A New Humanism: Part 24

Our senses are integral to our experience of the built environment


The air is suffused with sounds, and the ways a hearing system responds to their sources and reflections are integral to the experience of a built environment. In a sense, we inhabit “landscapes” of sound, and in practice we transcribe our bodies into terms of what we hear – the rhythms, dissonances, and melodies – as we do with what we see.  We even use the same words and metaphors to describe responses to sights and sounds – not only about the valuable information they convey – clarity and coherence, themes, surprises, rhythms and lines, color and texture – but also the feelings they evoke – ranging from warmth and intimacy to dark despair or tragedy to calm reassurance or soaring and transcendence.

Communicating with sound, and especially music, is, like verbal language, an inborn capability. And like visual sensations, sound profiles in a built environment can orchestrate our responses; we respond without thinking, and often with powerful emotions, to favored or compelling patterns of both sound and light. But there’s a difference, too. Those patterns, contours, and harmonies have been studied in much greater depth, codified, and applied more systematically in sound than in visual environments.  And a new, broader humanism would explore further into the sources of music’s innate power, searching for a counterpart in the visual systems.

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What we hear

While each of us necessarily perceives and interprets sounds differently, our responses still grow out of an underlying physiology. The ears – and close-in bones – match the eyes in their stereo structure and their ability, within narrow limits, to detect seemingly unlimited, minute differences in the vibrations of sound energy – with the rest of the body adding awareness at lower frequencies. Then the hearing system goes to work, distinguishing, in the energy pulses, combinations of the tones, timbres, and resonances that identify hundreds of unique human voices – with their own internal variations – and also that characterize a place, like the “personality” of Carnegie Hall, or vast echoing volume of Hagia Sophia, or voices in the near darkness of a Norwegian stave church.

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul – complex, reinforcing reflections of sound adding another dimension to the unearthly light that animates the vast, surging space

At the same time, like vision, a hearing system infers sounds it doesn’t hear in order to complete a gestalt, a “whole” pattern. Further, it has narrow limits on the volumes and frequencies that it can receive and on its agility to sort out the confusion of overloads. The too-much-too-fast in a circus atmosphere can, like glare and dazzle, first disorient and then reorient a mind to the awe of “something special” – another way of “being” – while the music lasts. 

And in a similar way, the sound of dignified or languid or martial music, or the cheering or jeering of a crowd – and the sense that passionate people are there – shape perceptions of warmth and refuge or perils. Music naturally induces movement, in other words, the use of space. And sound alone can make a place we design feel “alive,” or without reflections, “dead.”  And like a fire in the hearth, music can feel like another person in the room.

Unlike eyes, but like the sense of smell, the hearing system is always “on” and scanning 360°. And through its closer, more direct connection within the brain it’s often the first sense to respond. It locates sources, differentiated reflections and, with experience, can recognize a distinctive sound “signature” of an interior and some exterior spaces. Yet the hearing system also has an extraordinary ability to push unwanted sounds, “noise,” into the background, and at times it can shut out inputs from the other senses as well, but only up to a point. The insistent, uncontrollable background noise of a too-lively room, climate control machinery, or the “urban music” of busy streets, when they interfere with our purpose of the moment, can induce stresses or numb the senses, turning a visceral response to otherwise handsome, workable places into unease or disappointment – and we simply walk away. At the same time, in any environment, hearing like vision, is structured to isolate “warning” sounds – especially any new and mysterious or very loud sounds that could signal “escape-or-investigate” – and then block out others.  And because the ears can distinguish retreating from approaching sounds, in that sense we can hear the future.

Building the soundscapes

In practice, every function and activity we accommodate, and all of the masses, planes, and spaces we design, shape the patterns of sound energy in the air.  Like light and color – or stone and glass – sound is a “material” that can be designed, and there is plenty to work with. With the help of sound engineers we have long been able to sculpt dimensions, surfaces, and details that control, often precisely, the mix and amplitude of the vibrations that are ultimately received in the ears. We have a history of fine performance halls, band shells, and the classical elliptical reception rooms where their two focal points have been used to overhear – spy on – private conversations. 

