Buildings You Can Hear: 5 Structures With Powerful Acoustics

We sometimes forget that the shape and composition of the walls, ceilings, and floors around us affect how various sound waves reverberate, behave, and sound to our ears. Many buildings and other architectural and creative structures around the world have been designed to affect the way we hear speech and music, sometimes to the point that even the buildings themselves act as musical and auditory instruments. Here are a few examples: the physicist Wallace Sabine is known as one of the first people to carry out broad scale scientific architectural acoustics in the late 1800s and early 1900s, with the design of the Symphony Hall in Boston. The hall has a tall, narrow design rather than a fan shape, and the pillars of the stage are angled inward to direct sound.

Behind the wooden walls of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA, designed by Frank Gehry, are several inches of concrete which were included in order to provide bass reverberation. The hall structure also incorporates an organ with 6,134 curved pipes.

The Daily Mail tells us that Luke Jerrom’s Aeolus sculpture in Cornwall, named after the God of wind (pictured below), can

“play a haunting melody and even on a calm day the 2.5m-long tubes will hum at a series of low frequencies which set off intriguing acoustic effects that can be heard below the arch.”

You can listen to his sculpture here.

In D.C., you may have heard or experienced the “whisper effect” present in the U.S. Capital. The District explains that where a

“plaque that marks where [John Quincy Adams’] desk once rested, you’ll discover that you can hear everything people say — even whisper — from clear across the room.”

Here are five more notable structures located around the world which have amazing and unique acoustic characteristics.

1. EKKO in Denmark

This permanent sculpture with a flowing design by Thilo Frank in Hjallerup is both a visual and auditory artwork and structure. Its 200 wooden frames and 200 poles cast shadows along a circular concrete path where visitors walk. The shadows shift and morph along the path within the structure throughout the day as the sun moves across the sky. Meanwhile, microphones record and a computer sound system remixes the sounds visitor make as they pass through the wooden construction, playing a soundtrack that is built on the amplification and reverberation of visitors’ auditory contributions.

“The work acts as an archive of sounds and at the same time the visitors’ perception of space and presence is amplified,”

Frank shares. You can watch a time-lapse video of EKKO being constructed here.

2. The Ali Qapu Palace in Iran

In Isfahan, this palace’s music hall has a vaulted ceiling full of hollow nooks and cut-outs that is ideal for creating powerful sound reverberation. The palace was first built in 1597 and has gone through several renovations, including the music hall being added to the top. The Isfahan Municipality Portal tells us that the plaster decorations of the music hall feature “shapes such as flower vases, dishes, plates and bottle[s].” The silhouettes of stringed instruments are also said to be visible. You can listen to singing in the temple through traveler’s YouTube videos here and here (the second starts at around the five minute mark).

3. Tvísöngur in Iceland

This outdoor sculpture in Seyðisfjörður with five cylindrical and rounded compartments was built to honor the Icelandic musical tradition of quintal (five-part) harmony. Berlin artist Lukas Kühne built this structure which was completed in 2012. Each room’s dome reaches between six and 12-feet high. It is said that the wind plays the buildings like instruments, and this is a popular spot for traditional Icelandic singing and chanting, as is demonstrated in the video below.

4. Sound Mirrors on the British Coast

These large, and now antiquated, concave structures, known as listening ears or sound mirrors, are located at Denge along Britain’s coast. Before radar the sound mirrors, ranging from 20 to 200-feet wide, built beginning around 1916 and into the 1930s, were relied upon to give warning of enemy aircraft crossing the English Channel. The invention of quicker planes, an increasing amount of ambient noise, and the use of radar put these sound mirrors out of use, but they can now be visited in a gravel pit on guided tours with the Romney Marsh Countryside Project.

5. The Sonoruos Museum, National Museum of Denmark

The Danish Music Museum, designed by Adept Architecture, is located in a building that used to house a broadcasting house in Copenhagen. The museum holds collections of historic musical instruments, changing interactive exhibits, and four sound spaces with wood veneers specifically designed for playing and hearing brass, strings, percussion, or mixed instruments. It is a popular destination for school field trips. Adept describes the rooms’ specificity:

“the vertical lamellae of the percussion space, the seemingly vibrating cassettes for strings, to the graphical clarity of the brass space.”

The Danish Music Museum is no stranger to inventive musical projects; for a bonus, enjoy this interactive musical fruits experimental project described by Aalborg University Mediaology student Mariam Zakarian and her peers in 2013. It is comprised of a child-friendly, interactive, futuristic conglomeration of tree limbs and fruits bearing responsive lights and sounds which guests can interact with.

fruits Collage

View the project and fundraising video here.

Hopefully this foray into acoustically designed buildings and large-scale installation artworks piques our imaginations, curiosities, and broadens our expectations going forward about the possible confluences of structure and sound.

Julia Travers

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