Fascinating Noise

Close your eyes; what do you hear? If you’re sitting in an office, you might note a printer whirring, the ding of a nearby elevator, the footsteps of your colleague walking across the room. At home, the sounds of your neighbor’s TV, traffic passing by, the radiator clanging. If reading this on your mobile device, you might hear the din of an approaching subway train, or the hum of conversation in your neighborhood coffee shop. At times quiet and at times cacophonous, the city has a rich soundscape that, whether we pay attention to it or not, influences our experience and perception of the places we inhabit.

Karen Van Lengen is an architect and the Kenan Professor of Architecture at the University of Virginia. Recently, as a Fellow at the University’s Institute for Advanced Technologies in the Humanities (IATH), she has been developing a project called Soundscape Architecture, which she describes as “an interpretative web-based project that listens to and records the sounds of iconic spaces of architecture, and then interprets them visually, acoustically, and aurally.” An interactive online streetscape allows users to engage with acoustically interesting spaces from around the world, explore the physical and experiential attributes that contribute to their aural uniqueness, and then engage with animated new musical compositions inspired by sounds she recorded of the building in use. The project, says Van Lengen, “is meant to highlight the richness of our aural environment and, in particular, the richness associated with specific iconic pieces of architecture.”

Van Lengen took me on a walk through a few of New York City’s notable soundscapes and reflected on why designers — or anyone who moves through the built environment — should take out their headphones and listen a little more carefully. —V.S.

Photo by Cole Evelev
Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. – John Cage

When did you begin engaging with the intersection of sound and space?


Listening to John Cage’s “4’33” in an undergraduate history of music class was a pivotal moment in my education. The score instructs performers to not play their instruments for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, so the piece consists only of the ambient sounds of the performance space. I remember it exactly, and I always say that it was an “ear-opening” experience in that I then began to think about how we hear our environments.

We live in a text-based, visual culture. We text everyone instead of even getting on the phone. So what do we lose in that? We lose the sound of the voice, its resonance, the pauses, the gestures. That’s huge. In a way, we need to rediscover how to be in public space together.

We don’t study how to listen in architecture, which has been promoted as a visual field since the Renaissance. Soundscape Architecture is a resistance to this purely visual approach. It asks designers to think about the sounds of spaces, how they could be more vibrant, and how they can reinforce the visual aspects of architecture. New York is already a dense, loud city, as cities go. If we consider how crowded our cities will become in the future, then one can see that the sound of cities is going to be a contestable theme everywhere. It’s important to not just cordon yourself off from sound; we have to learn how to manipulate the built environment to create a diversity of soundscapes that are both loud and soft. The larger issue right now is just learning to listen.

Screenshots from an animation of sounds in the main hall of Grand Central Terminal on Soundscape Architecture

How does your work complement or differ from how sound artists and composers — Janet Cardiff’s recent installation at The Cloisters, the Guggenheim’s stillspotting series, Susie Ibarra and Roberto Rodriguez’s Digital Sanctuaries, or Jason Sweeney’s Stereopublic, for example — are investigating sound in the city?


The work I’m doing is different in that it dissects the sounds of the environment that we create as architects and designers, which in turn inform us about a building, and which we tend not to notice despite their significance. I think the sounds of those spaces are deeply influential in how we perceive and understand them. My objective is not to take you away from or change a space; it’s to take you into it and show its many layers. By listening, you can understand so much more about it.

But I appreciate the ways people investigate sound across many disciplines. For instance, I love Bill Fontana’s work, which makes you aware of sounds that often we don’t notice at all. He records sounds in one location and transmits them to a space where people can better hear them, thereby changing the significance of both the sound and the space. He has done this with London’s Millennium Bridge, the bell chimes of New York’s Metropolitan Life Tower, and the birds on rooftops around Madison Square Park, whose sounds he piped into the park through concealed microphones.

Grand Central's Whispering Gallery | Photo by Cole Evelev

From a design perspective, why do you think sound is not better understood or prioritized by architects and other designers?


Architects aren’t used to thinking about sound because it is rarely talked about it in architecture school. When it is, the project has a particular acoustical focus, such as a concert hall. Even in such projects, architects don’t really touch the issue; they work with sophisticated engineers. Designing for optimal acoustics is a high-level, technical feat. The shape of some rooms can very easily give you a predictable effect — for example, the dome of Grand Central Terminal’s Whispering Gallery — but most spaces are complicated by the people in them. Even with the exact volume, the materials, et cetera worked out, you can only predict the soundscape with a certain kind of attendance in the space. For concert halls, engineers have created simulation rooms that allow them to understand how different design choices will affect performance in a space. But the sounds of everyday spaces are very hard to predict exactly. That’s why you often see buildings being retrofitted to change how noisy, quiet, or focused a space is.

My ambition with Soundscape Architecture is not to show how to design for sound but to show people how to listen. Once you do that, you begin to notice what kinds of spaces sound what way, and then you can pick them apart by material, shape, volume, and occupancy. Suddenly, you begin to create an acoustic file cabinet in your mind the way architects already do visually.

I think that sound should be thought of as an important part of space and that consideration of sound should be a complementary part of design. I don’t have a problem with the particulars remaining under the purview of an acoustical engineer with whom an architect consults, just as anyone who builds today consults a structural engineer. But architects have to be aware of sound when they are designing the building, so that the sound of a space isn’t just whatever it ends up being.

Escalator at Rockefeller Center | Photo by Cole Evelev

How did you select the spaces you wanted to study?


