Thursday, January 05, 2017

Playing Music Loudly in Architecture

I imagine many readers like myself love music. Music reproduction intersects with architecture exactly in the study of acoustics. The field is now extremely software driven but if we had more time to acquaint ourselves with the history of acoustics in architecture it would reveal traditional builders skillful balancing several contradictory functions. It's recognized the best materials for high and low frequencies require different qualities; the highs needing harder surfaces to keep the sound lively while some type of absorbent material helps tame the low end. There is also the matter of "standing waves", having to do with how sound reflects in the environment and is the exact point where the subject starts to become complex. A little reflection is natural, allowing the singer or instrument to be located in a defined space and melody to breath. Too much reflection and the room response becomes uneven.

Starting on the grandest level possible is MAD's Harbin Opera House. Surprisingly, I'm still introducing people to this amazing structure. The thing is completely radical and a tour-de-force inside and out. It looks good from every angle; which is not easy for a 850,000 sq. ft. building. The acoustic engineering was done by the East China Architectural Design & Research Institute which will probably make it difficult to get an appointment for your project.

Luckily there are other buildings on our list and now we come to an absolute technical tour-de-force: Herzog & de Meuron’s Elbphilharmonie. The site in Hamburg is much more constricted than the Harbin Opera House site but the architects succeeded in creating a stunning building that stands out at a distance on the horizon. Once inside everything, including the kitchen sink, has been thrown at the venue's acoustics. One nice touch is the dramatic mechanical separation seen in section. The team was lead by acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota who seems to have singlehandedly modelled this entire hall himself from his sci-fi headquarters in Tokyo. A unique feature of this hall are its sound panels. I've never seen anything like them but they immediately reminded me of a natural material (specifically the rock scalloping erosion pattern seen in underground rivers, which has to do with the math turbulence, which gets us back to sound reproduction). It's also the first large scale example I can recall using random parametric design, which beyond the similarities to geometries found in nature also contributes acoustic benefits as well (by breaking up standing waves).

Getting a bit smaller still we come to the lovely interior of Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts at Queens University, Kingston. Architects Snohetta from Norway are getting a lot of international projects and it's easy to see why. The wood paneling here is very well done and does an excellent job defining the forms of the interior. I can just imagine leaning over and listening to a solo piano recital here. The acoustic engineering credit here goes to those ever over-achievers at Arup.

To expand a bit on the software now driving the industry, Arup has been very proactive explaining their technology to the public and prospective clients. Arup calls their software approach "Sound Lab" and it goes way beyond concert halls. This is because our urban sonic environments have become much more complex and municipalities are calling for expertise in judging the sonic implications of civil engineering projects. Returning, however, to software; Aurp's in-house software does pretty much what you'd expect, model the proposed acoustic environment virtually. The size of the hall and aesthetics we demand of interiors means the only reasonable way to reduce the possibility of standing waves is to sonically model the interior. This presents an insurmountable obstacle to those hoping to enter the acoustic engineering market but I have to admit their results are compelling. If you're still interested in learning more about the state-of-the-art of concert hall design please check out the linked video below.

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