‘Soundscrapers’ – Designing with Sound

This post was written by Nick Sowers. Nick is practicing the construction of space with sound and 2x4s in the SF Bay area. He is finishing an M.Arch at UC Berkeley this May after a year of traveling around the world studying militarized landscapes, bunkers, US bases, memorials, and more. Visit his blog

I first became interested in the intersection of sound and architecture while traveling in Japan in 2003. At Nijo Castle in Kyoto, Japan, there is a famous hallway which makes use of an uguisubari or Nightingale Floor. It’s a simple construction technique where nails are inserted in the floor-boards abutting a small metal bracket, so that it is impossible to walk on the floor without making it squeak. It was a passive ninja-defense system: assuming that a ninja would always find a way past the guards and into the palace, s/he would never get to the innermost chambers undetected.

knightinggale floor
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You can listen to a Nightingale Floor at Daikakuji, also in Kyoto, here:

[wpaudio url=”http://archi-ninja.com/media/Kyoto_Daikakuji_Nightingale_Floor_SDR008.mp3″ text=”Kyoto Daikakuji Nightingale Floor {Audio file – click to play}”]
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If you are interested in sound, naturally you become interested in the technology of sound recording. I bought my first pair of binaural stereo microphones in 2004, a few months before beginning a trip to the Mediterranean. I had spent many hours listening to field recordings including one by a binaural recording enthusiast who walked around the San Francisco Bay over a 24 hour period and edited the piece down to about ten minutes. It was an experience unlike anything I had previously known. I was hooked by this ability for binaural field recording to collapse linear time while generating a consistent 3d image of space.

I went on to record the sounds of Islamic cities like Istanbul and Fez, Morocco. The most profound spaces were not in the bazaars but on the roofscape. The muezzin’s call to prayer in the early morning emanates from multiple minarets in and out of phase with each other, reflecting off of thousands of buildings before reaching my ears. This experience produced in me the desire to understand the urban soundscape. How could this phenomenon not only be described but designed?

There is a history, of course, to the design of soundscapes and it relates to when people started to realize “Hey, cities are loud and we should do something about it!”. The regulation and design of sound is an early 20th century phenomenon.

Emily Thompsen’s 2004 book The Soundscape of Modernity documents both the progression of noise abatement and the advancement of noise-absorbing materials. The culmination of this process is the Radio City Music Hall in New York City, where reverberation–the sonic signature of a space–is eliminated to the greatest degree possible, and instead the sound experience is mediated by the loudspeaker. The new field of acoustic science simultaneously made sound the subject of much architectural research and labeled sound as a deleterious effect, an unwanted agent like smoke or mold. (The decibel was invented at this time as a unit-less measure of sound intensity, describing the smallest change in volume that the human ear could detect.) By the 1930s many of the tools for measuring and controlling sound were in development, and the logical extreme was not that sound would be this highly scripted, celebrated quality of buildings but rather it would be regulated, mitigated, and divorced from the space in which it is heard. I have embarked upon a trajectory to challenge this tenet of Modern Architecture.

Once I had my pair of microphones, I began to hear things that I never realized I tuned out. Try this experiment: keeping the levels constant, record a string of experiences throughout a day, as you move through a city and in and out of buildings, and then play it back. You might discover that there is a wide spectrum of sound that our brains selectively eliminate. The act of recording foregrounds your peripheral hearing. Often the recording gives us too much spectral information, and we must go through a digital process to lift the intended sound out of the background noise. But what if instead of systematically eliminating that sound, we seek to amplify it, and to make sense of it.

While I was training my ears to open up to the rich texture of a city’s background noise, I made a discovery which still resonates with me today. This was at the Los Angeles Cathedral by the Spanish architect Rafael Moneo.

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The building is adjacent to the 101 freeway. The courtyard is separated from the freeway by a transparent noise barrier, engraved with angels (a holy noise barrier). I was walking around the courtyard, and then I approached the building, making my way to the entrance. I brushed past the exterior wall of the cathedral’s nave and almost missed a gentle rush of sound coming from above. I looked up at the projecting soffit, wondering what it was that I just heard.

I stood there dumbfounded. The sound of the freeway, defracting over the top of the barrier, was being reflected down into a band of space about one foot thick, maybe about six inches off of the face of the building. A personal sound-shower. How many other buildings contain surprises like this? I’m sure Moneo didn’t design this effect into the building, but it’s my favorite part. You’ll never read about it because everyone else was oohing and aahing over the alabaster windows.

maneo cathedral
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I’ve reached back into my archives and pulled out some recordings from that day. In this track I move from the outside into the courtyard where the sounds of the street can still be heard and then into the sanctified, noiseless space of the interior. The ceiling as you can see above is acoustically treated. The interior form has nothing to do with sound, except to eliminate it.

[wpaudio url=”http://archi-ninja.com/media/100214_cathedral.mp3″ text=”La Cathedral {Audio file – click to play}”]
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Designing with sound has never been something I fully considered until now. I remember sitting through the acoustics portion of building sciences in undergrad thinking “well this is interesting but if I do ever design an auditorium or a concert hall, I’ll just hire an acoustic engineer to figure this stuff out.” Like most consultants that the architect hires, their role is often subordinate, not partaking in the design process but rather left with extremely specific tasks like “figure out how I will light the lobby in this particular way.” So if sound is to be more of a player in the design of buildings, architects should be investigating its potentials, just as we obsess over light and visual phenomena through models and renderings. Juhani Pallasmaa has written extensively on the imbalance of seeing with respect to our other senses–touching, smelling, and hearing among them. But we still need to build the tools or adapt those that acoustic engineers use to produce specific effects. Sound in space is more than a poetic notion – it is an atmosphere which all of us inhabit, which can have unwanted health effects if unregulated. Sound is political. Sound is also a layer of construction in our cities.

As the artist James Turrell, like the architect Louis Kahn before him, considers light to be the ultimate building material, what is to be said of sound? I wonder if the end-game is to design a building with sound as the only material. A ‘Blur Building’ of noise. I call it a Soundscraper.


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