Sensuality and Proportion
A primer in sound for architects.

Sound and Architecture

Sound and architecture interrelate in:

1. Music and architecture
2. Harmonic proportion
3. Sound and space

1. Music and architecture have always been connected.

Our understanding of space as height,width, and depth comes from the ear. Our earliest inhabitations and sacred spaces have notable acoustic characteristics. Space is a whole body experience heard with a high degree of exactness. [We are stone throwing animals, with the density and salinity of the sea.]

The ‘found architecture’ of inhabited caves have notable acoustic characteristics, Stonehenge has an acoustic function, Greek amphitheatres, Gothic cathedrals with faceted acres of space above our heads...

In looking for connections between music and architecture one might look at the spaces in which music is played or hummed or sung, everywhere there are people, from the bathroom to the town square to the hi-fi recording studio and the ear piece, wherever the sound of the human voice is good.

The voice has at least three distinct sounds: speaking, intoning, and singing. The sound of a stick on the railings can be music too, and bells bathe us all, whole districts are laid out to the sound of bells until the advent of the radio. Our culture itself is a collective acoustic experience, whose peaceful efforts are dwarfed by thunder. [Please pray for peace - music demands a more or less stable equilibrium.] Silence - there is no such thing - is golden. Amidst this apparent acoustic jumble such a small thing as music can stir the soul and move the woodwork[1]

Which is more musical, asks John Cage, the milk float going past a factory or the milk float going past a music school?

What music is to sound, architecture is to space. Practice, reflection and exactness allow for freedom,strength and sensitivity in execution.

The execution of it makes living a joy for those who collaborate to build and those who inhabit.

It’s a collective thing, to sit in a tent at the south pole listening to the radio, or in a space station - it’s something - I can’t imagine architecture without music, without the ‘music’ of the building site, people collectively doing their thing, and other people subsequently going about their lives and enjoying it. Perhaps Falling Water, perhaps the retreat, a lighthouse, the music of nature and the elements. Perhaps the architecture of the tomb. Perhaps architecture is our collective cultural seed, a DNA: but fundamentally architecture is a collective city thing, it arrives with a group of people cooperating on a building project - a town is surrounded by a living countryside, there are slack times of flood or winter where people get together to make things, like earthworks and walls and boats and tents and rockets. This is the practical experience of being an architect. We delimit things, reduce choice, create enclosure, and can do so in an enabling way.

2. Harmonic proportion

Harmonic proportion stems from a belief that the world has certain simple rhythms, that music is pleasing because it embodies such rhythms, made into poly-rhythms, because every note has a multiplicity of notes within it. Music and hearing is proportional, that is to say we compare the series of the different elements of the sound as they sound together. We get excited, musically, that is to say our breathing and heartbeat adjust, in response to this interplay of different simple rhythms, what Debussy called ‘sustained boredom’. It is the comparison of the notes to each other that matters, not their absolute size: and once sensitivity is established the finest nusnces are discernible.

The ratios between the numbers 1 to 4 are particularly important, with one embodying unity, its half, duality, its three-ness and four-ness. Like chess moves, these simple things weave webs of great richness and complexity.

3. Sound in space

Our understanding of space is synaesthetic, whole body. We must listen to the whole city including ourselves. May music and peace be always with you

MB 10 April 02

Philophony index