The Convergence of Sound and Space
This evolving body of work represents a continuing investigation into the the intersection of
Architecture, Sound, and the search for Enlightenment.
Building from an initial conception as a meditation chamber specifically designed for chanting, the project incorporates investigations into form, acoustics, physics, neurology,
material systems, physiology, and mysticism.
The work oscilates between Theory, Research, and Design and is far from having run its course. I continue to refine the process and products of these ideas along with help from some truly inspiring innovators in the field of sound.
"Listen! Interiors are like large instruments, collecting sound, amplifying it, transmitting it elsewhere."
- Peter Zumthor
Let me begin by asking you to consider architecture as an instrument. A musical instrument specifically.
Consider for a moment the design and creation of a cello.
Reflect on the material qualities of construction which culminate to create a highly refined instrument. Qualities such as the density of the species of tree from which the lumber was procured; the processes of curing, shaping, and finishing the wood according to the character and nature of its grain; the assembly of pieces which together hold in balance forces of torque and tension; or the specific curvatures and openings which direct and distribute flows of moving air.
All of these are tools of the master craftsman who goes beyond forcing his will upon wood, steel, and sinew, and rather aims to reveal the inherent natures of material assemblies in symphony. This process is empathic in its approach and results in a product so refined in its use that the sonic result is pure emotion.
Just as the cello maker, so too are Architects tasked with the responsibility of discovering and manifesting the inherent natures of form and material. As with the cello maker, an architectural process which is empathic to the symphony of assemblies may also result in a finely tuned sonic instrument.
Furthermore, as sound is inherently a spatial process, Architecture enjoys an interactive realtionship with the manipulation and manifestation of sound. This relationship plays out in the spaces we occupy at every moment of our lives within buildings. The characteristics of this relationship manifest themselves as the acoustics of a space, and these acoustic qualities have a strong effect on our well being.
Unfortunately, the modern architect is too often negligent in the consideration of these spatial qualities, resulting in sonic environments which negatively impact their inhabitants. At best, most spaces are neutral in affect...rarely enriching.
The power of beauty upon the mind and body is not to be understated.
So too, the sonic aesthetic of space should be healthful, beautiful, and even inspiring.
We are so accustomed to the world of sonically insensitive spaces that an experience to the contrary can be deeply powerful.
This sense of awe in the presence of such a positive aural landscape is universal to the human experience regardless of culture or era. Indeed, throughout time humans have cultivated strong bonds to spaces of particular acoustical significance...often associating religious or spiritual significance to them. It is at this intersection of space, sound, and spirit that I position the project and work contained herein.
"If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is,
Infinite." - William Blake
"Buildings provide spaces for living but are also de facto instruments, giving shape to the sound of the world. Music and architecture are related not only by metaphor, but also through concrete space. Every building I have admired is, in effect, a musical instrument whose performance gives space a quality that often seems to be transcendent and immaterial." - Daniel Libeskind
Recognizing the dependency between sound and space, I have sought to identify the spatial characteristics which manifest these powerful sonic experiences. Just as the cello maker implores materials to impart specific acoustic characteristics, so too can the Architect extract the natural properties of space, form, and materiality to manifest the power of sound.
- the condition in which an object or system is subjected to an oscillating force having a frequency close to its own natural frequency
- the reinforcement or prolongation of sound by reflection from a surface or by the synchronous vibration of a neighboring object
- the ability to evoke or suggest images, memories, and emotions
Architecturally speaking, every room has a particular resonance. By this I mean a specific frequecy (or series of frequencies) which are sympathetically related to the spatial qualities of dimension and volume within each individual space. To this end, every concert hall, ball room, pantry, and shower, through its 3 dimensional characteristics, has a proportional relationship with a particular set of tonal wavelengths. When the proper tone is played within a space, resonance is created through positive interference between the length of the sound wave and the length of the space. This results in a marked increase in the intensity of the sound's volume and an extension of the time it remains audible after the source has stopped.
In 2012 I traveled to the island of Malta to visit the Hypogeum hal Saflieni. This prehistoric archaeological site contains an underground temple discovered in 1902. A noteworthy element of the temple is a room called the Oracle Chamber. This space is oval shaped in both plan and section with ridges carved into the ceiling of roughy 7 feet in height. The ceiling is particularly important as it is elabroately painted in a swirling red paint, potentially a musical annotation. Also notable about the chamber is the presence of a pair of portals which allow sounds from within the Oracle Chamber to be transmitted and clearly audible to all the rooms of the complex.
