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Audiotecture – The building as a sound body


Interview with Lars Ohlendorf, Head of Design, WESOUND

In the topic of Audiotecture, you engage with how a room, a building or even a city district sounds. For example, what sounds their users make and what kind of sound atmosphere prevails. What other aspects are taken into account? And why are they important?

The idea of audiotecture, an artificial word made up of audio and architecture, applies two concepts from the humanities to life in and around buildings. These are, first, Murray Schafer’s fundamental work on soundscape[1], the auditory-based analysis of a sound environment (a “soundscape”) using methods of extended musicology, and, second, the musical works of musique concrète, that is, the intentional creative work with concrete sounds already present in and through nature and culture. So the challenge is to be able to do exactly both: on the one hand to analyze and evaluate the existing sound material and on the other hand to develop a positive vision for a life-friendly, ideally enriching soundscape, to create the acoustic framework in which man and nature can meet.

This premise gives rise to a whole series of aspects, including urban planning, architectural, social, ecological and economic, which must be discussed individually for each site. Of course, it is not a matter of dictating the soundscape; of giving the bird the cue to chirp and the human to cross the street; rather, it is a matter of creating the framework conditions so that 1. noise is limited as best as possible, 2. the sound field sounds diverse and interesting, and 3. the greatest possible acoustic transparency (resp. localizability of its constituent sounds) is given.

For whom is this approach important?
Should all architects and construction planners be working with audio? Or is audiotecture only relevant for lighthouse projects in the field of sound, such as the Elbphilharmonie concert hall, or for important sound installations? And what potential is there in the planning of room acoustics?

Even if you don’t build the next Elbphilharmonie, room acoustics are a decisive factor in interior design. I don’t think there are any architects who don’t have acoustics on their minds. However, they often need to prioritize aspects of the building that are detrimental to room acoustics. Many glass surfaces, for example, classics, create stunning visual effects, but are acoustically and also climatically problematic at the very least.

I think in many cases room acoustics is not even an issue for architects designing buildings or even districts – yet it has just as much relevance here, in the negative space between buildings. Much more often, room acoustics measures take place, quite pragmatically, in interior design, whether intentionally or not. After all, every object in a room is an obstacle to sound and therefore also has an acoustic effect, whether it’s a lamp, armchair and sofa in living areas, shelving systems and goods in warehouses and markets, or even 20 desks in a school classroom. This means that an intelligent choice of furniture and its optimized positioning alone can upgrade a poor, disturbing room sound to a sometimes decent, neutral one. And this is absolutely not an end in itself: the quality of the room acoustics has a significant influence on how people behave or feel in a room, whether they can concentrate or relax well, learn or communicate. The correlations are sometimes quite obvious, and you don’t need to study acoustics or psychology to understand them: the more interfering sounds are added to the useful sound, for example diffuse reverberation and background noise to what my colleague is saying to me, the more work my auditory brain (the auditory cortex) has to do to isolate this message and render it intelligible. That’s why employees in noisy offices are much more exhausted after work than those in quiet offices. They are sick more often and their overall work performance is lower. The same applies to students in classrooms with poor acoustics. Unfortunately, there is no training effect, as there would be with running training with additional weights. On the contrary, the effect remains constant and leads to burnout rather than resilience.

The topic of noise protection. Whether in an open-plan office or in German city centers – in many places people are exposed to enormous noise levels and acoustic overstimulation. How can Audiotecture help here?

There is a whole range of urban planning and construction options for limiting noise before it arises; but also for reducing or at least spatially dispersing noise that is already present. This makes the soundscape more transparent, people find their acoustic way around better and, last but not least, feel more comfortable. But for that to happen, expertise must literally be brought from the universities to the streets. And this is where Wesound sees its duty. To do this, we have to inform and create an awareness of the problem in the first place, on the one hand, and offer concrete solution proposals for the design of public and private spaces, on the other.

But since audiotecture must basically include all the sonic aspects of these contexts, the mishmash of disciplines can be quite intimidating to outsiders; after all, we are talking about three fundamentally different major categories: Sound Sources, Resonators, and Media. Sound sources can be people, birds, cars, coffee machines, or even wind in the trees; resonators can be spaces, physical entities that alter sound in certain ways – for example, open-plan offices, glass fronts, indoor gardens, or treatment rooms; and they can be electroacoustic media: like the doorbell, the headset, the speaker system in the lecture hall; what are the design goals of a store sound system?

As already indicated by the gradient between doorbells and entire streets, in audio architecture one likes to oscillate between microcosm and macrocosm. And that’s why we’re working hard on tools that make the creative work on and with soundscapes understandable, comprehensible and tangible. I see the fact that these tools do not yet exist as a major obstacle to this movement.

What framework conditions must be in place for audiotecture projects? And when is the right time to integrate audio?

Audiotecture can be initiated at any time, ideally, of course, together with the planning of any change, be it just the redesign of an office or even the redevelopment of an entire neighborhood.

Strictly speaking, the framework conditions are manageable. All that is needed is the will to create life-friendly and sustainable spaces. A detailed analysis reveals a number of critical factors. Of course, the design feasibility and effectiveness of acoustic measures must first be accepted and understood; there needs to be a willingness to work with new trades, especially artists, and above all there needs to be courage to explore new paths and solutions.

How do you see the future of the city? Will audiotecture become more important here in the future?

Absolutely. And if things go well, in a short time this discipline will retreat back to the technical and art colleges of the world, observing, thinking ahead, and guiding the architects and engineers of tomorrow. But for now, this challenge is still ahead of us. We live in a time when birds sing higher and louder than they used to in order for city noise to still prevail; we now artificially add driving noise to much quieter cars (even internal combustion ones) so that pedestrians can hear them at all; emergency vehicle sirens have become three times louder in the last hundred years; inner-city new construction areas are characterized by straight, smooth facades that amplify the noise – and we residents walk through the world with noise-canceling headphones and smartphones in front of our noses.

Consumerism is commuting to retreat into digital space. But that’s not a solution to the problem; it only suppresses symptoms. Hearing-friendly urban planning and architecture is the solution.