Picture of Spaces Speak by Blesser
Spaces Speak, Are You Listening?
Experiencing Aural Architecture

By Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter

MIT Press © 2007
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Introduction to aural architecture:

We experience spaces not only by seeing but also by listening. We can navigate a room in the dark, and "hear" the emptiness of a house without furniture. Our experience of music in a concert hall depends on whether we sit in the front row or under the balcony. The unique acoustics of religious spaces acquire symbolic meaning. Social relationships are strongly influenced by the way that space changes sound. In Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? Experiencing Aural Architecture, Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter examine auditory spatial awareness: experiencing space by attentive listening. Every environment has an aural architecture.

The audible attributes of physical space have always contributed to the fabric of human culture, as demonstrated by prehistoric multimedia cave paintings, classical Greek open-air theaters, Gothic cathedrals, acoustic geography of French villages, modern music reproduction, and virtual spaces in home theaters. Auditory spatial awareness is a prism that reveals a culture's attitudes toward hearing and space. Some listeners can learn to "see" objects with their ears, but even without training, we can all hear spatial geometry such as an open door or low ceiling.

Integrating contributions from a wide range of disciplines--including architecture, music, acoustics, evolution, anthropology, cognitive psychology, audio engineering, and many others--Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? establishes the concepts and language of aural architecture. These concepts provide an interdisciplinary guide for anyone interested in gaining a better understanding of how space enhances our well-being. Aural architecture is not the exclusive domain of specialists. Accidentally or intentionally, we all function as aural architects.

The major components of aural architecture include at least five types of spatiality: social, musical, navigations, aesthetic, and symbolic, all of which are described in this introduction.

The following lectures and articles are especially recommended:
Introduction to Aural Architecture presented to Belmont Library (mp3)
The Other Half of the Soundscape in proceedings WFAE, March 2009
The Other Half of the Soundscape presented to WFAE, March 2009 (mp3)
Aural Architecture broadcast on BBC World Service Discovery, 29 April 2009 (mp3)

List of libraries and book dealers that have Spaces Speak

Social spatiality in aural architecture:

When we think of architecture, we immediately visualize the properties of the space that can be seen, especially boundaries that influence movement and the legal rights of access. Walls and surfaces are tangible and readily apparent. In contrast, because sound flows through even the smallest opening, aural architecture has aural boundaries. Hogarth, in the picture below,  portrays the dismay of a musician who finds that his private music room and the hubbub of the street are in fact a single aural space. The open window destroys the aural boundary because sound flows freely through it. Opening the window changes the aural architecture, and the person who opened the window was an aural architect.

Hogarth's picture of Enranged Musician

Hogarth's Enraged Musician.
Courtesy of Graphic Arts Collection, Princeton University.

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Musical Spatiality in aural architecture:

The acoustics attributes of a space have an influence on the moods and feeling of those that inhabit the space. While the aural attributes of ordinary spaces change the mood and emotions of the inhabitants, the effect is best demonstrated with high-impact spaces, which are often selected by aural artists for their dramatic qualities. Searching for such space is easier than trying to construct them since it is impossible to auralize a space that one has never experienced.

Using the ancient stalactite cave of Jeita near Beirut, as shown in the figure below, Stockhausen performed several of his post-modern compositions. The musicians, located on a platform constructed over the abyss below, were illuminated with spotlights in an otherwise darkened environment.
Unlike a normal concert hall, listeners were as much as 80 meters from the performers, which allowed the natural acoustics to dominate the direct sound. Visitors gained access to the cave by walking for 15-minutes through a tunnel and smaller caves until they reached the main grotto.  A Catholic priest said of the performance of Stimmung, “It was the longest prayer I have ever known and the happiest.”

Picture of Jeita Cave near Beirut

Stockhausen's performance of "Stimmung" in the Jeita Cave near Beirut.
Courtest of the Archives of Stockhausen Foundation for Music.

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Navigational spatiality in aural architecture:

That we can hear spatial attributes, such as a wall or open window, is not widely recognized except by a those few blind individuals who have mastered the art of echolocation: creating an image of a space entirely by listening. This ability is learned and few of us have the inclination to acquire such skills. Yet, all of us have a latent and undeveloped ability to use our ears to supplement vision. Spelunkers get a sense of a cave by listening to the reverberation and echoes in areas that are completely hidden. We can feel the presence of an individual behind us by the subtlest sounds, and spatial acoustics influences that ability. The figure below illustrates how a group of blind teenagers were taught to ride their bicycle in the mountains of California. Not only does this ability allow for normal movement without vision but it builds confidence in using all the senses. 

Picture of blind teenages riding their bicycles

Dan Kish's Team Bat leading blind teenagers on a bicycle ride.
Courtest of Cal State 
L. A. Today, Stan Carstensen.

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Aesthetic spatiality in aural architecture:

Just as we add ornaments and texture to our visual spaces to make them interesting and varied, so too can one add aural embellishments to change the local acoustics. In fact, most objects and geometries selected for their visual and artistic pleasure also have corresponding aural attributes.

Eusebio Sempere, a respected minimalist 20th century Spanish artist, created a sculpture composed of a three-dimensional array of polished stainless-steel tubes that rotates at its base, as shown in figure below.
In addition to its provocative visual effect as the moving surfaces reflect in the sunlight, it was also a sonic filter that blocked transmission of particular frequencies. A listener on one side heard a tonal modification of those sound sources located on the other side, the visual equivalent of colored glass prisms. This sculpture is an aural embellishment because it changes sounds that propagate through it. 

Picture of Sempere's sculpture in Madrid

Eusebio Sempere's sculpture in Madrid has unique acoustic properties.
Courtesy of Collection of Fundación Juan March, Madrid.

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Symbolic spatiality in aural architecture:

Through repeated use in rituals and ceremonies, both the visual and aural properties of an object or geometry can acquire symbolic meaning associated with particular situations. In the visual world, these are called icons, and by symmetry, one could call the aural equivalent an earcon.

The figure below shows the Shrine of St. Werburgh in the Chester Cathedral. It contains six recesses where kneeling pilgrims inserted their heads while pleading their petition. The cavity serves both as amplifier and filter, thus giving the petitioner’s voice dramatic and emotional emphasis: only modest vocal effort is required to produce a strong voice. The shrine’s cavity becomes a unique private arena that also excludes external sounds—privacy without walls. Resonances contribute to the sense of being in another world; amplification contributes to intimacy; visual isolation contributes to privacy. Because the experience of being in such a space takes place in a religious ritual, the aural architecture of the cavity gradually acquires symbolic meaning. 

Picture of Shrine of St. Werburgh

Shrine of St. Werburgh in the Chester Cathedral
Courtesy of Nicholas Fry

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Finding a copy of Spaces Speak:

Spaces Speak is available in more that 500 libraries around the world, and it can be purchased  from most booksellers, especially online. Here are some useful links for finding a copy of the book.
Return to Introduction
Last Modified: 11 May 2009