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The architecture of the ear and the design of soundscapes.

The architecture of the ear and the design of soundscapes.

Title Image: Alvin Lucier – I am sitting in a room.

This literature review will be looking at Murray R. Schafer`s concept of soundscapes in relation to softness in architecture. I will, in relation to the text “Sound and soft Architecture” (Tveito, 2015), argue that sound in fact is soft architecture through its possibility to change our perception of our surroundings. It can blur the boundaries between public and private and thus reshape the existing social structures of our society.
The goal of this text is to investigate how the design of soundscapes can be seen as a methodology going beyond sound as something purely experiential and rather seeing it as a part of a larger picture, as an integrated part of our built environment. If this is a valid argument how do we then design spaces with this in mind, and what are the benefits of this way of designing?

Through this review the theme of softness in architecture will be seen through the lens of sound, to examine existing key references and projects. Taking a critical look at Murray R. Schafer`s concept of soundscapes in relation to architectural theorist Marcus Vitrivius Pollio and the composer Alvin Lucier. Further on the review will include supporting references such as cybernetician Heinz Von Foerster in relation to the projects of Usman Haque dealing with sonic neural networks. And the work of Lei Yu and Jian Kang on modelling the listeners response to soundscapes through artificial neural networks. This will be done to test the argument and identify a logical next step in the evolution of soundscapes.

Definition of soundscapes.

Murray R. Schafer introduces the concept soundscapes as “acoustic field of study” (Schafer, 1993). Further on he argues that “We can isolate the acoustic environment as a field of study just as we can study the characteristics of a given landscape.”(Schafer, 1993 p.7). This definition does not only relate to sound as music but to sound in a broader sense, the soundscape is both a product of our self and our surroundings it is therefore also embedded in our architecture. This review will be looking at soundscapes in different scales ranging from the scale of a single room to an urban landscape.

The definition of soundscapes establishes a transdisciplinary study, and may give new tools to develop the way we design our built environment. Schafer refers to as the advent of the telephone and recording technology as the “electric revolution” which he argues that it radically changed the way we perceive sound. (Schafer, 1993 chapter 6).



Figure 1. Analysis of soundscapes, (1993).
How can this technology help us to design better soundscapes? By looking at how composers have explored new ways of producing and reproducing sound it is possible to see how this can be used within the field of architecture. By doing this we can gain a better understanding and awareness of our environment and our culture by designing for all the senses.

We live in an increasingly visual culture and sound is in many ways becoming a passive background, because  “in the west the ear gave way to the eye as the most important gatherer of information about the time of the Renaissance, with the development of the printing press and the perspective painting” (Schafer, 1993 p. 4). I will argue that sound is not any more important than any other aspect of architecture, but because it has been neglected in modern architecture (Schafer, 1993) so it needs our attention. To contrast this I will introduce some key historical references to see how the theme has been seen or rather heard throughout history.

The historical roots of sound and architecture.

Sound as architecture is not a new concept and it has been dealt with by several architectural theorists including Marcus Vitrivius Pollio (Labelle and Martinho, 2011 p.80). By viewing soundscapes in a historical context new conclusions can be made on where we stand today. If we look at Vitrivius view on architecture it is heavily shaped by the ruling ideology of the Roman empire at the time and he argues that “the architect ought  to know music in order to be able to tune catapults and other war machines to the proper key” (Labelle and Martinho, 2011 p.83). As Bjørn Quiring elaborates, “being both a military engineer and a colonial architect, it stands to reason that Vitrivius also had a good sense for the relation of architecture to power.” (Labelle and Martinho, 2011 p.81). The perfectly tuned war machine links soundscapes to power, but does architecture and soundscapes have the ability to exercise power and directly shape the social and political structures of a society?

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel has had an influence on both architectural and political theory. He was influential to Karl Marx (Whiteman, 187 p. 11) though their opinion the possibility that architecture has to create changes in a society differed. “For Marx “true” architecture could appear only after the emergence of a “true” society; whereas for Hegel art and architecture are part and parcel of making our world and our culture real” (Whiteman, 187 p. 12). This review will not answer this question fully, though it serves as a background for the discussion on how soundscapes can influence us.

