[Image: Photographer unknown; spotted via Medium.]
A design constraint I would sometimes use while teaching was to throw in an unexpected change to the project brief: this cluster of buildings you’re designing is now sponsored by Netflix, REI, Philips, etc. The point would be to think about how this might affect the resulting project—its streets designed as an open-air prototype of smart-lighting techniques, say, or an office campus now featuring climbing walls, artificial rivers, or small-group cinema projection booths. (In turn, the purpose of this was simply to remain flexible as one pushes ahead on a particular assignment.)
The prospect that always seemed one of the most interesting to me, though, was a company such as Dolby Laboratories: an audio services firm who might sponsor or commission an entire building or suburb, a new community somewhere designed for how it sounds. Six new houses pop up down the street from you next year and they’re a cross-platform collaboration not in high-end embedded speakers and such like, but in actual structural audio, like Joel Sanders’s Mix House scaled up.
For example, recall Nate Berg’s piece on the design history of roadside noise barriers. Although there is an almost Coen Brothers-like comical subplot to Berg’s story—as industries throughout Los Angeles, from homebuilders to classical music performers to Hollywood film studios, confronted the deafening and ever-growing roar of all the damn freeways being constructed everywhere, like some urban-scale act of self-inflicted hearing impairment, people screaming on telephones, What?!, no one sleeping at night, a city gone insane—the primary takeaway is simply that overwhelming sound sources inspire structural changes elsewhere. You build a freeway, in other words, then someone will build that freeway’s acoustic opposite, a shield or dampener.
In any case, it was thus interesting to read about what the New York Times calls “a pair of giant noise-canceling headphones for your apartment” designed by researchers in Singapore.
The system uses a microphone outside the window to detect the repeating sound waves of the offending noise source, which is registered by a computer controller. That in turn deciphers the proper wave frequency needed to neutralize the sound, which is transmitted to the array of speakers on the inside of the window frame.
The speakers then emit the proper “anti” waves, which cancel out the incoming waves, and there you have it: near blissful silence.
If you read the full New York Times piece, it seems clear that the system currently has several drawbacks: it is visually ungainly, for example, it cannot counter human voices, and it still lets in a lot of sound.
Nevertheless, the idea of a new building, town, or entire city offering its residents sonic amenities beyond just Bang & Olufsen speakers or similar seems long overdue. For that matter, combine luxury frequency-reduction techniques with seismic wave-mitigation and perhaps you’ve just designed the future of architecture in global earthquake zones. At the very least, someone’s living room will sound better at night.
(Related: Body Sonic / Coronavirus Surroundsound.)