Originally published in OAA Perspectives Fall 2015 on page 8.

Living with teenagers is, among other things, a lesson in tolerating the music of another generation. I’m guessing my father would probably say the same thing. It was my father who got me interested in what is now called classic rock, probably to ensure I didn’t blast new wave music the way my kids blast death metal or dubstep. I was definitely an ardent supporter of louder is better, and identified with the idea that the volume dial that goes to 11 is better than one that goes to 10 (thank you, Spinal Tap).

The proliferation of online streaming, satellite radio stations and, of course, digital files on phones and computers means that there is always the possibility of music, everywhere, all the time. But with that constantly available source, there is an element that’s missing. Silence.

A few years ago, I discovered that the relentless music of my youth had profoundly affected my hearing. I now have about half of it left, and can’t filter white noise, distinguish conversation from noise in a crowded room, hear softly pitched voices, or easily distinguish where sounds come from. Perversely, I’m highly attuned to annoying noises that intrude on an otherwise quiet evening.

Likewise, in a store with music playing, computers beeping, cash registers dinging and people talking, I can’t hear a salesperson’s critical information about the product I’m buying. There are times when I actually have to leave the store because of the overwhelming impact of the auditory assault.

So, as much as I love music, I’ve also come to relish silence, in order to give my mind time to rest, to think and to simply be.

As architects, we are designers of not just the physical environment, but also the psychological, emotional and sensory – including auditory – environment. Whether it is placement of mechanical units, location of windows or selection of materials, both inside and outside the building, noise transmission, absorption and reflection need to be considered.

In our increasingly urbanized society, it is more important than ever that we preserve natural places for silence. And as architects, we need to recognize the importance of quiet refuge from the cacophony of street noise, mechanical noise and the commercial overload of our sensory systems. Creating silence doesn’t sound glamorous, but it is an often overlooked element of design excellence.

So, when you think about music and architecture, as the contributors to this issue have done, give thought to the music that exists in the absence of human creation.1 Consider the opportunity to build silence, where thought, respect and introspection can exist, where one can find peace to better appreciate the sounds of humanity at a lower volume, where the subtlety of sound, and its absence, can be appreciated.


NOTE: 1. It’s worth mentioning the One Square Inch project by sound ecologist Gordon Hempton – an independent research project to preserve space in Olympic National Park that can be devoid of human sound, preserving the idea of silence as a natural element, central to our wellbeing. www.onesquareinch.org