I began by recording many spaces around the world, in the process noticing how incredibly different they were. I also started to consider what makes notable pieces of architecture iconic: certainly their visual and spatial aspects, but also these incredible aural experiences, all of which, at least for me, are connected. When I think of Grand Central Terminal, I cannot think of it only in visual terms. Not all pieces of architecture that we call “great” have that quality, but the ones in which I hear and see together are deeply meaningful for me.

When one studies a piece of architecture, you ask what the architect was trying to do, what kinds of materials were available, when it was built. By listening to spaces you can learn a lot about the culture in which they were built. Rockefeller Center, and especially its International Building Lobby, is a wonderful example. It’s a very vertical, stone space that culminates in a gold leaf ceiling. In that space you hear the churning of the escalators, as if the machine age brought us Rockefeller Center. The soundscape describes that time in the history of America and the family that made it so.

Diagram of Grand Central's main hall | Screenshot from Soundscape Architecture

We’re currently standing in Grand Central Terminal, one of the first buildings you chose for Soundscape Architecture. What are some of the attributes of Grand Central that make it acoustically iconic?


The diversity of sounds here is amazing. You could go to the Campbell Apartment, the restaurants, the train tunnels, the Whispering Gallery, the waiting room, and the exhibition room and hear something distinct in each. The Oyster Bar is a cacophony of sound; you can hardly hear yourself there because of the vaults and the tile. But the main hall is the most oceanic, beautiful, voluminous, heroic space. There is enormous energy in this soundscape. It’s the entrance to a great world city, and you can hear the sense of awe and wonder.

The main hall has two kinds of sound. First, there’s the background of everyone coming and going, voices, movement, the trains, and all these networks coming together in this huge space. Then there are particular sounds that jump out at you: someone’s sneakers will squeak on the floor or a rolling suitcase will pass by. Those sounds are the accentuation of that voluminous space, and they’re equally interesting. If you listen to them, they can tell you quite a bit about who’s here, what’s happening, and where people are going. I often think of the famous John Cage quote: “Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.”

Under the desks at the New York Public Library main branch | Photo by Cole Evelev

What are some of the other New York City spaces you consider to have notable or distinctive soundscapes?


The New York Public Library Reading Room is a voluminous space, like Grand Central, but it has a very different soundscape. The library has one of my favorite sounds of all that I’ve recorded: the oak chairs sliding across the terra cotta floor. It can sound like a lion roaring. That specific sound is so beautiful because it connects with why the building was built in the first place.

High heels are also a very prominent sound in the space. You can hear the distance of the long hall as you hear those heels approach, become louder, and disappear again. You also hear the clangs of doors opening and closing, the dings of the Xerox machine, that little sound that goes off when a computer turns on and off. Then sometimes you hear — boom — someone putting a book down on the table or dropping a backpack on the floor.

The last time I went to the library, they had very artfully installed wood and glass panels around a set of Xerox machines, I assume to conceal them. But because of the glass walls, the ding of the machine reflects into the space. I couldn’t get it out of my mind when I sat there. I’m sure they thought it was a great design solution, but now you can hear them even more.

Gutai: Splendid Playground at the Guggenheim | Photo by C-Monster

I also recorded at the Guggenheim Museum during the Gutai: Splendid Playground show, which exhibited work of Japanese artists that were trying to find joy in their environment after the horrific experience of World War II. It was a joyous installation, and there was a child in the museum who was screaming because he was having so much fun. His screams had a melodic feeling as they spiraled up through the museum and, when you listen to them in the recording, they create a wonderful visualization of the space. Sound is an intersection of the container of a space and the people in it, and that intersection is never the same.

I later discovered a wonderful quote from the Gutai exhibit that made that particular recording feel perfect: “Gutai art is the product that has arisen from the pursuit of possibilities. Gutai aspires to present exhibitions filled with vibrant spirit, exhibitions in which an intense cry accompanies the discovery of the new life of matter.” The recording is this wonderful confluence of that particular show with that particular child and that particular space.

Diagram showing the materiality of the Guggenheim Museum | Screenshot of Soundscape Architecture

What are some of the other, non-New York City spaces you’re investigating in the first iteration of the project?


The Dublin Library has a very particular soundscape. At the top of a domed room in the neoclassical building, there are a series of skylights through which you can hear seagulls cawing and scratching at the glass. This situates you by the sea and on an island in a way that wouldn’t happen if the skylight weren’t there.

One of my favorite recordings is from the Reichstag Building in Berlin, in the Norman Foster glass dome that was added to the building in the late 1990s. There’s a concrete ramp that winds to an upper level that is somewhat cut off from the lower part of the dome. It creates a beautiful auditory space: people’s voices waft up through the oculus as they are reflected by this conical shape. They are so melodic; it’s as if they are singing. The transparency of the glass dome as a symbol for transparent government is beautiful, but I prefer hearing how the individuals in a society — their voices, their footsteps — come together in a very particular way.

The Reichstag Building in Berlin | Screenshot from Soundscape Architecture

Soundscape Architecture is a project of Karen Van Lengen, IATH Director Worthy Martin, James Welty, and Troy Rogers.

Karen Van Lengen, FAIA, is the William Kenan Professor of Architecture at the University of Virginia where her research focuses on the exploration of sound and communication as an integral part of the new public realm and its evolving democratic culture. From 1999 to 2009, Van Lengen served as the dean of the School of Architecture. A Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, Van Lengen is the recipient of numerous awards, fellowships and grants associated with her design work and leadership.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.