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Using Sound to Influence Architectural Experience

By Maria Lorena Lehman — Get more articles like this sent to your email HERE.

Image Credit: © Ptoone | Dreamstime

Have you ever toyed with the notion of designing a space strictly based on sound quality? Perhaps acoustics have played a major role in certain projects where sound formulas served to construct space. But — what about “aural architecture”? It becomes interesting to understand what happens to architecture beyond physics. When experienced via our auditory senses, architecture gains another dimension that significantly influences occupants. In the book Spaces Speak, Are You Listening, the authors describe how aural spaces evoke feelings and emotions as occupants listen.

Interestingly, the authors describe how sound serves to connect or even isolate humans dependent upon there proximity to noise levels, a specific sound source or other people. Humans use their sense of hearing to understand space. Sound works together with the other senses to help people navigate and construct understanding of forms, objects and distances.(1) Thus, the auditory quality of an architectural space is quite important.

There is no doubt that when architecture tailors itself to the human senses its effects have great impact. The interplay between aural and visual architecture, for instance, can create powerful spatial experiences. In an interview with the authors of Spaces Speak, it was said that “extensive observations of ancient sites support the notion that wall art and acoustics were deliberately related rather than accidents.” Thus, the caves of Lascaux are prime examples of how bison images reflect the strong echoes found in the chambers. It is thought that the echoes were reminiscent of the “hoof beats” made by bison when passing.(1)

Yes, aural characteristics found within architecture often stir emotions. Accordingly, we use our sense of hearing to bond with other people as well as to enjoy space. Just imagine religious buildings, office buildings, music halls, restaurants or even residential spaces. For occupants to share a space they, frequently, must share their experiences – and sound is often a primary feature which unites them. Simply stated, if an event is out of earshot, then an occupant may not even be aware that they need to pay attention.

As architecture evolves, auditory designs will likely become more elaborate. Beyond music halls and religious institutions, sound design should do more than help occupants reconstruct space; sound design should help occupants truly interact with their surroundings. Designing with sound can bring about just as many spatial arrangements as designing with visual ques. The trick is to know how to synthesize such stimuli into a composition for multiple senses. Occupants will then have the richest of architectural experiences.


(1) Blesser, Barry & Salter, Linda-Ruth. Spaces Speak, Are you Listening? Experiencing Aural Architecture. MIT Press. 2006.


what members are saying...
Maria: I came across your website through a reference in today's Architect Weekly ezine and am delighted I did. I'll bookmark your site and check back often. I read the first article and then the second and thirty minutes later realized how much time had passed. I've been practicing for thirty years and have always missed the stimulation of academia. I find each of your brief dissertations sort of like a day in design studio. Thanks for the inspiration.

Ron Ward
AI Group Design
I am excited to see you touch a vein of values in architecture, I have been chasing myself for years. Your depth of involvement in these very deep subjects is really beautiful and passionately dealt with and well written. Sound, color and value, shape, texture, scale, smell.... all definitive measures of the spaces we should be alert to. [...] I will savor the rest of your investigation of sensuality in architecture. I'm Glad I found you.

Dennis McLaughlin
McLaughlin Architect
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Maria Lorena Lehman is an award-winning visionary author, designer, and educator from the United States. Maria holds a Bachelor of Architecture with Honors from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and a Master in Design with Distinction from Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

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