From Vitrivius view of architecture as a direct assertion of the power of the empire to Marx`s critique of Architectures ability to bring forth change. Soundscapes can be seen as a feedback loop as it both is changed by our society and that it changes our society. One may look at how Hegel`s definition of Architecture may apply to soundscapes. If Vitrivius’ definition of soundscapes is utilitarian in its way that it serves the empire, Hegel establishes an upper and a lower limit of Architecture. He argues that “the lower limit is a denial of symbolism, where symbolism is taken to be the deliberate construction of appearance for the ways and purposes of meaning” (Whiteman 1987, p. 9).
This lower limit is in contradiction with a purely functionalist view of architecture. The architecture becomes blunt and fails to express meaning. But if architecture reaches beyond the upper limit Hegel fears that Architecture would become too powerful in the way it influences our society. “By this he means that architecture could become so powerful that we could not challenge the notions it embodies” (Whiteman 1987, p. 10)

As Whiteman points out in his analysis of Hegel these limits are not unproblematic (Whiteman 1987, p. 10). And if we apply them to Vitrivius his concept of architecture is faulted by both the lower and the upper limit. As Hegel’s concept of architecture both is seen as instrumental therefore falling below the lower limit. And at the same time it is strictly embedded with the symbolism manifesting the power of the Roman empire or as Vitrivius puts it: “The whole whole majesty of the Roman empire is eloquently expressed  in the dignity of its public buildings” ( Labelle  and Martinho, 2011 p.84  ).

Throughout the modern and postwar period these definitions of art and architecture have been challenged in the ways that the division lines between them have been blurred. The emergence of new technology has played a large part in breaking these divisions. I will therefore take a look at a series of compositions, installations and projects to discuss how we can relate the theory to practice in order to see the concept of soundscapes as architecture clearer.

The feedback loop and the deconstruction of space

In the postwar period composers responded to this electric revolution by incorporating the new mediums such as tape recorders as a way of designing soundscapes. (Schafer, 1993). Alvin Lucier is one of the composers who made use of the possibilities offered by the new technology.  The technology enabled the composer to deconstruct the relationship between sound and space. Alvin Lucier`s piece “I Am Sitting in a Room” is influential for its treatment of space as a component of sonic production”. (Joseph, 2015)

Lucier`s piece may be described as a form of a feedback loop. The first recording of his voice contains the natural reverb of the space that it is recorded in, then by re-recording the same sound in the space it gets reverberated once more. This process is repeated over and over again.


Alvin Lucier-01Fig. 3 I am sitting in a room as a feedback loop (2015)

The piece is almost didactic in its deconstruction of the space that it was recorded in. If we see this piece in relation to Schafer’s notion soundscapes, the concept of soundscapes as a byproduct of our interaction with our surroundings becomes apparent. It also challenges Hegel’s separation between music art and architecture as it sits somewhere in between. The piece uses the architectural space in order to construct itself at the same time the piece in many ways becomes the space thus shaping our understanding of it. It does this without the use of symbolism nor mere functionalism in this way it positions itself in between Hegel’s two limits. The work is operating on the scale of a room and with one feedback loop, but what are the possibilities if we enter a system of feedback loops that operate on a larger scale?

Learning Soundscapes.

Lucier`s piece shows the potential of feedback loops in order to understand soundscapes. But can we also learn from soundscapes? If we go from one single feedback loop to a complex system of interactions, we enter the field of Cybernetics.  Cybernetics deals with “communication and control in the animal and the machine” (Von Foerster, 2003, p.192). The project explores how we can learn from soundscapes but also how soundscapes can learn and adapt.

Sonic neurons suspended in space 2

Fig 4. Sonic neurons suspended in space. (2006)

Usman Haque`s Evolving sonic landscapes opens up the possibility to look at how soundscapes can be designed with open interactive systems in mind. “The project consists of two embodiments: a society of sonic devices distributed in a room and a mechanism for recording and reviewing the history of the population”. (Labelle and Martinho, 2011, p.134) As the nodes in the neural network have the ability to  create their own behaviour based on the interaction with themselves and the inhabitants of the room.

This way of designing interactive neural networks can be translated to large scale projects. It can be used in environments that surrounds us everyday beyond the confines of the gallery space. One could imagine a concert hall adapting to the music being performed or even the response of the audience. Further on it could be applied to a restaurant or a cafe where it would regulate the acoustic environment according to each group of people and their needs ranging from listening to music to having a legible conversation. One could imagine an open office space profiting from the visual connections but at the same time having acoustic zones based on the preferences of the inhabitants.

Though these applications in a smaller scale are practical and even utilitarian there are possibilities of applying these principals to an urban scale.

Urban scale Soundscapes and Artificial neural networks.

An example of this is an artificial neural network (ANN) being utilized by Lei Yu and Jian Kang  to calculate the appreciations of soundscapes (Yu and Kang, 2009). The model synthesizes the the subjective evaluation of a soundscape made by an inhabitant or listener. This can be a design tool when designing new urban spaces and their soundscapes as allows us to model the response of large groups of people. Handling a series of complex conditions even cycling through a series of design iterations. The study revealed a difficulty of creating universal models (Yu and Kang, 2009 p.10), though models for specific urban typologies have been proved to be successful.

Relating to Heinz Von Foerster`s work on computation in biological neural networks, one can see the prediction in what can happen in synthesized neural networks regarding predictions of the future “memory for biological systems cannot be dead storage of isolated data but must be a dynamic process that involves the whole system in computing what is going on at the moment and what may happen in the future” (Von Foerster, 2003 p. 9). Though the example of Lei Yu and Jian Kang shows the use of ANN in a design context but with further development and the sufficient computing power one could see it moderating soundscapes in real time reacting to future events.


