The forward march of technology has seen many modern acoustic architects better their peers in feats of derring-do to contain spatial sound and magnify their sensory effect on all-comers.
It is almost impossible not to be impassioned by their craft. Nevertheless, a deep connection to the past spurs on modern consolidations that may seem structurally simple, but are emotionally impactful.
Here are five places that represent the best acoustically of something old, something new, and elements borrowed from history and nature.
More enigmatic than any other iconic Neolithic monument, the Stonehenge in Southern England is often regarded as the ultimate must-see of any World Heritage Site. One that generations of historians have sought to comprehend its purpose as more than a cremation cemetery.
But could it also have an acoustic significance? Hemispherical in profile and erected in concentric arrangements using huge sarsen stones and smaller bluestones that required Herculean effort by its original builders approximately 5,000 years ago – an astonishing feat, regardless of its prehistoric intent.
Recently, the mysterious Stonehenge has been shrunk into a 1/12th scale model by researchers at the University of Salford. With 3D printing and modelling, it was discovered that there was a coherent psychoacoustic criterion for its construction.
And it’s a very specific sound with this most unorthodox of auditory confines that amplifies the timbre of voices, according to Professor of Acoustic Engineering, Trevor Cox, whose team laser scanned the remnants of the original stones.
He also likened the aural experience to that of a closed room despite the obvious lack of a roof above and numerous openings for sound waves to escape.
A 2012 concrete full-sized reproduction of the monument at Maryhill, United States led to a similar outcome, albeit at lower bass frequencies. Likewise, American researcher Steven Waller hypothesised that the monument’s layout could have been based on the way sound was perceived as a result of “sound wave interference patterns”.
Far be it for howling winds to prevent German artist Lukas Kuhne from creating a hub of amplified aural ecstasy on the mountainside town of Seydisfjordur. Berlin-based Kuhne is a proponent of artworks dedicated to space and frequency.
They may look like interconnected concrete igloos but as each of the five domes of differing dimensions are structured to resonate to each respective pitch in a five-tone harmony.
Requiring a trek up a gravel path to an isolated expanse with a majestic vista of the fjord, this site-specific sound sculpture is relatively new, having been completed recently in 2012. The Tvisongur resembles stubby mushrooms with perforated stems.
They range from two to four metres in height and cover a small 30 square metres. What happens is that singing, or even humming, inside each dome allows one’s vocals to be intensified with a clarity that changes when one moves from dome to dome, but it is still evenly distributed in texture.
Fulfilling the same function as an ethereal duet within this oft gloomy fishing village. Enya’s May It Be will sound perfect within its confines. Urbanites weary of noise pollution who are looking for an enlightening experience, your search ends here.
Hamilton Mausoleum, Scotland
Located just a stone’s throw from Glasgow, you can still see the indentation made by the 10th Duke of Hamilton’s sarcophagus inside the Hamilton Mausoleum. Since removed with the remains of other ancestors buried in the crypt below, it was his burial tomb that was built in the mid-1880s.
Alexander Hamilton, without doubt, was one of the more eccentric Dukes of Hamilton. A few things cemented his repute: a man famed for his dandy way of life; he was an enthusiastic fine art collector who had a peculiar fascination with ancient Egyptian mummies.
The latter of which was one of the reasons he was embalmed upon death and had his shins broken to fit into a smaller sarcophagus.
Dark and ominous upon entering, the chapel in the Hamilton Mausoleum also has a haunting architectural legacy due to lingering reverberations that appear to go on in perpetuity. It held the Guinness World Records for “the longest echo in man-made structure” at a good 15 seconds when its heavy brass doors were slammed.
It was only dethroned in recent times when the same abovementioned Professor Trevor Cox – from the University of Salford – recorded the reverberation of a shot fired from a pistol that lasted for 112 seconds.
This took place in the Inchindown tunnels that served as an underground fuel depot in Scotland before World War Two. Nevertheless, the Hamilton Mausoleum is still a popular tourist attraction with “whispering walls” that visitors will find intriguing and musicians visiting to perform.
Ali Qapu Palace, Iran
The Ali Qapu Palace in Iran began life in the 17th century as a Safavid palace for Shah Abbas I before additional architectural elements were added by his successor Shah Abbas II.
Careful attention has been paid to every structural detail, allowing it to stand for centuries thereon. Its grandeur is even more evident when the setting sun frames the picturesque palace at dusk.
On the six-floor is the well-known music hall that boasts vaulted ceilings with ornamental muqarnas, and intricately carved stuccos made from mud bricks. The royal family would host performances with musicians playing traditional Persian instruments.
Here, there is no noticeable echo as reverberations are absorbed and diffused into the various cavities of this oddly shaped, honeycomb-like arrangement. It’s a clever solution but does, however, demand more skill in engineering and articulation of Islamic geometric designs in tiered layers.
This part of the building seems to be designed for monarchs who were not strictly bound by historical specifications. Combining both exalted aesthetics and technical ideals, the outcome is the utmost clarity of sound that is seemingly distortion-free.
That is probably why it epitomises timbre purity despite its large interior with lattice-like grills that seem to miraculously deflect exterior noise.
Sea Organ, Croatia
It may look like nondescript steps with cut-outs teetering from Zadar’s city coastline into the ocean. That’s until you perceive perfect harmony emanating from the 70-metre long promenade where the, aptly named, Sea Organ is the resident performer.
By allowing air and water carried by the waves to surge into the resonant chambers beneath, low-pitched notes are produced through channels on the upper stairs that may sound random, but collectively produce a melodious tune.
As an engineering feat led by Croatian architect Nikola Basic that was completed in 2005, the unpredictable nature of the wind and waves generates an inimitable tune each time owing to the 35 organ pipes installed vertically under the concrete at the lowest tide level.
Engaged in the pursuit of sonic excellence, Basic also enlisted the help of Professor Vladimir Androcec as his sea hydraulics consultant while the pipes playing five tones and seven chords were made by Goran Jezina, a well-known organ art workshop, and tuned by Professor Ivica Stamac.
Basic would go on to win the European Prize for Urban Public Space in Barcelona in 2006. These days, the spot is worth a visit for the breezy view alone and it’s also a sunny meeting place for locals and tourists alike.
Cover Image: Feng Wei Photography via Getty Images
Writer | Jason Kwong
Jason believes that life is to be lived, not endured. And by living, he means assuming a stationary position on a La-Z-Boy and watching NBA basketball matches until a looming editorial deadline wrestles the TV remote control from his possession.