Step into the underground concourses of New York’s Penn Station and you might just feel an uneasy sense of claustrophobia that’s hard to explain. Stroll across the hardwood floors at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and a sense of calmness might descend on you. Why? Each of these buildings has its own unique voice – the way sound behaves in the structure.
Think of the way whispers travel in the circular dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in London and how the curved ceiling of the lower floor of Grand Central in New York can carry voices. Then there is the satisfying click of heels walking through an deserted hallway or the way your bathroom makes your singing sound better. This “aural architecture” can have a profound effect on the way you experience a building. (Read about how you can navigate a room using clicks alone)
“Aural architecture is about how we listen to buildings, the sound within buildings and how we react to them,” says Trevor Cox, an acoustic engineer at the University of Salford, in Manchester. Even though we primarily navigate our way through the world using our eyes, it seems our ears are constantly picking up information from our surroundings that unconsciously alters how we feel about a space.
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Though they emit no sound, you can hear an empty room. You can find out if it has low ceilings and where its walls are just by the way sound reflects off these surfaces. Think of the echoing noise the click of a heel makes on a marble floor as opposed to the muffled padding from someone walking on thick carpet.
“You can walk into a room blindfolded and you can probably hear if there’s a carpet on the floor without stepping on it,” says Barry Blesser, a former electrical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who coined the term aural architecture. “We can hear all kinds of things. We just don’t pay attention.”