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How Buildings Sound

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Derek Sugden, the dean of acoustic engineers, who has died at the age of 91, remained perpetually surprised that architects could be so concerned with every aspect of the building they were designing ‘but not really with what it sounded like’. According to Sugden, ‘the sound is as important as the surface and the feel. It’s important because our ears define for me the nature of space.’

That realisation first came to him as a boy, out on a family walk. As they entered a long brick tunnel, the children asked their father to whistle (he was an expert performer). Sugden noticed the way the sound was transformed once they were fully encased by the curving walls.

Sugden’s first job at Arup was engineering elegant steel-framed factory buildings, but in 1966 he started work on the conversion of Snape Maltings to a world standard concert hall. When it burned down a couple of years after opening (‘I had a cry,’ Sugden said), Benjamin Britten wanted it built just as before, with the fullest possible volume, which Sugden had achieved by raising the outer shell walls by a metre.

Arup Acoustics was the specialist division of Ove Arup’s empire which he asked Sugden to form and head in 1980. They were specialists in concert halls, necessarily the most demanding building type for an acoustician, but there are many others in which sound is all important to their use, both in terms of pleasure and practicality. Take libraries. The great atria favoured in the newest generation of city libraries may be bright and cheerful but they contribute to a cacophonous effect, a clattering void at the centre. So exceptions are all the more welcome, such as Canada Water library in the London Borough of Southwark, designed by CZWG. Design attention has been given to absorbent materials and irregular forms, even if their efficacy can be challenged by free ranging small children.

Most confident institutions, commercial or cultural, pride themselves on immense echoing entrance spaces, hard surfaced and highly polished, in which the tap of a pair of heels is enough to shatter glass. The Great Court at the British Museum, by Foster Associates, is a horror. Sitting on the stone benches in the ‘outdoor’ café, your physical discomfort is matched only by the auditory impression, an incoherent clatter and buzz from every side that makes conversation difficult.

The more recent transformation of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam by Cruz y Ortiz takes its responsibilities to an immense visiting public seriously. Enormous frame-form baffles hang from the Gothic Revival roof of the original atrium, while several interior windows are blanked out with fabric ‘shutters’ to keep resonance at a minimum. Thousands of people come and go (the café is in a separate space beyond) and the experience remains convivial and pleasurable, sound levels no higher than a gentle hum. Yet nothing is made of this achievement in features on the renovated museum in the architectural press: Sugden was right, architects don’t hear.

In a short film from 2011, Sugden talks of the essential qualities of giving time to sitting, thinking or reading, or, better still, sleeping in a chair – a daily ritual for him. It is the perfect coda to a working life that was devoted to ensuring comfortable sound levels, decent audibility and, where required, acoustic perfection for anybody who is listening.

Comments on “How Buildings Sound”

  1. Simon Wood says:

    I went back to my hometown, Peterborough, last week, which has an ambition of being the greenest city in Britain. My brother told me of visiting new showhomes, flats, which costs only £100 a year to heat and were triple-glazed: you could hear nothing from outside, not a dicky bird.

  2. peterstewart says:

    Sugden was also an architectural patron – in the 1950s he and his wife commissioned a house designed by Alison and Peter Smithson. A inspiration for those architects today who promote the bricky ‘new boring’ architecture seen on recent housing schemes everywhere, the Sugdens’ house was listed in 2015.

  3. Sugden is a sad loss, but we still have Leo Beranek who in a very full life has found time to design a number of opera houses and concert halls:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leo_Beranek

  4. JohnMcKean says:

    Beranek is a most odd comparison with Sudgen. If you look at the Wikipedia reference given by Michael Carley you might think all he did was write about acoustics. No, he was employed on real halls, most notably – and most disastrously – at the Lincoln Center which basically had to be rebuilt it was so bad. (To be fair, Beranek did claw his way back, decades later, and is praised for his work at Tokyo Opera City.) There is nothing at all comparable in the career of the most wise and much missed Derek Sugden.

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