A few months ago, an article in the Sunday New York Times caught my attention. It was about the ambient sounds of our world – everything from jackhammers to vehicles to appliances, and how environmental noise ‘splits our own attention, regardless of willpower’. One anecdote expressed this phenomenon in a particularly clear way:
‘Her family had been sitting in the living room one evening when the power suddenly cut off. They simultaneously exhaled a sigh of relief. All at once, the many electronic devices around them (including the refrigerator, computers, generator, lamps and home entertainment systems and the unnatural hum they generated and to which the family had become oblivious) went silent. They family members didn’t realize until the sound went off how loud it had become. Without knowing it, each family member’s mental energy was constantly diverted by and responsive to the threat posed by that sound.’
From ‘I’m Thinking. Please. Be Quiet.’ by George Prochnik. NY Times 8/25/13
A similar story comes to mind: years ago I was working in another architecture office when the power went out and shut down the electrical hum in an instant. I had been holding in a bit of personal news (I was engaged to be married!) but needed to find the right time. Finally, there was space and time to relax and share. But it wasn’t simply because work had to stop… it was a feeling of relaxation that came over everyone, that collective sigh of relief.
Which makes me wonder… how much are we holding in as a result of our being permeated by ambient sound? What if our world, our buildings, quieted down so that we could all think a little clearer?
Ignoring the problem of mechanical or electrical objects for a while, let’s consider how the shape of space and the quality of materials might control sound. One of the more obvious examples of this is in the Paris Catacombs, which I visited in 1998 on an architecture study-abroad trip. Decending below street level, we were buffered by a thick layer of ground from all the street sounds above. The winding path through the stacks of femurs and skulls is covered with crunchy gravel (or at least, I hoped it was gravel) that had an overwhelming auditory experience. Each step was magnified, heightening my awareness of space and morbid texture of the walls.
In a much less dramatic fashion, we control the auditory experience of our buildings with the materials we select and shape of space. We stay away from overlarge space that could create a cavernous echo. We like creating transitions from one room to another, where perhaps the ceiling undulates or is made of another material: both of which help deflect sound waves and prevent that echo. Materials that have a bit of in-and-out, whether a raised and textured grain, woven fabric, or perforated panel, also create an enveloping sound.
We also need to be mindful of the ever growing list of equipment in our homes. The trend toward more refrigeration units in the kitchen (beverage centers, ice makers, freezer drawers, large refrigerators) increase that hum considerably. The answer may be to locate these in a room together to isolate them from the living areas. Or perhaps the kitchen becomes a room unto itself, without as much exposure to other areas of the house. One client of mine enjoys her cooled pantry, air-conditioned to 60 degrees, which also houses the wine storage. Maybe the old fashioned larder will see a revival?
What else can we do with architecture to achieve quiet, calming space?