Fig 5. Architecture of the sound level evaluation model for the Kassel Florentiner Square. (2009).

When dealing with complex soundscapes in an urban condition, the issue of governance becomes even more relevant. Schafer points out the focus on the eye in western culture (Schafer, 1993. page 4), but when it comes to relations of power we find references to sound. An expression such as “raising your voice” or “being heard” are examples of this. Sound has the possibility to transcend borders as it seeps through walls blurring the lines between public and private.

If we are able to do so who has the power to define the soundscapes? This problem can be seen in Tao G. Vrohvec Sambolec`s piece reality soundtrack. Reality Soundtrack confronts the urban soundscape by using 25 participants carrying the sound through an urban environment. The sound is transmitted to radios by a radio transmitter. The artist refers to the practice as “re-contextualizing sound” and further on argues that once the sound is projected somewhere it is not expected, or is put in spatial relation to objects, it becomes free to carry extra musical connotations” (Labelle and Martinho, p. 55). The project confronts the division between public and private in an urban situation. After the realization of the project smart phones has become more and more common, the possibilities of this technology extends far beyond the radio transmitter in terms of creating personal or even networked soundscapes.

When dealing with soundscapes that affect a large number of people. What happens if you have a city that turns a demonstration mute? We find ourself in a territory in between comfortable soundscapes focusing on noise reduction and the ability to disrupt change and make oneself heard.


The review has revealed several ways to look at sound as soft architecture. The advent of digital soundscapes is maybe the most promising because of the ability to synthesize not only sound but also the response of a listener. There is a possibility to look at creation of personal soundscapes but also soundscapes that respond to a larger network of neurons.

After reviewing the literature some conclusions can be drawn. The review set out to see how the design of soundscapes can be seen as a methodology to design architecture. The field of soundscapes is a young field, but its origins can be traced back to the likes of Vitrivius and Hegel. Though there is a debate whether or not architecture can change a society directly in a linear fashion the review has  revealed alternative models to look at the relationship between architecture and power. The projects of Lucier and Haque has revealed the possibility of looking at the relationship between soundscapes and the change of an environment as a feedback loop. Further on the work of Sambolec raises the question of the political implications of the implementations of soundscapes in an urban context. The work of Yu and Kang shows the advance in the research of Artificial Neural Networks and how this can be used to model an inhabitants response to a soundscape. This gives a possibility of establishing soundscapes as a scientific method.


Further studies.

There is a need to investigate how these advances in digital technology can be used in the design of soundscapes. The possibility to synthesize and model soundscapes enables designers and architects to gain a better understanding of how soundscapes affects us and how they can be implemented as a design methodology. The relationship between individual listeners and larger groups needs to be addressed. Further on there is a need look at the possibilities of decontextualization of sound explored in projects such as Reality Soundtrack by Tao G. Vrhovec Sambolec (Labelle B. Martinho C. 2011). But also the re-contextualization through virtual reality and binaural sound. The immersive experiences enables us to rejoin all the senses in a virtual environment which may enable us to question and challenge the relationship between sound and space.



Key references:

Schafer, R. Murray (1993-10-01). The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (Kindle Locations 1882-1885). Inner Traditions/Bear & Company. Kindle Edition.

Labelle, B. Martinho, C. (2011) Site of sound #2: Of architecture and the ear. Errant Bodies Press.

Whiteman, j. (1987) On Hegel`s definition of Architecture. Assemblage no. 2. MIT press.

Joseph. M (2015) Collecting Alvin Lucier`s I am sitting in a room. [Online] available from: (accessed on 04.12.2015)

Yu, L. and Kang, J. (2009). Modeling subjective evaluation of soundscape quality in urban open spaces: An artificial neural network approach. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, issue 126.

Supporting references:

Tveito H. (2015) [Online] available from: (accessed on 04.12.2015)

Von Foerster, H. (2003) Understanding understanding: essays on cybernetics and cognition. Springer


References for Illustrations:

Figure 1. Analysis of soundscapes, Schafer R.M. (1993). [Collage]  The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (Kindle Locations 1882-1885). Inner Traditions/Bear & Company. Kindle Edition.

Figure 2. Lucier, A.  (2015) Alvin Lucier recording I am sitting in a room at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. [Photograph] at: (accessed on 04.12.2015)

Figure 3. Tveito, H. (2015) I am sitting in a room as a feed back loop [Diagram]

Figure 4. Haque, U. (2006) Suspended sonic neurons. [Photograph] at: (accessed on 04.12.2015)

Figure 5. Yu, L. and Kang, J. (2009) Architecture of the sound level evaluation model for the Kassel Florentiner Square.  [Diagram] Modeling subjective evaluation of soundscape quality in urban open spaces: An artificial neural network approach. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, issue 126.



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