Managing sound energy

Sound energy, outdoors and indoors are in some ways the same. Perceived sounds are likely to be a mix of sources reflected, diffused, diffracted at corners or focused by shapes. And the design vocabularies of successful places naturally incorporate all of them, sometimes as a basic theme. Transmission of unwanted sound is blocked and reflected back in the lower frequencies by barriers with mass – outdoors by landforms or walls or indoors by flexible discontinuities in structural connections.  At higher frequencies, the effective barriers are the ones that seal air passages.  Even the source of most complaints – HVAC noise – can be tamed at the sources.

Indoors, we use the ubiquitous, fragmented, soft and/or perforated or slotted materials that selectively absorb and attenuate the unwanted sounds – most effectively on ceilings and carpeted floors.  And both indoors and out another component of soundscape, a background, like the low level, steady background of varying sounds and rhythms of moving water or a soft, flowing music are used, like the pulses of a ground bass, to unify, to give a satisfying, coherent, settled order to a complex mass of both sights and sounds.

Outdoors, of course, sound energy is transmitted out and “absorbed” in all directions, unless directed by amplifiers or reflected by a bandshell or solid and sealed barriers. “Softscaping” vegetation has proven to diffuse, but offer only modest absorption, yet it becomes a semi-effective barrier when it blocks the sight of the sound sources – using the out-of-sight, out-of-mind capability of the hearing system. The principal insulator, though, is distance. And so we isolate a large outdoor performance where its own sounds are amply attenuated or – like a band in a park – where its own amplified sounds can compete with ambient noise.

Acoustical engineering’s golden age  

Finally, for indoor places, well-analyzed privacy criteria combined with sound and vision controls have now made possible a wide range of productive open-plan offices. But the greatest triumph has been in performance and gathering places of all kinds. We can use the sciences to shape spaces and their varying surfaces precisely to fine tune the impact of selected sounds, their reflections and lingering reverberations for an optimum experience of music or human voices.

At its best, that mastery of the technical requirements for a specific sound experience, reinforced by equally skillful manipulation of light, color and space, has created settings for some of the most deeply felt, memorable human experiences. We can be riveted by the unambiguous visual-aural axis of a theater or the compelling fascination with scripted sound-and-light – ranging from all-encompassing religious worship and ceremonies to the refinement and opulence of the grand opera houses of the European musical tradition – or the spontaneous happy romance of Tivoli Gardens, glamorous ballrooms, or the searing excitement of a rock concert. In other words, our most popular and magnetic, “peak” experiences, and also the most respected and prestigious built environments, are experienced in flowing pools of sound.

The Garnier Opera House in Paris – a society expressing its grandeur – dramatizing human stories in the arts of staging and sound

These are the designs of a sophisticated humanism, and anyone, at any level, who chooses, can, with an educated team, apply today’s collaboration of science, professions, and industries that – in a parallel with optical engineering – enables designers to predict and manage the experience of sound.  Proven, calibrated, physical techniques have been used for years to absorb too much, sort out too fast, or reflect and re-concentrate too little, and with electronic techniques we have, of course, enormously increased the range of potential intervention.  All are ready, but too often this golden age of architectural acoustics is yet to be integrated into everyday design.

Tastes and smell – the chemical receptors

In parallel with the vibrations of sounds, the mix of molecules that we sense as smells is in every breath we take. Like seeing and hearing, too, the human range of perception is limited; we can’t sense many of the toxic gases spread by industrial processes. But the nuances in the interacting stimulation of sense receptors for tasting and smelling send amazingly detailed messages into dedicated areas of the brain. Because of the brain’s evolution they seem to be among the first to trigger vivid emotional memories of past, even long-past pleasures or fear. While they do not have the authority of vision – “I see” means “I understand,” or touch, where “tangible” means having a concrete presence – still we use the term “smell” to say we sense something deeper, hidden behind surface presentations, and we use “taste” to refer to the essence of aesthetic discrimination. 

The scents and tastes we work with in a built environment are, naturally, variations on the ones that have had survival value in the landscapes where the people in each “race” or culture evolved.  On the negative side, we use distance, technology and laws to isolate ourselves from “odors” – the scent of potentially infectious waste and decay, or the poisons in the air that we create, like chlorine, the diesel exhaust of idling buses, or the off-gassing of manufactured building materials.  Even Palladio’s country villa designs often seem as attentive to farm smells as they are to vistas. But many other scents, of course, are intrinsically pleasant – like the ones linked to food and fertility.

