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Echo’s Chambers Investigates Architecture’s Aural Dimension

A new volume charts the ever-changing relationship between architecture and acoustics from Borromini to Corbusier.

Echos Chamber
Echo’s Chambers: Architecture and the Idea of Acoustic Space (University of Pittsburgh Press, 320 p.p., $60) by Joseph L. Clarke, a professor of Art History at the University of Toronto, is a historical investigation of the relationship between architecture and the trends and technology that have shaped acoustics over the centuries.  Courtesy University of Pittsburgh Press

There’s been no shortage of arguments that architecture has myopically prized visual qualities above all else. A new book by Joseph L. Clarke, a professor of Art History at the University of Toronto, titled Echo’s Chambers: Architecture and the Idea of Acoustic Space (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021), complicates this point, providing an examination of the evolution of which architects have sought to design for sound—or haven’t.

Clarke posits that before electronic accentuation—for all but a recent sliver of human history— architecture was the primary means of shaping sound, “until recently, the most sophisticated sonic media were buildings.” While there were many efforts to quantify how sound behaved and could be manipulated, he stresses that most were partly or dramatically incorrect. But that doesn’t make them any less interesting.

Clarke’s account opens in the mid-1600s amidst a ferment of early efforts at acoustic design. A starting hurdle was that while acoustically exemplary ancient structures existed, their builders left no useful practical guidance as to how this was achieved. Vitruvian commentary on acoustics was largely puzzling to later readers.

Most acoustic theorizing has been a series of efforts to analyze sound by treating it as if it was something else; it’s no wonder this never quite lined up. Giuseppe Biancani, a Jesuit mathematician-astronomer plotted echoes as if they were rays of light and calculated how they could be reflected off of ellipses and parabolae to refocus sound to a given point. Francesco Borromini’s fully elliptical refectory at San Filippo Neri does this. It’s a priority that made sense if the hearing of a single subject, generally the local prince, took precedence over all else, but tastes and orders of power change.

Clarke’s next focus is on the rise of French theater in the 18th century, which sought to accomplish two difficult tasks at once: to deliver more naturalistic sound and to deliver it to the entire audience. Fully elliptical designs declined, with one end of the venue typically sliced off to deliver better sound to the remainder of the building.

While architect Pierre Patte’s geometric tracings of sound advancing in straight lines from a stage are an approximation, the reduction of obstacles that might muddle them was an obvious remedy. A core mission was to reduce “contradictory visual and auditory cues” with which they achieved some success (Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s invention of the orchestra pit helped), and yet seemed to reckon more honestly with the problem that it’s nearly impossible to design a theater where views and sound are optimized across the whole.

A fascinating shift in acoustical aims arises in the following chapters on German theater design in the next century, tracing the work of royal architect Carl Gotthard Langhans, his son Carl Frederick, and Richard Wagner. While French Enlightenment types spurned reverberation, German romantics were thrilled by it. The elder Langhans wrote in his book On Theater, “A gradually dissolving reverberation in both small and large buildings is pleasurable and indeed necessary for us to enjoy the enchantment of music and sounds.” The pristine clarity of sound was abandoned as a goal and a larger bath of sound was actively preferred.

Clarke Plate 008
Courtesy University of Pittsburgh Press

Wagner sought to accentuate these tendencies in his varied quests to liberate audiences from reason, aiming to increase reverberation, and consequentially to design a theater well-suited to this goal, eventually achieved at the Bayreuth Festival Hall. The design of the hall is unusual in its numerous projecting half-walls along its sides, which disperse sound in ways eccentric by almost any standards of theatre design, but ideal for Wagnerian aims. This was not the end of artifice. In its inaugural Parsifal elevated choirs were placed to evoke the aural sense of a dome above without literally raising the roof. This coup de theatre relied on a technology soon to upend all of these relations. The choirs were too distant to respond to musical cues from across the hall and were prompted by electronic signaling devices.

The 20th century brought loudspeakers and other often invisible electronic interventions, replaying recorded on-stage sound a split second later from distant portions of opera houses. Corbusier’s creative career provides an excellent measure of the evolving consequentiality of newer technology. He initially avoided or limited these new-fangled measures. His unbuilt 1927 League of Nations headquarters design featured no electronic elements; those of multiple competitors did. He made a limited concession for his unrealized 1931 proposal for the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow. It would feature a single microphone and a single loudspeaker. “In short, he was willing to cede the task of amplifying sound to new technology but still insisted that distributing their sound was the province of architectural geometry,” writes Clarke.

Clarke Plate 007
Courtesy University of Pittsburgh Press

Notre Dame du Haut displayed a new attitude. He referred to the chapel as “a speech addressed to the place” and in ways it literally was, with its horn-like opening designed to project sound outward. But there were complications, mainly in the form of a proposed electronic campanile, which would have posed a stark contrast to the mystical ultra-sculpture of the chapel’s form. Corbusier was turning his back on trickery in ways. Clarke writes, “their juxtaposition was presented not as a triumphant celebration of technological progress but as a poetic encounter between multiple ways of experiencing and conceiving the propagation of sound.”

The book is a fascinating tour of a dimension that’s easy to forget both when you’re simply visiting a building or if you’re designing one and relying on acoustical engineers to apply tweaks later (too commonly the case now, in Clarke’s opinion). New venues are built with acoustical flaws today; one often doesn’t grasp why the sound of some older buildings is superior to others. “Although the generations of designers who undertook this work never managed to establish a fully stable, reliable repertoire of techniques for representing and manipulating sound in space they found acoustics to be a powerful provocation to the disciplinary imagination.” Or in this case, to your own.

Clarke Plate 004
Courtesy University of Pittsburgh Press

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