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Does Your Workspace Work? Listen...

When we talk about how an architectural space makes us feel, we tend to focus on two things: our visual perceptions, and our assessment of how the space works from a utilitarian standpoint.

Our eyes see the various shapes and colors that the architect has created, the spatial composition of objects and empty space, the way light illuminates and creates shadow, and so on. And these visible elements have an aesthetic or a symbolic meaning (e.g., Corinthian column = institutional gravitas) that we may or may not find agreeable.

Our bodies tell us something about how well the space serves our purposes from a utilitarian standpoint. Is there enough room to do what we need to do? Is it bright or dark enough? Are the paths we must travel uncluttered, and the distances, reasonable?

Our eyes and our ability to navigate and use a space with our bodies tell us a lot. But much of how we feel about a space, and much of our perception of how well it works, is mediated by another of our five senses, one that we seldom talk about in the context of architecture: our hearing. In fact, it’s through our ears that we sense the life of a place. And how well a space “works” or “fails” depends to a large degree on how well it meets our aural needs.

As Dr. Barry Blesser, former MIT professor and digital audio pioneer, and Dr. Linda-Ruth Salter, Assistant Professor in the Humanities and Social Sciences at New England Institute of Technology, explain,

[a]lthough vision allows us to perceive a static environment without people or activities, hearing depends upon dynamic events created by man or nature.1 

In this way, Blesser and Salter argue, sound is what connects us to life itself. It is the invisible yet pervasive conveyance of vitality, the “dynamic events” of people, animals, technology, and natural forces that animate our world.

To demonstrate this, all one has to do is plug one’s ears in a lively public space. Suddenly, you are alone, cut off from the energy of the place and disconnected from the people in it. Your eyes can see what’s going on where you direct your attention, but they cannot perceive, as your ears can, what’s happening all around you, what’s remote or hidden from view, the vitality and mood of the place. Our lack of earlids means that we hear every audible event within our “acoustic horizon”2, and it’s this 360-degree soundscape that orients us socially and connects us emotionally to our environment.

Within an architectural space, the 360-degree soundscape is influenced by acoustics: the way that the geometry of the space and the blocking, reflecting, or absorbing qualities of the surfaces affect sound. Taken together, these acoustic effects shape our perception of the aural character of a space, the way that the particular sound of the place helps or hinders social interaction, for example, or the way that it makes the space feel cold or warm, spiritual or mundane, appropriate or inappropriate to the purpose for which it is intended.

These audible characteristics comprise a space’s “aural architecture.”3 And although most of us aren’t consciously aware of it, the aural architecture of a space has a profound impact on how we feel there—so profound, in fact, that one wonders why we persist in discussing and evaluating the merits of architectural spaces almost exclusively in visual and utilitarian terms (to say nothing of the design process, which is oriented primarily toward pleasing the eye and accommodating specific physical activities).

The result of this bias is that the listening experience is devalued, and both our emotional experience of a space and the degree to which its aural architecture helps and supports us, is left largely up to chance.

In the coming months, we will examine some of the ways in which this apparent disregard of the aural experience has contributed—and is contributing—to the most commonly cited complaint about workspaces: noise. We will dig deeper into Blesser and Salter’s conception of aural architecture to gain a better understanding of how our perceptions of and feelings about the spaces we inhabit are shaped by sound. And we will look at some of the strategies and tactics that the more sound-conscious designers are employing to create more effective, supportive, and holistically pleasing spaces within which to work, play and live.

1 Blesser, Barry and Slater, Linda-Ruth. (2013) “Aural Architecture: The Invisible Experience of Space”. OASE Journal for Architecture, Number 78.

2 Blesser, Barry and Slater, Linda-Ruth. (2007) Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, Cambridge, MA. Page 22.

3 Ibid. pp. 1-16

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