12 September, 2007

Where has sonic architecture gone?

One major contributor to the poor quality and excessive quantity of sound that assails us in urban environments is ocular buildings, by which I mean buildings designed and fitted out by architects and interior designers who operate in one sense only: sight. This is sadly the majority of modern buildings in my experience, and in particular spaces like restaurants and corporate receptions, where the desire to impress visually and the modern trend for hard materials come together to create entire rooms with no absorbent surfaces at all.

Let's get specific: in my book I cite Kensington Place as the noisiest restaurant in London but it's now been replaced at the top of my personal hall of shame by Moro in Exmouth Market. This trendy North African restaurant (very good food) adds an open-plan kitchen to wooden floors, hard tables and chairs, glass front, plasterboard ceiling and parallel walls to create a truly astounding noise level. I could only hear my lunch companion by cupping my hands to my ears. Everyone in the place was shouting to be heard two feet away. It was unbearable and I will never go back there.

Not wishing to be all negative, my vote for the best sounding London restaurant is St Alban in Lower Regent Street. It is perfect, and also features many tables for two where you sit at right-angles instead of face to face. This mouth-pointing-at-ear configuration makes for a much quieter environment in the first place, and creates a sense of comfort and privacy which is amplified by tables far enough apart (I do hate the modern practice of 5 cm gaps so that you are forced to dine with strangers) and carpets (hurrah!). It's buzzy when full, but serene and warm at the same time. I highly recommend it for a nourishing sonic as well as gustatory experience.

Why is interior sound so bad?

I have given talks to several firms of architects and designers but I fear my excitement about a whole new element to design with - adding sound to the existing palette of form, colour, light and texture - was not contagious enough to move them from their ocular focus. Architects spend very little time on sound in their long training, and much of the time they do spend is spent on soundproofing rather than acoustics. Most therefore pay little attention to the sound of their designs, condemning people to live, work and play in spaces that pummel them with harsh, jumbled and excessive reflections of every sound.

Fortunately there are some architects who consider sound, albeit a minority. I have met two: Thomas Lindner, with whom we collaborated on his unfulfilled project to create a massive sonic installation of a heartbeat in Oxford Street, London; and Jana Dreikhausen, who won a major international award in 2005 for her ecological house design, including a cooling system that requires no power. Both are happy to start with sound and see what form emerges - the opposite of the modern practice.

Since Pythagoras (and surely long before that) building designers considered sound as at least the equal of visual design in the making of buildings. The sound of water (representing life) has been used for millennia, especially in hot places, to create pleasing ambient soundscapes, with many homes designed around a central fountain. Clever architecture has deliberately utilised echo, reverberation, focusing, diffusion and absorption to manipulate sound waves for spiritual, artistic and practical reasons. Jana told me of the nightingale floors in Kyoto's Nij┼Ź Castle, which create birdsong-like sounds when walked upon as a security measure so that assassins could not cross them unheeded.

When and why did the skill to design like this get lost? With modern architects and urban planners investigating the leading edges of interactivity, technology and all forms of light, it seems sad that the ancient wisdom about how to make buildings that sound appropriate and nourish the activities inside them is gone. I wonder if we can ever recover it?

Well, it's time for action in one small way at least: I'm going to post on Ecademy and Facebook to ask those communities which is the noisiest UK restaurant they know. Maybe we can generate some PR and start restaurants thinking about their sound!

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