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Architectural Acoustic Wonders


In a recent article, we toured the world in search of nature’s most amazing acoustic phenomena. Along the way, we discovered a symphony of unique voices that contribute to the vast and varied soundscape of our magnificent planet. From singing sand dunes and crackling auroras to moans and groans, chirps and chirrups of creatures of air, land, and sea, our world is alive with sound.


Humans haven’t served only as the appreciative and awe-struck audience of nature’s orchestra. We’ve also been her pupils, learning our lessons in the science of sound from the world around us.


Drawing inspiration from nature’s orchestra, humans have, across the millenia, created their own acoustic masterpieces. So let us take you once again on a journey around the globe to find some of the world’s most awe-inspiring, human-designed acoustic wonders.



Chichen Itza


Mayan pyramid of Kukulcan El Castillo in Chichen Itza, Mexico
Mayan pyramid of Kukulcan El Castillo in Chichen Itza, Mexico

When you think of marvels of human acoustic design, it’s not unreasonable to conjure a more modern image, such as the perfect acoustics of a concert hall, opera house, or church basilica. The reality, though, is that humans have been making splendors of sound for thousands of years, dating all the way back, in fact, to the Stone Age. 


Take, for example, the ancient Mayan temples of Chichen Itza. Constructed in the fifth century C.E., this vast ceremonial complex formed the religious, cultural, and political heart of that great Mesoamerican empire, striking wonder and awe in the hearts of citizens and terror and trembling in those of the enemy. 


Modern scientists have come to realize that the temple complex was not only built for visual grandeur but also for acoustic marvels. Researchers have found that the specific shape and placement of each wall, temple pyramid, and path creates a unique sound wave pattern, a particular configuration of sound wave echoes and reverberations that result in a loud, almost chirping sound resembling the cries of the quetzal, a bird sacred to the Maya. As the preeminent Mayan religious site, the chirruping acoustics of Chichen Itza only amplified, both literally and figuratively, the status of the priests who presided there as the true messenger of the gods.



Whispering Gallery, Grand Central Terminal


Whispering Gallery, Grand Central Terminal

Photo Credit: Wanderer of the World


The typical soundscape of New York City can be described in some pretty predictable ways: loud, noisy, chaotic. Yet there’s one particular area of New York City where it’s not the sound of honking horns, speeding traffic, or rattling subways.


In a discrete and now-famous corner of the Grand Central Terminal, you’ll find an incredible spot where, if you want to make your voice heard, all you need to do is whisper. At the Whispering Gallery, all the architectural elements come together in one specific spot to create an acoustic wonder. 


It all boils down to a simple matter of shape and texture. The Whispering Gallery sits at the convergence of low arches supporting a domed and tiled ceiling. If you stand in one corner facing the wall, and a friend stands at the other, you can speak in a normal voice and be heard as perfectly as if the two of you were standing side-by-side. 


That’s because the shapes of the walls and low-slung ceiling, combined with the fragmented texture of the tiles, reflect and redirect soundwaves, creating zones of sound that make it possible to be heard at a great distance and despite what you can safely bet is some pretty intense background noise!   

 


St. Paul’s Cathedral


St. Paul’s Cathedral

As we’ve seen, for centuries, whispering galleries have made for wondrous soundscapes the world over. Whether in the sacred spaces of Chichen Itza or the bustling modernity of Grand Central Terminal, whispering galleries can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. A subway ride is suddenly inflected by the wonder of the natural world. An ancient ceremonial site echoes with the voices of the gods.


Perhaps nowhere is that integration of the secular and the sacred more evident than in another world-famous whispering gallery–that of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Amid the stunning architecture and breathtaking art, you will find a site that is a true acoustic wonder. Like the arches at Grand Central Terminal, the Whispering Gallery at St. Paul’s actually refers to a specific location in this massive building, a circular walkway located nearly 100 feet above the crossing of the nave and tucked just beneath the Cathedral’s monumental dome. The curvature of the walls and the low dome of the ceiling mean that a whisper here can carry distinctly to the other side of the gallery–nearly 110 feet away!



