Karen Van Lengen is the Edward E. Elson Professor of Architecture and Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia. She is also the former Chair of Architecture at the Parsons School of Design.
Van Lengen’s current work focuses on the use of sound as a significant design component. Her designs mix environmental sounds into public and private space, often taking sounds from one space and playing or mixing them into another. Her most recent project is a collaboration with Joel Sanders Architects to create a sound installation within the newly renovated Campbell Hall, home to the UVA School of Architecture.
Peter Traub: Your 2003 paper co-authored with Ted Sheridan, “Hearing Architecture: Exploring and Designing the Aural Environment”, argues for a greater emphasis on sound and aurality as elements of modern architectural design. When and how did you become interested in sound and “designing the aural environment”?
Karen Van Lengen: I have always been sensitive to sound. I began to notice that my memories of certain spaces were not only visual but aural as well. For example Grand Central Station, or the National Gallery of Art in Washington. I was also influenced by Jean Gardener, who taught at Parsons and had a unique method for analyzing architecture. One of her criteria was sound and she helped bring my latent awareness into more focus. Ted Sheridan also taught at Parsons. He was both an architect and musician. He taught a special course using sound as a generating aspect of design. We began a dialogue that has continued for many years.
Diagram of Mix House by Karen Van Lengen, Joel Sanders, and Ben Rubin.
Peter: Are there particular structures or spaces, especially well-known ones, that you would consider great examples of aural architecture (even if hey weren’t designed with aurality in mind)? Could you tell us a bit bout them and what aural characteristics make them stand out to you?
Karen: There are many many spaces of the everyday that come to mind in my own experience however for this question I will offer only those known to the public. A few spaces that come to mind:
New York Public Library: Beaux Arts Library of 1910 by Carrere and Hastings on Fifth Ave. The reading room is one of New York’s heroic spaces both visually and aurally. Amidst the sea of desks occupied by the many New Yorkers who come to study read and work there is the oh so subtle sound of work – of books opening and closing of a few whispers – individuals in search of something personal and particular – united by the their collective desires to be there together sharing these personal pursuits collectively.
Grand Central Station: New York – the sounds of movement – of the beginnings and the ends of the days in the city – a city full of work, full of play, full of life – the sounds of direction and intention-purpose.
Palatine Hill in the Winter: few tourists visit the Palatine hill in the winter but because I lived in Rome I often went there to listen. To the special sound of the winter wind – as it moves through the ruins – it has a strange and eerie sound as if it were occupied – inhabited – it is a ruin that feels alive, particularly in the dead of winter.
National Gallery in Washington DC – 1941 – John Russell Pope: Here the interior fountains are located in strategic central spaces with domes to reflect their sounds. The art gallery corridors are arranged around these foci so that at the beginning and end of small sojourns through the building one has a complete understanding of one’s location based on the subtle sound of falling water.
Falling Water by Frank Lloyd Wright: of course the sound of falling water that is the major identity of the house, since it is built over a waterfall.
Villa Giulia in Rome: the movement through a series of highly articulated renaissance pleasure gardens that by a careful manipulation of the water and sectional play of spaces, offers the visitor an acoustical pleasure garden along the walk through the villa.
Sounds of footsteps in the dead of night in the winter in Venice: The fog can obscure ones vision and sometime it is only possible to hear the sharp definitive sounds of the unidentifiable echo from the nearby streets.
Hermann Goebbel’s Air Ministry Building located in the old eastern sector of Berlin: one of the few remaining Nazi buildings in Berlin. (1930’3) Here the sounds of heavy and directed footsteps along the endless and unforgiving corridors are highly accentuated by the reflective stone walls and floors. The sounds of people walking carry the overpowering sense of doom and fear.
Sounds of horses as they walk across a covered wooden bridge.
and so many more…..
Peter: How does increased consideration of aurality in the design process affect the design process itself and the structures that result? What are some of the technical challenges that you encounter in shifting the emphasis from purely vision toward a balance between vision and sound?
Karen: Designing with aurality is a challenge due to the process of measuring it in the design process. With visual studies we have developed many tools to study and delineate ideas including virtual and real models that include details such as shade and shadow or material and color studies in three dimensions. We don’t yet have easy tools to understand how sound will work in spaces. The idea of the model as a miniature replica of a room or a building does not work with sound. There are some very sophisticated software programs that acousticians use with virtual models to design concert halls, etc. however these tools are complex, expensive and not yet readily available in schools of architecture. I have found that teaching the awareness of sound, though not highly scientific, does promote awareness of the aural environment and helps students to begin to notice and record how other spaces and places work with sound. As technologies in this area continue to develop and become more accessible, I believe the interest in sound will become more important to architectural designers.
