Sonic Architecture: Exploring the Relationship Between Spaces and Sound

May 12, 2020 / Alican Inal

I’ve always been fascinated by sound. Not only because I love listening to and playing music (I’m a drummer), but also because I’m an architect. I realise that might sound strange, but there is an incredible amount of information to be gleaned from how sound interacts with the built environment, that can help to shape our work as designers.

Sound is different from almost any other environmental data we can collect because it is multi-layered. A single field recording can carry thousands of clues about an area, from traffic congestion levels, to excessive noise from local businesses, and even the different wildlife species that may be present.

As architects, that level of insight is priceless. But to fully understand the benefits of sound as a design tool, we need to visualise it. The first step in that process is creating a computer-generated image called a spectrogram. This is the simplest form of sound visualisation, setting out on a graph the pitch (y-axis), duration (x-axis) and loudness (colour intensity) of the audio signal. By combining the data from many spectrograms together, it is possible to build more complex, site-specific 3D models of the sonic environment. These types of models are called soundscapes.

  • Examples of spectrograms.

Mapping sound

Applied in an architectural context, soundscape studies allow us to identify sonic ‘hot spots’. These are the areas of a site where environmental noise would negatively impact the users of a building, usually because it’s too loud, or because the pitch or resonance of the sound is painful to the human ear. Armed with this knowledge, we can then adjust our plans accordingly by remodelling specific sections of façade to buffer the noise or, in more extreme cases, by altering the form of the building.

  • spectrograms
    Soundscapes studies of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London

Sound as sculpture

Taking this method of design one step further, it is possible to create structures whose entire form is dictated by sound, with some incredibly interesting results. Populous’ competition entry for the British Pavilion at the 2020 Dubai Expo is one such sculpture. Designed as a celebration of the English language, it is a visual representation of the Magna Carta being spoken, with each data point within the point cloud replaced with a letter from the alphabet.

  • The point cloud that formed the basis for Populous’ design for the British Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai.
  • The point cloud that formed the basis for Populous’ design for the British Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai.
  • The point cloud that formed the basis for Populous’ design for the British Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai.

The project shows what can be achieved by embracing sound as a design input, and this is a philosophy that has been incorporated right across Populous’ body of work.

Creating atmosphere

The challenge of creating a loud and intimidating atmosphere at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium required us to think about sound design from the very start of the project. Using our computer models of the building, acoustics consultants were able to simulate how the sound waves would travel around the stadium bowl. The model was incredibly detailed, showing how the crowd noise would work its way into the various nooks and crannies of the architecture, bouncing off the different surfaces and materials. This insight meant it was possible for us to fine-tune the acoustic performance of the stadium, adjusting the angles of the roof panels and selecting different construction materials to maximise the roar of the crowd, long before the first fan ever took their seat. The client was even able to listen to a simulation of what the stadium would sound like. Needless to say, the end result is better than we ever imagined, and the process is testament to the huge value of sound in the architectural design process.


Meet the author

Alican Inal

Associate Principal, Architectural Designer / London

3 thoughts on “Sonic Architecture: Exploring the Relationship Between Spaces and Sound
  1. HELLO!
    I am fascinated by the mappings you showcased and the sensitivity of sound as a driver of change in the architectural discipline. I am currently working on my thesis for architectural undergraduate program and my project is based on experiential moments specifically amplifying the sensation of sound. Would highly appreciate if you can help out in consultation and in the program you used in mapping sound in the built environment. Thank you and keep these interesting articles coming!

    1. Hi Yasmeen,

      Thank you for your post! We’re glad you enjoyed the article.

      We use various tools and software both to visualise/map sound but also to simulate it. Visualising sound can be quite straight forward if you have the right tools and data. You can generate quite eye-catching sound maps in Grasshopper with a good dataset as your input. Existing sonic data or field recording that you might collect yourself are the best inputs for such maps.

      But simulating sound, as in our Tottenham Hotspur Stadium Soundscape study, is a bit more complex. It requires the right tools and understanding to generate something which is non-existing. You have to understand how sound emerges, travels, collides with objects and disappear. We used SideFX Houdini software to build this soundscape simulation. Houdini has a free apprentice license for non-commercial use, which could be ideal for you to test it yourself.

      As a final note, usually the best result comes from a good combination of multiple tools/softwares/methods. So numerous tests and iterations are key to find your own unique way to represent sound.


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