Hear No Evil

Volume 47, Issue 2

There is a potent takeaway message embedded within the recent multi-billion-dollar valuation of Beats, a popular music streaming application that incorporates “ultra-high quality” headphones: People are concerned about the quality of what they listen to.

Our strivings for acoustic perfection did not begin in our electronic world; they have been a central part of sacred spaces and rituals throughout history. From the dawn of building, sacred spaces were designed with sound in mind and, in fact, the acoustical properties of religious buildings were closely tied to very specific liturgical objectives. The relatively new field of archaeoacoustics studies the significance of sound in ancient sacred places and its relationship to ritual. This field has the exciting potential to overcome a seeming disconnect in our design education and process – one that often disengages us from the past and its lessons – toward a more holistic understanding of the relationship between acoustical performance and architecture.

With acoustics in mind the design of religious buildings can create unique sacred experiences without dependence on mechanical enhancement, supplemental sound systems, and unsightly post occupancy treatments. The failure to consider acoustics as a key design component in religious architecture has spurred a market for acoustical retrofits of sacred spaces—electronic architecture (audio systems and complex controls) and surface-applied sound-absorption materials—baffles, banners, wall and ceiling panels—costs of which are often prohibitive.

With abundant technology derived from what Eisenhower referred to as the “military industrial complex” following World War II, we have had the unique ability to engineer nature completely out of our buildings. This concept (and concern) has been covered earlier in this column in the context of mechanical systems and energy performance. Likewise, when we lose sight of passive acoustic systems – their history, benefit, and ability to enrich our perception and experience of space – acoustics becomes another fallen soldier.

Form, volume, mass, and materials of building have significant intrinsic effects on the sounds generated within a space (or capable of being generated). These four principal building blocks of design can be manipulated, massaged, and tuned like an instrument to harness sound – in fact, many sanctuaries are themselves considered “instruments,” and thereby create myriad desired effects to enhance religious experience. Equally, one can inadvertently create undesired acoustical effects – trapping sound below balconies, reverberation via overly hard surfaces, muffling from carpets and fabrics.

Cathedral-of-Christ-the-Light-OaklandBeginning with programming – whether for a new building, modification, or restoration – let’s seek consistently to be mindful of acoustics and, further, to set a goal of creating the most natural, least intrusive acoustical experience for the intended use. Intended use and response to liturgical need is the trickiest part, and the one most deserving of our focus and attention: It has long been accepted that spaces may be molded around voice (spoken, chanting) or music (choral, organ, cantorial, orchestral), but never both. There exist significant examples of one taking prominence – often to the detriment of the other. When liturgy or congregations change, affecting physical or programmatic modifications, what were once well-designed acoustical spaces can noticeably fall flat.

A magnificent example of diligent, inspired blending of liturgy, light, form, and acoustics is Cathedral of Christ the Light, designed by Craig Hartman of SOM Architects, located in Oakland, California. Their creative use of architectural elements to address a variety of acoustical needs throughout the building, are seamlessly integrated. Beyond form, mass, and void, other refinements abound. Special woods and finishes were selected and placed with consideration of their specific sound profiles and characteristics. While invisible to most as acoustical treatments, their enhancement of visitors’ auditory experience is profound.
Rather than handing out headphones and iPods, we can learn from examples both old and new to reduce dependence on electronic systems and intrusive interventions, and instead use the power of architecture to enhance our acoustical experience.

Walter Sedovic and Jill Gotthelf are principals of Walter Sedovic Architects, an award-winning firm specializing in sustainable preservation. They can be reached at: wsa@modernruins.com