Is there such a thing as acoustic excellence in architecture? Perhaps.
There has long been an emphasis on architectural acoustics in buildings that function to house performances: concert halls, open-air theatres, and opera halls. Think of Greek and Roman amphitheatres and their strategic, raised seating.
Besides performance venues though, acoustic qualities are crucial in all architectural projects – whether commercial, institutional, industrial, infrastructural, or residential.
So crucial, in fact, that nowadays it’s almost a given that major architecture firms need to partner with acoustic consultants or audio engineers to deliver the best aural experiences.
In educational spaces, architectural acoustics drastically influence the learning experience. In hospitals and wellbeing centres, they play a major role in promoting comfort and healing. In private homes, they’re especially useful in the fight against external noise disturbance.
Sometimes, however, things are less strategic and acoustic properties are accidental. That’s where sonic serendipity comes into play.
BUILDINGS WITH GREAT ACOUSTICS
Read on to discover buildings around the world with remarkably unconventional acoustics and to learn about the architectural features that distinguish their sonic capacities apart.
THE INTEGRATRON, LANDERS, CALIFORNIA
Exterior view of the Integratron in Landers, California. Photo: Wikipedia user Shamrox
Built in 1954 in the vicinity of Joshua Tree National Park in southern California, the sci-fi-like Integratron is thirty-eight feet high, in wood, and shaped like an umbrella.
The structure was ideated by the “ufologist” George Van Tassel who claimed he received extra-terrestrial instructions from aliens.
After strategically picking the location on an intersection of geomagnetic forces – a magnetic anomaly – Van Tassel built the space to “defy the laws of gravity” with electromagnetic vibrations and electrostatic forces.
What’s the best building shape for acoustics? Umbrella, perhaps, if the Integratron serves as an example.
Despite it not being the focus of the design, the Integratron turned out to have fascinating acoustical properties. A whisper on one side can be heard on the other, like in a whispering gallery.
Its shape allows it to be exceptionally resonant.
Three sisters realised that, purchased it in 2000 from the previous owners, and transformed it into a tourist attraction and yoga studio that offers visitors therapeutic sound baths where twenty quartz crystal singing bowls are played live.
They claim that the Integratron is “acoustically perfect”.
Here’s a fun fact. In 2008, the Arctic Monkeys recorded a part of their song “Secret Door” within the space, and in 2014, Moby held a live fundraising concert in it. This place has seen it all.
TEUFELSBERG LISTENING STATION, BERLIN, GERMANY
The Teufelsberg Listening Station in Berlin, Germany. Photo: Sarah Mirk
After World War II, approximately 25 million tonnes of rubble and debris were dragged towards an area in West Berlin, creating a human-made hill or what is locally referred to as Teufelsberg (or Devil’s Mountain).
Later during the Cold War, the National Security Agency took note of the strategic elevation of the hill and its potential for uninterrupted signals and decent views – 120 metres high – and chose it as the site of a listening station under the ECHELON surveillance programme to spy on the Eastern Bloc.
Its distinct features are its four “radomes”, or dome enclosures that both protect and hide radar antennas.
For the best sonic experience, head to the main dome where acoustic properties are especially fascinating. Simultaneously acting as an echo chamber and a whispering gallery, the lowest sound source can generate deep resonance and prolonged reverberation.
Teufelsberg also happens to be the second-highest point in Berlin. Today, a substantial amount of graffiti covers the site. A sonic, visual, and spy trip all in one? Yes, please.
FERTORAKOS CAVE THEATRE, FERTORAKOS, HUNGARY
Exterior view of the Fertorakos Quarry. Photo: Dguendel
While not exactly a building, the Fertorakos Cave Theatre more or less currently operates as one – and deserves to be included in this list.
Located right by the Austrian-Hungarian border in the village of Fertorakos, the Fertorakos quarry boasts interesting acoustics characteristics thanks to the natural resonance among the Leitha Limestone that was quarried away to cities like Sopron and Vienna during Roman times.
In 1937, Hungarian composer Erno Dohnanyi hosted the first live performance outdoors in the quarry after having discovered these acoustic properties.
Dohnanyi was on to something, and he was right considering that the Fertorakos Cave quarry continues to host concerts today.
The weather, however, wasn’t always suitable for open-air shows and in the 1960s, founder Gyorgy Varady drew up plans to build an interior theatre.
In 2015, Hungarian studio Archi.doc renovated the space, turning it into a tourist attraction with a new visitors’ centre, improving seating that can accommodate up to 750 people, and restoring it to its original condition.
The quarry and theatre are currently part of the Ferto/Neusiedlersee Cultural Landscape region, which was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.
XIQU CENTRE, HONG KONG
Exterior view of the Xiqu Centre in Hong Kong. Photo: Wikipedia user Wpcpey
Cantonese opera is being taken to new levels at Hong Kong’s Xiqu Centre. This complex is worth HK$2.7bil, and it opened in 2019 in the popular West Kowloon Cultural District.
Built as a collaboration between Revery Architecture and Ronald Lu & Partners, the performing arts centre focuses on promoting and safeguarding Xiqu, a genre of traditional Chinese opera – and boasts a 1070-seat Grand Theatre.
They tasked the studio Sound Space Vision with sound design, which integrated audio systems and room acoustics for a “wide and continuous spectrum” of acoustical production, favouring natural distribution so that performers don’t need to fully rely on amplification.
Because Xiqu has varying needs – sometimes improvisation, sometimes murmuring voices and sometimes percussion – the studio used concave timber panels to distribute sound, as well as insulated walls and motorised acoustic drapes to absorb it.
Other spaces in the Xiqu Centre with strategic acoustic properties include the smaller Tea House Theatre, the Seminar Hall, the recording suite and the rehearsal areas. Sonic architecture can be both strategic and serendipitous, it would appear.
Xiqu Centre was named one of Time Magazine’s World's Greatest Places and its signature lantern-shaped silhouette plays a central role in the West Kowloon Cultural District.
WHISPERING GALLERY, ST PAUL’S CATHEDRAL, LONDON
View of the Whispering Gallery at St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Photo: Jack Pease
We definitely can’t wrap up a list of buildings with fascinating acoustics without any mention of the architectural phenomenon that is the whispering gallery.
There are so many captivating whispering galleries around the world.
The Grand Central Station in New York, the Temple of Heaven in Beijing and the Palazzo del Podesta in Bologna. These whispering galleries all function similarly: as concave spaces that allow sound to travel circumferentially from one side to another.
It’s tough to declare what the most famous whispering gallery in the world would be, but our guess would be the St Paul’s Cathedral in London – designed by the English architect Sir Christopher Wren and completed in 1710.
The cathedral’s world-famous whispering gallery is located at the base of the dome. Sound waves as low as a whisper or a murmur, generated from one side, clasp onto the gallery’s wall, travel, and are audible to listeners from any other point in the gallery.
Grab a buddy and give it a shot to test it out yourself.
Enjoyed learning about buildings with fascinating acoustics? Continue exploring sonic architecture:
Cover Credit: The Integratron in Landers, California. Photo: Christopher Michel
Writer | Bana Bissat
Bana Bissat is a Milan-based writer who reports on sound art for Sound of Life. She has written for Flash Art, Lampoon, and Cultured. @banabissat