You are on a beach, away from the busy life of the city, walking on the soft sand alongside the waves. Forgetting all your worries, you are absorbed in the silence of the place. All you hear is the waves crashing down on the sand. You feel enlivened…
Next, you go to the nearby forest. Your mind immediately adjusts to the new place full of invigorating experiences. You hear the leaves crackling under your feet as you walk on them. You hear the birds sing, and the rustling of leaves on the trees. You feel alive…
You then walk towards your home through a busy street. You feel the transformation of sounds immediately and feel your presence in the busy city. You feel the urban life…
A quiet and warm home welcomes you, giving you a sense of security through its silence, away from the busy street life.
You feel the transformation of sounds again…
Sound As A Memory
These layers of sounds allow us to live in the present. They make us aware of our presence, of our being. These spaces and sounds instill in our memory forever. We realize that the memories are formed by how our senses perceive the spaces, and we remember them from time to time when we come across them again.
Our senses are enriched by our imagination, our past experiences, and the spaces we want to experience in the future. Like other senses, the auditory sense is an equally important part of our body.
Our perception of space or any other thing does not depend only on one sense, but the combination of all of them. We show an emotional response to certain things through the combination of senses. Subconsciously, our body and our brain trap the sounds which are equally important for the growth of our stimuli. Architecture does that too.
From my own childhood, I remember my old house, in which I recall the sound of raindrops splashing against the tiled sloping roof of my house. Sitting in the verandah, I recall, were the layers of sounds – on the roof, then through the trees on the earth and on the paved path, and then a relative silence and a feeling of security inside the room, faint sound of raindrops still in the background.
These layers of sounds also created various emotions in me – fear as well as intimacy in the verandah and a sense of security inside the rooms. So the sound of the rain mentally transports me to my old house. The moment is unforgettable.
We all have had similar experiences in our lives that have been embedded in our minds as a memory.
In the book Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness, John M. Hull, on sound as sensory experience says, “Rain has a way of bringing out the contours of everything; it throws a colored blanket over previously invisible things; instead of an intermittent and thus fragmented world, the steadily falling rain creates continuity of acoustic experience… If only rain could fall inside a room, it would help me to understand where things are in that room, to give a sense of being in the room, instead of just sitting on a chair.”
Sometimes, sound also leads to imagination. Think of a time when you read a fictional story. Your perception of sound, space, characters, or things in the story is only through sensory experiences and memories. It is also based on imagination or sometimes your past experiences. Inexperienced sound creates imagination. Imagination helps you grow. And we create an imaginary, but memorable experience.
Architecture becomes a medium to create such memories and meaningful experiences. We then experience the space. Architecture is memory. Architecture is present. Architecture is the senses. Architecture is an experience.
Importance Of Sound In Architecture
Like sight, the auditory sense, too, is an important part of our body. But today as a culture, we have become ocular-centric. We think of the visual sense as the most important sense. When we think of a space, or architecture, we generally perceive it only through the visual sense.
Vision sense sometimes gives a false perception of the space. But our body perceives the space through all the five senses, and lack or excess of any of the stimuli is noted by our body. We then perceive a space through the appreciation of that sensory stimuli.
In the book Eyes Of The Skin, Juhani Pallasmaa states “Sight isolates, whereas sound incorporates; vision is directional, whereas sound is omnidirectional. The sense of sight implies exteriority, but sound creates an experience of interiority. I regard an object, but sound approaches me; the eye reaches, but the ear receives.”
But architects and designers emphasize the form and often ignore designing for other senses as well. They often regard vision sense as the most dominant of all the senses. Sense of eye deceives us. We appreciate and value a space through the appreciation of the visual sense.
Through the eyes, we evaluate and judge spaces. But the eyes want to collaborate with other senses to perceive the space. Designing only for sight puts the users into isolation and our sense of reality lost.
Next time when you go inside a building, close your eyes and observe the space through your other senses. You will realize that since your eyes are closed, all the other senses become alert. You then perceive and respond to the architecture. You will automatically begin to feel the presence of the sound or even the silence.
Sound is vibration and we can feel it against our skin. Think of how loud music at a concert reaches our heart and chest. It reverberates through our body moving us directly.
Ways To Design For Our Ears
Sounds reverberate differently in spaces and having different materials. Acoustically reflective materials like marble, glass, tiles, etc. create a lively acoustical environment, whereas sound-absorbing materials like curtains, acoustic ceilings and walls, etc., create a calmer environment. Like materials, shapes and forms also affect the sound quality of a space. Domes, vaults, and flat ceilings, all produce a different reverberation to the sound. Sound also reverberates differently in different shapes or sizes of the room, its depth, or the furniture in it.
Designing for sensory stimuli to serve the purpose of the space would provide users with a unique experience. For example, in a restaurant, designing for the clinking sound of cutlery and plates to travel throughout the room would increase hunger and excitement for food in the users.
In hospitals, if the acoustics are not taken care of, it would directly affect the patients’ health. Sudden or prolonged noise, especially those coming from medical equipment would create a sense of fear within patients. Planning for sounds of nature’s elements increases positive vibrations since as humans, our body is tuned to nature’s sounds.
To Create Meaningful Experiences
Every building and space has a sound of its own. We expect a specific atmosphere from different buildings and spaces in order to feel it and experience it on an emotional level. But the problem today is that we are going away from acoustic intimacy in architectural spaces.
Glass-sealed buildings, the open-space concept for more light through glass façades, a similar pattern of form and materials in every space, etc., have made spaces of different typologies sound alike. The lack in design for sound for sensory stimulation makes us revolve around the same experience in every space, which is bad for our health.
But don’t we need sensory stimulation? Isn’t it something that we strive for, to create meaningful experiences and memories? As architects and designers, isn’t it beautiful to create a conversation in a space—a conversation between the users and their surroundings?
We now have to design for our ears too.