The Vocabulary of our Surroundings


Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of our species is our adaptability. Like most birds we may be characterized as shelter builders; but unlike the birds, our shelter forms are not apparently woven into our genetic code. We build our shelters to suit our environment rather than find suitable environments to build shelters in.Like all shelter builders, our structures are opportunistic - and while at first blush it would appear that the basic premise of a shelter is to keep out intrusion - interlopers, insects, animals and weather - our shelters often serve a stronger need to need to keep ourselves in. If this were not the case, any simple insulated strong-box would do as a dwelling. We define our autonomy and field of influence by our architecture - our living containers. With this comes the myriad and diverse ways we have of defining ourselves by our surroundings.

We find meaning in our architecture. It helps us establish who we are and remind us of our dreams. In the tides of our esteem and emotions, hopefully we can return to familiar places to dwell – to help us recollect our larger purpose and remember how our original intentions fit into our surroundings. In order to have this, we modify the elements of our architecture to compliment our sense of confidence, mystery, security, focus, direction and placement. Having established that sound perception is a profound affector of these senses, the book moves on to explore how we perceive, build and modify our surroundings:

"...In the design of the "Remember the Children" exhibit at the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum, the visitors were led through an emotionally moving and disturbing portrayal of a young child's 10 year oddessy through the European Holocaust, culminating in the recreation of a concentration camp scene. After the Camp area, the final space within the exhibit was named "Do Something" and was referred to as the "decompression area" by all of the design team. It was recognized that some form of ceremonial landing was required for the visitors after having experienced this moving portrayal of a dark episode of inhumanity. Initially this room was designed to be comforting - cozy with carpeted floors and very highly dampened ceiling. We advised that much of the sound absorptive treatment be removed from the ceiling because the room ran the risk of being overly cozy, inducing the visitors to stay in the space, drinking in their first real comfort after a 15 minute emotional nightmare. The space immediately outside of this exhibit into which they exit is a huge reverbrerant hall of brick, masonry, concrete, glass and steel - exacerbating the disturbance of any transition from a more intimate and comforting space. Had the "decompression area" remained too warm and cozy it would be likely that the visitors might not want to leave, thereby creating a traffic problem... "

"...In St. Paul's Cathedral, London, there is a whispering gallery within the central dome. At the apex of this is a copula, perhaps two meters across, within which you can climb and be suspended a full 64 meters (210 feet) from the floor of the cathedral. It is in this space that you can distinctly hear every conversation taking place in the entire church. It's almost as if the dome acts as a collimating lens to project a miniature acoustical model of the cathedral interior up into the interior of the copula. It would be interesting to know whether the church put any agents up in the cupola to listen in on the congregation from that secret place. Unlike the Catholic Church, the Church of England didn't have the surveillance tool of the Confessional; but how much better would be the confessions given unwittingly in the passing comments of co-conspirators on their way to and from the Church?

"A similar acoustical spying strategy was employed by the Sicilian tyrant Dionisius I in the ancient quarries of Syracuse. The quarries were used as labor camps for thousands of Athenians held as prisoners from the Battle of Syracuse. Dionisius had a 200' long structure built at the top of one quarry modeled after the human cochlea. It was said that from the end of this grotto he could hear every conversation occurring in the quarry - the better to keep tabs on clandestine plots of escape or uprisings..."