Most important of all the chamber's characteristics is the fact that the people of this culture carved a perfect resonating chamber into solid stone. This was done over 5,000 years ago and accomplished with basic hand tools, somehow fine tuning the space to an undeniable resonant tone.
Standing in this space one is able to identify the resonant frequency of the room by singing or humming at the lowest range of your vocal register and slowly raising the pitch of the tone. When the resonant frequency is reached (right at 110 Hz), a multisensory event takes place. The intensity of the sound of your voice within the space increases instantaneously, sounding as though someone has joined in singing. Additionally, the character of the sound becomes increasingly spatial, observably approaching you from all directions simultaneously and taking on a vibrotactile quality so that you sense the sound as a tingling vibration through the skin. When you discontinue singing the resonant tone, it remains notably audible for a few brief moments before decaying into silence. The experience is at once disorienting (you feel as though your equilibrium is lost) and awe inspiring. This sonic interaction - by which the space informs the performer - inverts the relationship between musician and instrument in that it is indeed the instrument which tunes the singer.
Judged upon the characteristics of the acoustic effects alone, the Hypogeum is a noteworthy site. More impressive though are the results of a study into the effects of the Hypogeum's particular frequency (110 Hz) upon the human brain. When the brain is exposed to the resonant frequency of the Hypogeum, the tone causes a shift in the prefrontal cortex from left dominance to right dominance. This shift de-activates the language centers of the brain (focused on rhythm and patterns) and hyperactivates the emotional center often associated with the perception of experiences of spirituality and enlightenment. Its is believed that the Oracle Chamber's use by the shaman of this culture may have acted as a catalyst for mystical experience.
I apologize for the lack of imagery and/or recordings from the Hypogeum.
Due to the archaeological sensitivity of the site, access to the Oracle Chamber is extremely limited.
I was not allowed any equipment and could only remain within the space for a limited duration.
- a prolonged or continuing effect
- loud or echoing sound
- To be repeated reflection, as sound waves, heat, or light.
If resonance is the tuning of a space, reverberation is the intensity. Reverberation is characterized by the volume and sustain of a room and works in tandem with resonance. While resonance is a result of spatial dimension in relation to wavelength, reverberation is more closely link to form and materiality.
An acoustic architectural gem exists next door to Pisa's iconic Leaning Tower. The romanesque/gothic Baptistry of St. John manifests a rather unique form of resonance imparting the space with a powerful sonic tool. The shape and materiality of the Baptistry's architecture creates a hyper-reverberant interior.
Most spaces have reverberation times of a fraction-of-a-second meaning that once a sound is discontinued, the energy of the source sound disappears (audibly) almost instantaneously. This short moment of continued sound is created by the original sound waves being bounced between the walls of the space until they are eventually absorbed by the materials within the room. The more reflective the materials, the more bounces which are possible (this is the commonly known effect enjoyed by those who sing in the shower). The shape and arrangment of space also effects the bouncing of waves within a space and can either diffract, focus, delay, or redirect the bouncing sound. While most spaces have miniscule reverberation times, cathedrals and concert venues can approach reverberation times of 2 seconds.
Due to the particular form and material at Pisa, when a vocalist sings a tone within the Baptistry they are greeted by a reverberation time many times longer than the grandest of concert halls. This allows one to layer their vocal energy...even harmonizing with their own voice as shown here through a harmonic triad. Keep in mind, this is a single vocalist with no tools other than her voice and the architecture.
Studying the Baptistry's form and construction, you find that the marble used to construct the space is highly reflective thus bouncing most of the energy from a given sound wave back towards the interior of the room. Working in tandem with this strong reflectance is the arrangement of the walls, columns, and roofs. In plan the Baptistry is a double-layered circle with an exterior diameter of 116'-0". The circular arrangment guarantees that any sound within the space will travel outward radially only to be reflected and re-focused back toward the interior of the room. This refocusing concerves the sonic energy by maximizing the amount of sound returned to the listener.
The interior columns which carry the weight of the gallery and ceiling above play a crucial role in the production of the sonic environment as well. Sound waves may take one of three radial paths in plan. Sound waves may be reflected by the interior face of the column and sent back toward the center of the space. This represents the shortest path back to the center and thus it is the fastest. Some of the sound waves will miss the columns and travel to the exterior wall before being reflected back to the interior of the space. These take a slightly longer path (in both distance and time). A third wave path travels past the columns, is reflected by the exterior walls, but rather than returning directly to the interior of the space, these waves are again bounced by the exterior of the column. In this moment the sound wave is defelected back and forth between the column and outer wall, further extending the time between the source sound and its deflected return to the center of the room. In this way the architecture manipulates the acoustic paths of soundwaves creating a layering of reflections and a drastically extended reverberation of the sound.