Xiqu Center, Hong Kong


Xiqu Center, Hong Kong

It’s probably not surprising that a concert hall would make the list of human-designed acoustic wonders, but of all the world’s most impressive performance halls, Xiqu Center in Hong Kong is a true standout. Officially opening its doors to the public in 2019, Xique Center features the latest and greatest innovations in acoustic engineering. From the concave timbers to the insulated walls and acoustic drapes, the theater is designed to perfectly serve every performance need. The Center’s acoustic innovations enable audiences at the furthest reaches of the auditorium to clearly discern murmured speech on stage. They serve to amplify and enrich singers’ voices, bathing audiences in the 1000+ seat auditorium in an ocean of sound and an operatic experience like no other.



Sound Mirrors


Sound Mirrors

Acoustic engineering isn’t only about pleasure. Some of the world’s greatest acoustic innovations were borne not from religious or aesthetic motivations but from public safety ones. Consider, for instance, the “sound mirrors” of Dungeness along the British coast. The predecessor of modern radar systems, these enormous structures were first erected in response to the advent of aerial warfare in World War I and were designed to capture soundwaves and provide an early warning of incoming aerial attacks. 


As the German blitzkrieg pounded the English countryside during World War II, the building of these simple but highly effective structures surged, offering civilians and military forces alike a life-saving alert of the assault to come. Though sound mirrors have long since been replaced by more advanced technologies, many sound mirrors remain along the British coasts, where they continue to draw tourists, listening now not for the drone of enemy bombers but by the murmur of the sea.



Building 87


Building 87

Photo Credit: Microsoft


To this point, we’ve spent a great deal of time focusing on acoustic wonders that capture, amplify, reflect, and even distort soundwaves in fascinating and sometimes even mystifying ways. But there’s another innovation that doesn’t play with sound, it squelches it. It’s called Building 87 at Microsoft Laboratories in Richmond, Washington, and it’s widely believed to be the quietest place on earth.     


So intense is the quiet at Building 87, in fact, that humans can only tolerate it for brief periods at a time. Inside this anechoic chamber, you won’t actually hear silence. What you’ll hear, instead, is the sound of your heart beating, of the blood pulsing through your veins. You’ll hear your bones and joints grinding and your organs churning. You’ll hear the air whirring through your lungs. And that means you’ll experience a soundscape that not many can endure for very long!



Designing Your Own Acoustic Wonder


At FSorb, we are proud to be the industry leader in acoustic design. We offer state-of-the-art, eco-friendly, customized solutions for every space and purpose. From public buildings to office spaces to warehouses, factories, schools, restaurants, and hospitals, we have the solutions you need to design your ideal acoustic space. Contact your local FSorb representative today to discover how FSorb can help you make your acoustic design needs a reality.


 

FSorb

At FSorb, we are motivated by improving human health and do so by creating eco-friendly acoustic products. Our mission is to help designers build beautiful spaces that reduce excess ambient noise while calming the human nervous system. With over 25 years in the acoustic business we stand behind FSorb as a durable, environmentally friendly, and low-cost product. If you want an acoustic solution that is safe to human health at an affordable price, then we are your resource.


(844) 313-7672


 

Sources:

  1. Siah CJR, Goh YS, Lee J, Poon SN, Ow Yong JQY, Tam WW. The effects of forest bathing on psychological well-being: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Ment Health Nurs. 2023 Aug;32(4):1038-1054. doi: 10.1111/inm.13131. Epub 2023 Mar 2. PMID: 36864583.

  2. Hansen MM, Jones R, Tocchini K. Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing) and Nature Therapy: A State-of-the-Art Review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017 Jul 28;14(8):851. doi: 10.3390/ijerph14080851. PMID: 28788101; PMCID: PMC5580555.

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