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What does a comfortable space sound like?

Eleanor Young

From courtrooms to restaurants, Eleanor Young can’t help hearing the echoes of spaces in sound

The quiet echoes of a clock ticking.
The quiet echoes of a clock ticking. Credit: KitHamilton iStock

The sound of my grandfather’s house was the grandfather clock, amplified by the parquet floor of the hall. When the clock came into to my own home it had a lesser presence; it competed with the noise of kids but, more significantly, was muffled by rugs and soft chairs, the stuff of life. It no longer marked out time with an echoing tick that evoked the calm and emptiness of its former home. 

We are in the midst of recording the second series of our podcast RIBAJ Meets (hear the first one here). So my ear is becoming attuned to listening to spaces. If there is no recording studio cushioned with zigzag foam shapes then other sorts of softness have to be sought. The tricky reverberations of Eric Parry Architects’ airy, disciplined meeting room will be supplanted, when we record, by the cosy carpeted caretaker’s room on the roof. Professional Teams backdrops replaced the bright duvets and stuffed bookshelves of children’s bedrooms when we recorded the conversation with Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios remotely. 

In a home, spaces typically progress from hard to soft. There is a practical response to dirt and hygiene, especially in a society where people don’t always leave their shoes at the door. And the progress is a balancing of public and private where softness spells greater intimacy. 

That softness is hard won for outsiders. Think of the shift from being a caller at the door to being a guest where you have to accept hospitality and in doing so, in the most fundamental way, make yourself vulnerable by taking a seat on the sofa, and relaxing into it. Here voices are lower, conversations gentler, sentences longer.

Ancient court or mediation spaces in at least one culture were low-ceilinged, where people bent their head to enter. Sitting down alongside old enemies the rhetoric changed, there was a levelling out. How different from our courts, where legal combatants stand up to fight it out in grand, timber-panelled, high ceilinged rooms before a judgment is handed down from on high. 

In lockdown the sound of conversation has been harder to grasp. We have seen how Covid’s hard Perspex screens and muffling masks in noisy supermarkets stop that chit-chat at the counter. Lost too have been those impromptu gatherings after Friday mosque or school drop off. At 2m apart it is hard to huddle as a group and share those inconsequential stories that make up the fabric of our lives. 

But now we are getting back to inside gatherings and architects again have a role to play in defining how we talk. Those most alert to sound are the architects working on theatre and performing arts buildings. I would argue that the least attentive are designers of restaurants, where the visual show takes precedence over auditory comfort in a remarkable number of venues, all those hard bouncy surfaces pushing up the sound levels, notwithstanding the last minute addition of curtains. When you are hoping for a busy hum it is disconcerting to end up with a cacophony – particularly when you are paying the bill for the conversation as much as the food. It would be worth taking some lessons from the arts – and perhaps the soft velour chairs too.