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Cacophony, both on the streets and inside buildings, has become a scourge of modern living for urban dwellers. Now, architects and designers are looking to manipulate the noise, Matthew Hague writes

The FabPod at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology Design Hub turns a meeting room into a cavern formed by a cluster of bubbles.

Belgian designer Pierre-Emmanuel Vandeputte is part of a growing number of people addressing the cacophony of our cities and buildings.

Earlier this month, at Maison et Objet, a twice-yearly interior-design event in Paris, he participated in a marquee show called Silence, displaying items that help mitigate sound. One of his pieces, Nascondino, is a portable felt alcove that cocoons people in public spaces. Another, Diplomate, is a moveable desk partition that helps one hide from bothersome office mates (the kind that clack their nails or endlessly munch with their mouths agape). Both address the lack of walls common in today’s corporate environments.

Vandeputte’s most provocative piece, though, is his Cork Helmet, a dome on a rope that one lowers onto one’s head, not only blocking out all sound but all sight as well.

The Cork Helmet, designed by Pierre-Emmanuel Vandep, helps people block out the noise.

“We all have crazy days, with plenty of things to handle,” he explains. “We need breaks. But there is no object that lets you escape from where you are, from time to time, to find space in your head and be peaceful.”

Of the experience of being corked, Vandeputte likens it to being a kid and listening to the ocean inside a shell – the dome creates a similar movement of air, with a similarly soothing sound – only its more enveloping. Rather than simply putting your ear to the shell, you go inside it.

If his work seems more tempting than absurd, it’s because complaints about noise are becoming increasingly common among modern urban dwellers. Our homes, offices and streetscapes seem to be clattering relentlessly. In Toronto alone, according to a CBC report last summer, the number of official noise complaints to the city has more than doubled since 2011, rising roughly in tandem with the new skyscrapers that are causing endless construction commotion downtown.

Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic for The New York Times, has described excessive sound pollution as the “unspoken plague of cities.” In a 2015 column he wrote: “Often the sound of a place is so pervasive that we stop noticing what we hear.”

But maybe the mere presence of noise isn’t the whole problem.

In fact, architect Brady Peters, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s John H. Daniels School of Architecture, Landscape and Design, doesn’t even like the word. “The whole notion of noise is an interesting one,” he explains. “It’s a term that brings to mind unwanted sounds. It has a negative connotation. … I would tend towards a less judgmental view.”

One of the challenges in trying to bring some quiet to offices is how to incorporate sound dampeners into the room design. Here, they are part of the furniture.

Instead, Peters believes that designers should focus on tuning sound to make it more pleasant when creating the built environment.

Tuning sounds is something that already happens in industrial design, Peters says.

As an example of the potential, he points to the sound of car engines and washing machines. Savvy designers are currently “investigating the sounds that the machines make,” he says, which helps “understand the frequencies people positively respond to.” From that, designers “compose” a sound profile that’s less rattling and more reassuring. In that way, the sound of a car door closing, say, isn’t incidental.

“Someone imagined that it would behave in a particular way,” he says. “We can do the same thing with buildings.”

Part of the limitation, however, is that, while architects have many tools to help draw, investigate and explore the way buildings look, there aren’t similar technologies to test and understand how a space might sound.

Visualization is easy, auralization not so much. Peters hopes to change that. “Part of my investigation is how do you investigate and communicate sound.”

Peters has been on the vanguard of new design tools for a long time. Prior to completing his PhD at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts School of Architecture in Copenhagen (his thesis looked at computational methods for predicting, measuring and evaluating sound in architectural spaces), he was an associate partner at Britain’s Foster + Partners, a studio known for its boundary-pushing buildings, including, most famously, the cylindrical, pointed skyscraper in central London affectionately called “the Gherkin.”

Diplomate is a moveable desk partition that helps someone hide from bothersome office mates.

At Foster + Partners, he worked with the Specialist Modelling Group, a research unit within the firm responsible for investigating and developing methods for turning wild ideas into reality. One of Peters’s most important projects was a roof enclosure for the courtyard of Washington’s historic Smithsonian Institution. Peters wrote a computer script that generated the complex geometry – the glass roof ripples in a way that seems impossible outside of Photoshop – saving the office the impossibility of drawing the undulations using the kind of conventional drawing software more typically used for basic, boxy structures.

The project also helped push Peters to investigate sound. He had to help find a place to hide sound dampeners, lest the space become a giant echo chamber. There was, however, no room to hide anything between the transparent glass roof and the stone walls of a National Historic Landmark. Although the design team eventually found a way to line the roof’s slender structure with the dampeners, the experience made Peters realize that there was no satisfying way to “draw” sound to test its effects on a space.

Although Peters’s research is continuing, he has already worked with an international team to build a meeting room whose form is a physical manifestation of acoustically driven design. Called the FabPod, and set within the open-plan office of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology Design Hub in Melbourne, Australia, the space looks nothing like the conventional corporate meeting room. Frankly, it’s much cooler – like a cavern somehow formed by a cluster of bubbles. And it likely sounds much better, too.

Rather than straight, parallel walls, which cause flutter echoes (which are “seriously annoying,” Peters notes), it is enclosed by hyperboloid “cells” (the goblet-like shape loved by architect Antoni Gaudi, and suspected to be responsible for the excellent acoustics of his Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona, Spain). The cells help scatter the sound in a way that the conversation is clear, loud and resonant enough to be understandable, but not so quiet that it’s “dead.” Each is made from a different material that helps the acoustics: felt for absorption, for example, or aluminum for reflection (“Some reflection helps with communication,” says Peters, “you don’t want to kill all the sound”).

But the bigger challenge is to take the modelling, measuring and design methods necessary to create something such as the FabPod and apply them to a whole, acoustically tuned building (one, maybe, that neutralizes the hum of outdoor construction while making meeting conversations clear and understandable). It won’t be easy. “While the tools for room acoustics are limited,” Peters says, “tools for building acoustics are non-existent.” For now, anyway. Peters recently received some research grants (a Connaught New Researcher Award from the University of Toronto and a grant from the federal Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council) to develop new sound-and-design tools – tools that one day might help the city sound symphonic.

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