Peter: I ask this as much for my own work as for others: for composers, sound artists, and people interested in learning more about awareness of sound within an architectural context, what resources would you recommend?
Karen: There are many new books and articles that have emerged in the past few years as interest in sound grows. Without a whole bibliography I would give the advice of first learning how sound works – how it travels – how it reacts with space. There is an excellent short and uncomplicated book on the basic principles of acoustics by Robert Apfel, entitled Deaf Architects & Blind Acousticians. This is a compact guide to the principles of sound design. Then I would suggest that people simply listen – listen to spaces and try to record and remember those spaces that have significant aural qualities for them. Then to know why the aural qualities are transformative – what makes it so – space? Materials? Types of interacting sounds? I think this is the best way to learn about it.
Then one can read about the work of the small but influencial group of sound artists that opened up this territory seriously in the 1960s and 1970s like Bill Fontana, John Cage, Lietner, Alvin Lucier, etc.
Peter: How have other architects in the field responded the idea of the aural environment as a significant design consideration?
Karen: Until now there has been almost no interest in this theme. Lately however there is an increasing attention both in the disciplines of architecture and art. As recently as 30 years ago all architectural ideas and their documentation were made in paper form so any manipulation of sound could not be described in any experiential manner. In looking at published work one could see photos of the work but never hear the sounds of it. This made it difficult to describe any inventions related to aural qualities in a convincing way. Sound is now a regular feature of digital presentations and available on the web, so the field is ripe for discovery and development.
Peter: You collaborated with Joel Sanders and Ben Rubin on a project in 2006 called “Mix House”. We blogged about it last year and readers can learn more about it here. The house allows the inhabitants to mix outside sounds with inside sounds, process them, and play them back throughout the structure. What was the impetus for this project, and what has the response been like from the public, critics, and other architects?
animation of “Mix House” in action.
Karen: The Mix House was an opportunity to explore several themes:
1–The relation between sound and vision established by the large picture window. Modernism with its characteristic glass window walls exploited the large panoramic views of the exterior but isolated these views by negating their aural counterpart. This project effectively unified sound and vision again so that what was seen could also be heard.
2–The project also asks the inhabitants to begin to listen – to their environment – both the real exterior landscapes as well as mediated sounds of the interior.
3–The “mixing” of these sounds provided the opportunity for composition, play and for social interaction of the inhabitants. Learning to listen might suggest a different set of relationships within the family unit.
There has been widespread interest in this project especially with younger architects who are looking for dynamic means to explore the role of architecture in contemporary culture.
Peter: Although Mix House uses static physical design elements to influence the production, transmission, and reception of sound, it also makes extensive use of technology, such as computers, microphones, and speakers to control the aural environment of the house. How do you think about technology as it relates to designing the aural environment?
Karen: Actually the Mix House includes one moving picture window at the rear façade of the house that has the ability to track visual movement and sound simultaneously. The remainder of the house is static and uses new technologies to accomplish its goals. Technologies have, in a very short period of time, transformed how we relate to one another – email, cell phone, text messaging, etc. These will continue to evolve and shape our relationships. The Mix House uses technology to create a different set of relationships that demand the inhabitant to listen to a variety of experiential conditions that can be individual but can also be shared in an active way. This potential for listening and for dialogue is a very important aspect of this project and can be developed to accommodate public space as well.
Peter: What questions does a project like Mix House raise about the interaction of public and private sound? In Blesser and Salter’s “Spaces Speak, are you Listening: Experiencing Aural Architecture”, they discuss the concept of ‘acoustic arenas’, which are essentially the areas in which listeners can hear a sonic event because it has enough power to overcome background noise. Acoustic arenas can be created by structural boundaries, noise, social interactions, etc. It occurred to me that Mix House fundamentally plays with acoustic arenas, and through the sound/picture window and other means, mixes arenas that otherwise would stay separated, creating an interplay between public and private arenas. Is this interplay problematic in any way for you, or does it raise compelling questions? How have others responded to the mixing of arenas in Mix House?