In any case, because of their role in survival, the presence of scents, along with their linked memories can, by themselves, change the body’s chemistry – a mood and motivation.  At their strongest, they can bypass and overwhelm messages from the other senses. And at their best, when controlled, and coordinated with other sensations in a well- thought-out scentscape, they add other dimension of information or pleasure to the places we design.

 Food and drink

The simple anticipation, act, and recall of eating or drinking necessarily changes body chemistry directly. The promise alone of food and refreshment, the smell, moving slowly in air currents, of coffee, wine, beer or baking and cooking – the scents of harvest or captured “prey” – are employed as a refreshing reward for, as well as a setting for human collaboration. They signal an invitation to a social encounter, hospitality, or the primal communal bond created by sharing success – in a sense of the “hunt” – with allies.  As a result we feel welcomed by plazas, arcades, and streets lined with sidewalk cafes or food stalls, and we build cafeterias, or a specialty coffee house’s scent-of-a-life-style, into places we gather for work, entertainment, learning or the arts. Even a small table with matched chairs is a symbol of people coming together to act out cooperation and kinship; the origin of the word “companion” is, of course, “taking bread together.” Eating practices, too, are one of the most powerful ways each culture preserves its identity – in terms of food, of course, and also in built environments, from street-front tempura bars to a chandeliered dinner theater. And in our culture, chefs have been elevated to the level of celebrity artists.

Scents of a place

Scents are necessarily a component in what we call a “sense of place.”  Their influence is pervasive – and usually stronger than we realize consciously – beginning with the presence of a nurturing landscape – the smell of the sea or earth and orange blossoms or new-mown-hay.  Indoors, the days of luxurious scented mortar or sandalwood palaces may be behind us, but cedar and other aromatic woods, leather, indoor gardens, open windows and screened porches still connect our essentially indoor lives to the sensual pleasures of the benign days of nature.

Further, places and events associated with the promise of on-going or after-life – churches, weddings, hospitals, cemeteries – seem incomplete without the color and scent of flowers.  And those scents of fertility and renewal, naturally add a dimension of depth to the pleasure of landscapes. In a similar way, the scent of an open wood or peat fire can be as significant for a sense of refuge as its warmth and light. Scents from recreational drugs, like smoke and brandy or the perfumery arts – just like lower light levels, secure enclosures and privacy – tend to invite confidentiality or intimacy.  At the other extreme, settlements can have an unwelcome signature odor, the result of human priorities that accept – and may welcome – coal smoke, smog, and paper mills as the price and symbol of prosperity.  Naturally they inhibit connections back to nature, yet, like sounds, after an initial shock, the smell-sensing system seems able to direct the mind’s focus to more promising perceptions, filtering out by becoming habituated to the others.

The important point is that taste and smell in the places we design are inescapably part of “what-is-it-like-to-be-there.” Intended or not, they deliver immediate, powerful messages, and many landscape architects and ventilation engineers are applying in their practices a vast base of knowledge about the chemistry of scents, tastes, and sensory systems. Merchants, hotels, and casinos are retaining specialists, too, to mix a branding or motivating scent – like a “tropical” coconut oil or “elegant” lavender – with the light, color and furnishings of a space. And, again, we all could use the accumulated knowledge far more than we do to design another level of harmonies and innate human pleasure into our habitats.

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Next: I explore the haptic sense of touch – pressure, temperature, texture – and the visual-muscular-tendon-joint sensations of occupying “space” that organize all of the others into the perceptions we act on.

Robert Lamb Hart is a practicing architect and planner educated at Harvard GSD and the University of Pennsylvania. He is a founder and a principal in Hart Howerton, a planning, architecture, and landscape design firm with an international practice out of offices in New York, San Francisco, London, Shanghai, Park City, and Boston. He believes that the design professions have been falling behind in their understanding of one of the defining enterprises of the Modern revolution, the application of the maturing, fast-moving sciences of ecology and human behavior — and the compromised results are showing. 

Albrecht Pichlerwho drew the sketches, is a practicing architect and a principal in Hart Howerton’s New York office.

Read more posts from Robert Lamb Hart here.

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