Architectural Acoustics

Week 15 Ben Leipholtz

Through the course of the semester I have gravitated towards analyzing a particular material and focusing on properties and applications of that material. For this entry I have decided to analyze a somewhat ignored aspect of architecture in studio; sound. I am an avid music fan, and as such I have particular interest in sound properties and acoustics within spaces. Sound is not a material in the same sense as concrete or wood, but it does posses characteristics that are equally important. Obviously sound is not completely ignored in the general architectural application. Codes exist to block exterior noise, interior walls often absorb extraneous and unwanted noise.

In more specific cases – like an auditorium – particular attention is paid to the details in form and material to reflect sound waves in just the right way. Perhaps this can be referred to as operative acoustic design; the space being shaped around the program. Auditoriums and concert halls employ sound baffles and absorbers to forge optimum acoustic characteristics. Contrast this with the idea of passive acoustic design, such as a living room with heavy drapes and upholstered furniture. The same principle applies in that elements of the design are used to alter the behavior of sound waves within a space.


Sound is not used as a material in either case. Sound is taken into consideration as a naturally occurring obstacle of sorts that must be worked around to satisfy the program. Interestingly enough, the materials used to control and absorb sound are generally the same whether installed in operative or passive systems. Sound baffles and acoustic absorption panels employed in operative systems compared to heavy cloth and dense foams used in passive systems. The biggest difference is how the user interacts with the space. In an operative space the user has preconceptions of how and why the space is designed, as much of the time it will be used for the same thing. In a passive system the user may not even consciously acknowledge the presence of sound manipulation devices as they are camouflaged as rather conspicuous entities.




One comment

  1. An interest in sound has been a peripheral consideration of a material (or type of material construction) that I, myself, have taken an interest in over this semester. Tensile fabric architecture, or simply fabric architecture, can be employed in some of the ways that you described for the purposes of escaping, enhancing, and manipulating acoustics. You addressed applications like those found in auditoriums or those that would be used by a chamber orchestra as being categorized as “operative” rather than “passive” acoustic design — and I understand the distinction that you are making. Often the use of sound baffles and absorption panels, along with foams and fabric architecture, to manipulate acoustic qualities is blatantly obvious or utilitarian. I think that an argument could be made that this utilitarian aesthetic is often part of the appeal. These elements easily elevate the professionalism of spaces that value acoustic quality. It may be inescapable that many spaces without an inherent institutional credibility find the obvious acoustic accommodations a legitimizing element.  Whether ostentatious or economical, people who want you to know that they care about sound in their space may always find these “operative” acoustic designs an irresistibly low-hanging fruit.  However, I interpret your blog post as more of an esoteric consideration of your relationship to sound as a designer– and any design that treats sound as an “obstacle of sorts that must be worked around to satisfy the program” may fall short of the mark you are considering. Having said that, I reply here to suggest that there are some (and will be more) interesting tensile fabric designs that deal with acoustics in dynamic and complex ways. I feel that the nature of tensile fabric architecture is particularly conducive to these types of design considerations and doesn’t necessarily have to be employed as a response to the existence of hard, acoustically-reflective, surfaces. While there are examples of these structures being used as bandaids to acoustic problems (e.g. as simple screens that dodge sound)— there are also many less boringly pragmatic possibilities with architectural meshes made of different materials, with different properties, various coatings, along with potential complimentary materials, etc. that I felt compelled to respond in their name.

    Pictured below [Apparently I cannot insert a picture but imagine a fabric (including the floor) bandshell in the shape of a trumpet projecting out into the park] is a very simple tensile fabric structure that is entirely conspicuous in the acoustic nature of its program but I find it relevant here because the structure itself is a reverberation-friendly material, not a dampener or mediating material, which I think makes it a simple entry point for considering acoustic qualities into a design from the ground up.

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