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Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

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Venus Smiles

Venus Smiles
  • On September 25, 2019

Venus Smiles is a sound sculpture made from copper tubes, suspended with wire. Although the pipes are usually used for plumbing, here, they work similarly to the resonating body of a musical instrument, suspended in a tensegrity structure. You can play this musical instrument with your hands, a bow or your voice to make the tubes sound.


‘I […] began to dance to the strange abstracted music, for some reason as beautiful now as Lorraine Drexel‘s wistful eyes. “Did you say it was all over? Carol, it‘s only just beginning. The whole world will be singing.”’ – James Graham Ballard in 1957

Five musical tensegrity systems made of tubes.

Venus Smiles is a creative, practice-derived manifesto addressed to architects, engineers and individuals. A manifesto of how the materials that we use to build our houses sound and how this sound communicates in a language without words. Modern designers currently shape the soundscape in a city unwittingly, which affects our wellbeing. Architectural design as well as the design of musical instruments is detached from the human body.

Like the Bauhaus school once revolutionised design education, different approaches and concepts of this paper indicate how to start the revolution of soundscape-considering design. Technology has caused issues on different scales and we need to acknowledge them to finally start designing machines and living spaces that contribute to a healthy modern society of wellbeing. There is a lot to explore in the analog world of sounds.

Iterations of (tunable) connection pieces for tensegrity tube instruments.

Ubiquitous listening is an experience designed by architects, who build the resonating bodies of the spaces around us, and by engineers, who invent machines that make sounds and noises in rhythmic patterns. Individuals, like you and me, also play their part in ubiquitous listening through choosing songs to put their minds at ease, for example. Sound is not only one of the forgotten sciences but also one of the forgotten factors of our wellbeing.

How does the modern designer unknowingly shape a soundscape? Think like a luthier, but how do we make musical instruments today? Can we use technology as a tool in the urban context to design spaces and devices that make us feel well?

In the video below you can see how the frequency that a material resonates to can be calculated and simulated. Here I am using Pure Data. These calculations could be linked to a 3D modelling software to simulate the sound while modelling the 3D sculpture.

‘Venus Smiles’ is an instrument made of copper and brass tubes.

The name Venus Smiles originates from the fictional short story by James Graham Ballard. Originally titled Mobile, it first appeared in 1957. Ballard tells the story of a musical sculpture which is aesthetically unpleasing and whose sound terrifies the inhabitants of a city. Sculpted by a woman, an ‘elegant and autocratic creature, […] intimate of Giacometti and John Cage’, the metal initially sounds like classical music. Later as the sculpture grows, it soon plays fragments of Mendelssohn, closing movements of Grieg‘s Piano Concerto and abstract music, as if a complete orchestra were performing a symphony. Terrified by the sound, the main character, Hamilton, decides to cut the sculpture into pieces and melt down the metal. Later, he realises with horror, that the metal has been recycled and used for new buildings and motor vehicles which now also start to vibrate and create sound.

Each string should be tuned to the resonating frequency of the tube.                           image by vibesart

The copper tubes are usually used as an element in building construction.                     image by vibesart