Architecture and Acoustics: You Know Greatness When You Hear It

Architecture and acoustics are highly dependent on each other. Every design element in the room, down to the smallest ornament, shapes the sound. Nothing should happen by accident.

Working with acousticians, one quickly learns that acoustics is one third art, one third science, and one third black magic (actually something between intuition and malarkey). To us, the most magical aspect of creating great acoustics is the partnership between architect and acoustician to achieve the intricate balance where design elements further the acoustics, and acoustic elements aren’t just an appendage, but a seamless integration with the architecture. (Watch architect David Schwarz and acoustician Paul Scarborough discuss this partnership in Reynolds Hall at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas.)

The Smith Center for the Performing Arts

The Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas

How we integrate these design elements into the overall design of a room is a measure of our success in creating performing arts spaces that become beloved community institutions.  Before lifting a pencil (more likely, before moving a mouse), one must understand the relationship of various acoustical criteria that work together to create a world-class acoustic environment.  Some of these work hand-in-hand, while others are diametrically opposed.

For instance, in the case of the former, richness or warmth in a concert hall – typically the strength and power of the bass voice instruments – is closely related to resonance or reverberation – the pleasant decay of sound that also imparts a sense of liveliness.

In the case of the latter, envelopment or immersion – the sense of being totally engulfed in sound, as opposed to feeling that the music is only on the stage – and blend – the sense that the different voices are chorusing together to form a unified whole – are inversely related to localization – the ability to identify the sound source’s origin – and transparency – the ability to discern the different instrumental voices in the ensemble.

Room design must carefully balance these and several other key criteria.  As one acoustician we’ve worked with puts it, “A cake batter with no salt, makes for a bland cake, but more than a pinch and the cake tastes odd.”  Balance is everything.

Next, it is imperative that the architect understands the fundamentals of how sound behaves, so that they can work collaboratively with the acoustician and speak a common language.  Sound is an amalgamation of waves, and, like all waves, they adhere to basic laws of physics. Every architectural element struck by a sound wave will impact the next movement of the wave.

Detail of glass acoustical canopy at The Palladium in Carmel, Indiana

Detail of glass acoustical canopy at The Palladium in Carmel, Indiana

Depending upon the frequency (pitch) and amplitude (volume) of each wave and the size, shape, density, and other physical characteristics of the design element, the wave will either be reflected, absorbed, or transmitted.  Furthermore, reflected sound may be focused (generally bad), dispersed or diffused (generally good), or may create an echo (almost always bad).

Thus, the art, science, and let’s not forget, black magic of room design is the careful placement of hundreds, if not thousands of surfaces and design elements, as required to control and shape literally millions of sound waves, which are nanoseconds apart.

Sound complex and complicated?  That’s because it is, and it gets even more complicated.

Most rooms require some degree of variable acoustics to make the room its liveliest for unamplified acoustic music, yet allow dampening for amplified events.  Others employ, to a greater or lesser degree, some form of adjustable acoustic coupling, which can actually adjust the reverberation time of the room by coupling additional volume to the performance space.


Musikvereinssaal in Vienna, Austria

On the other hand, it need not be daunting.  Many of the world’s finest acoustic venues (Vienna’s Musikvereinsaal and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, to name two) were designed long before the modern field of acoustics.  Attention to fundamentals, like key room dimensions, abundant three-dimensional ornament and a variety of differently scaled elements will ensure a certain modicum of success.  A true collaboration with the right acoustician will get one the rest of the way there.  Moreover, it will get one a room where the architecture and acoustics are one and the same.

Please browse the Portfolio section of our website, to see how we have employed this concept to a myriad of performance spaces.

Personally, having worked with The Cleveland Orchestra on Severance Hall, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra on the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, and a multitude of other resident companies and user groups, I find our performing arts work to be the most intellectually challenging, emotionally rewarding and overall satisfying of all the project types.

Severance Hall

Severance Hall in Cleveland, Ohio

At the gala reopening of Severance, every musical selection was made to demonstrate how good the room was, along with how good the orchestra was—in concert.  However, the audience did not necessarily know this.  To them, all they needed to know was that their world-renowned orchestra played great, as always, and the room sounded better than ever.

Craig Williams is a Principal with DMSAS. He will be presenting “Acoustics 101” on Thursday, September 26th at the Design DC conference. The course is approved for 1.5 AIA HSW LUs.

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