Karen: The reaction at times is mixed. People ask, why do this? What I find compelling about the sound arenas is the “arena” quality – in which a space activated by sound allows the possibility for a new kind of social interaction – one that requires that the ears are free from headsets and cell phones – a space where friends or strangers can share a listening event – for me it carries the possibility of local and spontaneous interactive culture that I believe is important in today’s global-centric world in order to balance the displacement of the local and its habitat.
Peter: What have you learned from the process of designing Mix House in terms of the major aesthetic and design challenges that face architects who design for the aural environment?
Karen: When I started this work several years ago I thought that it might make sense to design the formal language of a space to reflect the way sound acts in space. I found this approach difficult and as I began to develop different ideas I came to the realization – working with Ben and Joel that instead of rejecting technology we might want to truly embrace its potential in shaping aural spaces. Formally, it is important to link conceptual ideas about space making with programs, sites and materials. Now I use the technology to reinforce these ideas in the shaping of environment – not to make a separate statement about it.
Peter: At the beginning of your answer above you describe this intriguing approach – of designing the formal language of a space to reflect the way sound acts in space – that ended up being difficult and not working out. While it is an avenue you ended up not pursuing, the concept sounds interesting to a non-architect like myself. Can you describe how this approach would ideally have worked, and also explain what the problems were that ended up making it unfeasible?
Karen: Basically with this approach one needs to collect and direct the sounds very carefully – something like an instrument. The structure can be too specific to one kind of soundscape or one location and can seem relentless – like living in an experiment with no visual or acoustical alternatives. I am more interested in the dynamic qualities of sound and associated shifting boundaries of space that work against this first model. Joel and I came to the realization that we could use technology to achieve significant results without turning the building into an instrument. However, I do believe there has to be a relation between the designed soundscapes and the architecture itself – these intersections can be subtle and fit within a larger spatial concept.
Peter: In terms of aesthetic preference, some artists who work with technology prefer the wires to both literally and figuratively hang out – that is, it is important to make the technology visible in a piece as it’s own sort of art object. Others prefer to hide the technology, making it as invisible and/or integrated into the environment as possible. It sounds from your answers above that you fall in with the latter group. How you think about the integration of technology with design – as within Mix House – in terms of it’s visibility and presence?
Karen: Correct, no need to show the wires, but there is a need to make the visual/aural connections clear and perceptible. So for example if we make a sound puddle installation in our Architecture School lounge and program it with the sounds of another space either inside or outside the building it is important to me to signify that relationship through orientation or visual connection so that the displaced sounds that compose the arena come from somewhere and are selected for a purpose. This I find interesting.
Diagram of the Naug Lounge Project by Karen Van Lengen and Joel Sanders Architects.
Peter: I know that you are very interested in Bill Fontana’s work (note to readers: Karen brought him to visit us at the University of Virginia this past March). How do you think your work and the notions of aural architecture relate to Fontana’s sound sculptures and vice versa? Do you consider his work influential to a project like Mix House? Are there other artists who you consider important or influential to your thinking about aurality and designing the aural environment?
Karen: I first came to know Bill’s work in the 1980’s. He had done projects in Berlin (Anhalter Bahnhof) Paris (Arc de Triomphe) and others that explored the power of sound to displace the immediate surroundings and also to connect places through sound associations. This displacement heightened the visitors awareness of place, and extended the limits of that place. I wanted to explore these ideas not so much for the purpose of displacement but rather as a unifying element that might bring landscape into spaces that had previously been cut off from it. This work taught me to think about my own projects in a different way. Also Alvin Lucier was important too. I have heard his piece, “I am Sitting in a Room” on several occasions and even performed it here at UVa with my students. It too is a ery powerful realization about how the voice interacts with spaces. Rooms have aural qualities that can be known by the interaction of the voice in the space to create a ‘tone’ for the room. Ted Sheridan, as I mentioned earlier, was a good colleague from Parsons during my early interest in this field. And finally David Hykes, founder of the Harmonic Choir was also a guest lecturer at Parsons. He taught the students how they could interpret the space of the room through harmonic chanting. So there have been many people who have been influential in my interest and development of sound and architecture.
Peter: Do you have other projects currently in the works that focus on the aural environment, and if so, could you tell us a little about them?
Karen: Joel Sanders and I have are working on the design of the central space of the architecture school at the University of Virginia. The project uses sound spaces that are integrated into the design of the room with a specific program. These spaces are defined more by sound than by traditional materials and have the capacity to listen to various places both inside and outside the school. This center will become the public space of our building and hopefully become the space of interaction and dialogue stimulated by these sound puddles.