Acoustic’s Space in a Sense of Place

Keith Hewett Lead Acoustician Associate Director

Look at any architect’s master planning documentation for a new scheme for a development and you will invariably see the emotive catchphrase, ‘creating a sense of place’. With Australia’s population growing every year there is a need to build more and more dwellings to accommodate everyone. This means redeveloping and repurposing existing sites in urban areas and releasing new greenfield sites in fringe and outlying areas. Whichever it is, new communities arise. There is a growing trend towards ‘Place making’ as a planning theme for these new communities, often combining residential, commercial, retail, entertainment and even public transport hubs into so called mixed use developments. The idea being that they become a lifestyle destination in their own right. A place to work, rest and play! Just like the Mars Bar ads.

It is logical as well as scientifically proven that a person’s experience of a place or space is a result of the sum of the senses and the memories and thoughts evoked by the physical environment. It is easy to join the dots to conclude that the sense of hearing is an important human body sense that has a marked impact on helping us form a subjective view of our environment. Anyone who has ever entered an anechoic chamber, where there is no reflected sound, will attest that the sense of balance is impaired as the brain looks for auditory information to understand the physical space around it. And it is nigh impossible to deny that music has the power to change moods….the list goes on.

The existing view of acoustic consulting held by the majority is one of noise control. Noise is defined as ‘unwanted sound’, and ‘it must be quashed to meet energy based criteria if we are to have liveable communities’ is the cry! This is a glass half empty mindset. What if sound in a given environment could be treated as a resource to enhance a person’s experience of their environment? Of course there will always be an element of noise control required, but by thinking of the acoustic environment with a holistic view, to be moulded, shaped and designed to titillate the combined senses we can create an overall experience of a place to be savoured and enjoyed.

Noise control is anything but cheap and follows the law of diminishing returns versus cost. By using the glass half full approach some sound sources classified as noise, such as a busy road or rail line may potentially be used constructively in the holistic design of a mixed use precinct to create an experience of delight and interest. A successful acoustic environment does not mean simply quiet, or only hearing the sounds of nature. An appropriate and desired acoustic environment may equally be lively, frantic, a mix of juxtaposed opposites or an augmented design using passive acoustic phenomenon, such as focussing and resonance. Active sound installations may also play a part.

Some may recognise this concept with the ‘soundscaping’ tag, which is not a new idea. However, it often conjures images of fancy, ‘cheesy’ and expensive sonic art installations and therefore, not applicable to functional community precincts. This definitely does not have to be the case and is only a tiny part of what soundscaping can be.

It’s high time that acoustic consultants, are acknowledged as designers and invited to the party along with other creative disciplines to sit at the table as equals with architects to put the creative ambience into their creative vision!

So there! Time to get off my soapbox and take a breath?