By studying the Baptistry's section, one can see the original roof (observable as the interior ceiling form) along with the modified design which created a second skin in the shape of a dome around the original roofline. Whether by accident or intent, this double layered spatial arrangment creates a resonating chamber between the two skins.
These architectural traits combine to intensify the sonic character of the space.
These are only 2 historic examples from my body of research, but they exemplify the search for sonic manifestations and the particular architectural environments which create them. By understanding such relationships, a designer is equipped with an incredible toolbox of sonic manipulations.
Having developed a theoretical underpinning for the power of sound to induce awe and manipulate states of consciousness, and having identified the acoustic phenomenon which might be created through architecture to induce such effects, the question becomes, "Where do we start in the design of such spaces?".
Since the earliest practitioners of architectural theory, music and architecture have been deeply interconnected. This relationship generally relies upon proportion or poetics as the translation between artforms, but contemporary design tools may enable a more direct relationship between sound and architecture. Contemporary Architects, enabled through algorithms and advanced modeling software, are capable of impregnating form with complexities heretofore unattainable...often using physics or environmental systems as catalysts for design iterations.
This level of design capability coupled with an advanced understanding of the physical properties of sound could reveal a new manner of relating sound to architecture. The branch of physics focused specifically on these physical properties of sound is called Cymatics:
As with all physical phenomenon, Cymatics at its core is a mathematical process...and as such can in some ways be described through formulae. Not surprisingly, this opens the door for algorithmic modeling driven by cymatic processes.
Through the repeated modification of variables an iterative process emerges which is capable of yielding an astounding number of cymatic formations...like the fingerprints of sound.
Emergent from such a thorough study of cymatic formations is an understanding of the formal underpinnings of this physical process. Revelations such as the relationship between tonal frequency and formal complexity, or the bi-axial symmetry of all cymatic processes only become evident when observed across a large sample set.
It is also noteworthy that the process of modeling cymatic formations truly informs the designer of the fact that the cymatic patterns seen above are only 2 dimensional imprints of a 3 dimensional process.
To take the bi-axial symmetry inherent in the cymatic forms and extend such a relationship into the 3rd dimension enables the designer to create space and form never before imagined.
These 3 dimensional sonic fingerprints have been titled Nodal Structures. This is derived from the fact that the 2 dimensional cymatic formations represent the nodal points of the formula...that is to say, each line represents the moment at which the energy in the sound wave equals zero, crossing the plane of reference. In this way, the shell-like Nodal Structures are an embodiment of the movement of sound...with walls which bloom within the moments of calm inside a field of vibrating sonic energy.
As with the 2D explorations, an iterative process of design allows for a macro-level understanding of emergent relationships between the 3D forms. In one such study an analysis of harmonic frequencies revealed a formal evolution between tones. This was evident within multiple harmonic triads and implies that the mathematical ratios which govern harmonics in sound may also influence formal relationships.
B Flat Major Triad
A Minor Triad
C Major Triad
I am currently working with various programs to extract the resonant frequencies of each Nodal Structure. This is part of a larger effort to explore any potential revelation between the input frequency and the resulting Nodal Structure. As the Nodal Structures become more resonantly fine-tuned, the potential exists to create chambers which manifest exact tones much like the Hypogeum...thus opening the door to the possibility of tunable spaces capable of manipulating brain function and consciousness.
In addition to the ability of the Nodal Structures to create sonic environments of particular resonance, many of the Structures contain a complex layering of spaces. Considering the lessons learned from the Baptistry of St. John, this layering of space has the potential to extend reverberation times within the Nodal Structures through reflection delay and the creation of periphery resonating chambers.
My work continues with further explorations into the scale, materiality, and form of the Nodal Structures.
They are considered exploratoriums of sonic phenomenon, meditation chambers, and laboratories of consciousness...
...above all though, the Nodal Structures are a temple of sound.
Building from the lessons learned in the Nodal Structures project, I am now working with a team of designers and advisors on a Resonance Center focused on the exploration of the power of sound at many scales. Through installation pieces, sonic landscapes, and performance spaces of varying sizes we aim to bring forth the use of sound for connection, wellbeing, and entertainment.
Much more thorough information is available regarding the Nodal Structures as well as the Resonance Center.
Please contact me via email here (at the bottom of the page) for more information.