; simple, prearranged installations are simply “atmospheres.”

The playback algorithm then pairs these atmospheres with complimentary scales. A major Lydian scale will tend to give the compositions an ethereal, dreamy, futuristic feel, while a minor Dorian scale might give a lively, sophisticated feel. The algorithm can output compositions that are never arranged in the same way twice, giving limitless variety and a sense of discovery to a place.

Finally, arrangements are played back using directional sound emitters, which give a highly controlled, intimate feeling that dramatically shapes one’s journey through an installation on an individual basis. Emitters are often combined with traditional, full-range speakers or subwoofers for additional fidelity or range of sound.

All of these things are considered new architectural materials, right alongside wood, glass, steel and concrete, and are new ways for designers to shape emotions in an environment. Sound is increasingly becoming a dynamic tool for creating meaningful, rich and connected experiences. After all, isn’t that what great architecture is all about?