As soon as there is a building, the space is opened up by walls, floors, stairs, corridors and halls – that is, it is split up and so stretched from the inside. From the outside the result is a silhouette, a volume and a distortion of the landscape.
Inside the building people crowd together and fill it with their bodies. People share the new interior with the light entering, a jungle of objects and machines, and sound. The sounds of the surrounding land are excluded. The building is full of air; its shape and the branching of the cavities determines the form and the transformation of the waves in which the air moves and becomes sound in people’s ears. The building is a sound box, or rather it is a box for the accumulating, packing, dividing and mixing of sounds.
The functional sound in a building is the desired, meaningful sound, mainly that of the voices of people. All the other sounds – of doors, cupboards, kitchen appliances, lifts, footsteps, air conditioning, heating and office equipment – are strictly speaking superfluous. Modern architecture is theoretically opposed to meaningless sound and regards it as interference. Buildings are designed for moving, seeing human bodies which must be able to speak at average volume without interruption. It sometimes seems as if architects find it a nuisance that people and machines make noises and cannot use a building in a silent, purely visual and architectural fashion. The war against the sounds of the surroundings is waged with acoustic cosmetics: sound-insulating floor coverings, porous dividing walls, polyhedral and even adjustable ceilings. In many buildings the resulting tomb-like atmosphere is then alleviated by muzak, intended to dispel fear of the unknown with reassuringly familiar harmonies.
I would like to see buildings designed for moving, listening human bodies. The sounds of the surroundings determine how the space is perceived. Who has not felt that the attraction of certain rooms – whether or not one can concentrate, for instance – depends on what happens when the windows are opened, how the bird and traffic noises resound above our heads and between the walls and mingle with the noises from the building? The neighbours’ singing kettle does not necessarily constitute noise pollution. Where is the architecture that deals benignly, playfully and in a measured way, rather than militantly, with the poignancy of a door slamming in the distance, the bicycle bells and giggling of passing schoolchildren and the cheerful sounds of kitchen and canteen?
Building for the ear would not be simply a matter of well-targeted de-insulation of walls, windows and listening holes. One possibility would be an intricate network of microphones and loudspeakers that would enable one to move sounds from the surroundings through the building or import them from outside, from the immediate vicinity or from the Tuscan countryside, the streets of Kingston, Jamaica or a walk round the zoo.
I listen often and with pleasure to buildings and I dream of an architecture which does not forget the ear and which thinks about the assembled noise that a building is in the same way that it thinks about glass, concrete, brick, marble and emptiness – an architecture which thinks about opening up space through noise and about the construction of listening lines and sound volumes, and which sees the echo of life and the city as building materials.