Building sound spaces

by Grégoire Chelkoff + Eléonore Bak

Designing and building space and objects with sound is a stimulating horizon and presents challenges at multiple levels for creative dynamics. These issues are not always understood in the current context and still seem to be highly marginalized. Experiences and attempts to go beyond the stage of a discourse on sounds to create with sounds nevertheless remain a field of action that questions the field of ambiances more globally. Several avenues will be explored through exploratory approaches in this field: architectural sound prototypes, sound planning, sound design, sound objects, creative methods by Grégoire Chelkoff (Ensag /cresson) and Eléonore Bak (Ecole supérieure d’art de Lorraine), involving the physical, sensitive and social dimensions.

Translation : 

Addressing sound in design and architecture, and in the everyday life, has been for us a long journey… Designing space with sounds question both practices, culture, acoustics and technique and perception, whether it is about housing, public spaces or large volumes.

In that portion of time today (30 min, then Eleonore), I will mainly talk about what I called architectural sound prototypes as part of a “passive” acoustic approach (that do not use electroacoustic means).

Of course, we could delineate a long experience in that field, punctuated by the precursors before us. We’re not going to do this today… But we know the ideas, studies and experiences that question a portiong of sonic architecture, from Vitruvius, Kircher, Aalto to Leitner, Neumann, Delage, Bašić (experience with the sounds of the sea), Zumthor and many others, for those interested in what sounds could do to space and uses, creation and design…

Beyond these, the sonic dimension is not a big interest for the architects and urban planners, as it is often studied from the technical point of view, as a nuisance, etc. To revive research and experimentation in that field, we cannot isolate sounds from other factors in architecture. We should isolate less from one another. We talk about climate, ambiance. High complexity.

Instead, I’m going to explain the way I’ve been working before the “architectural sound prototypes” at the beginning of the 2000s. Well after the sonic “effects” were defined and decided. That’s the idea of the field where my ideas stem from.

My idea is to go towards a practice, a spatial making starting from sounds, which involve them in our uses of space. We have carried out in situ studies, whether they were done in public space, collective housing, underground spaces (ex: Louvres, etc.), gardens… and we also did recordings and acoustic metrology of architectures and situations (i.e. of spaces where something happens that produces a sonic atmosphere or effect, which I found interesting). Most of these situations are available on (cf. soundscape)

All of our observations, analysis, listening, survey works from the birth of CRESSON in 1979 guided me towards a more “ecological” approach of design: addressing situations depending on their perception and action conditions, and not just in terms of reception. We don’t have time to discuss that part, but it comes from Gibson, and from some approaches that lead, in my opinion, to a less receptive and representative aesthetics, and more engaging. I will now explain how I arrived to the “architectural sound prototypes”, to what is still driving me. Let’s start from one thing. Sound is pressure and movement. Movement of sound AND movement of the people. Different frequencies – interaction of sound movements with spaces.

One of the conditions not to speak about or turn sounds into an object to gaze at is the following:
Movement generates perception. The experienced space is a movement, therefore: we will hear throughout space while moving, and as Mikel Dufrennes says: “architecture moves us”, it makes us move, space is movement (Poincaré, Berthoz)

My question thus becomes: how to design sound with movement?

I then got interested in “systems” perceived on the body scale while moving, and not in “soundscapes” in general, studied from a fixed point.

Hypothesis that these devices can change/modify the elements that we can perceive via sounds.

The action of “experimenting”, of building spatial fragments, “systems” that must be experienced by the moving body appeared as a necessity (from one school… That of Grenoble, which really highlighted it in other fields). Our first experiences, carried out with Liveneau, started in 2000, when we tried to develop “forming” principles of a singular and “ordinary” or extraordinary sonic experience: going alongside a wall, going through it, leaning in, sitting down, going around, going away, going closer, going up, going down, turning, fitting into a space, etc. Experimenting meant creating a project-scenario, realizing it (problem of materiality) and test it out and observing elements… that could lead to another experiment… quite heavy, collective process, not always easy to carry out, but rich in knowledge and lessons.

Micro-morphological scale. Work on large volumes. To study other scales of perception.

(What is a system? Depending on the readings, it is:

As Michel Foucault announced it on the “panoptic”, it is a way to distribute the eye, embodied in the organization of space and, in his example, as part of a monitoring system (prison).

However, in architecture the concept of system appears to me in a small essay by Wogensky, called “Architecture active” and published in 1972. The reading unveils for me that architecture makes us act, if we give up on his outdated ideas on health, physical milieu, etc. He also talks about simple actions, everyday actions. He thus talks about architecture as made of energy more than material. Also, there is A. Aalto.

Lastly, we have the Le Corbusier’s drawing, representing a partial architectural study (sort of threshold/opening/window), which illustrates to perfection an architectural fragment that directs what I could do with him.)

To go back to my studied reference situations (I use “reference situations” instead of “references” like JP Peneau, which gives it an academic aspect), I ended up exploring very localized situations that made us perceive an ensemble from a particular angle/aspect and that our micro-mobilities (“kinesthesis” constituting our relationship to the world, as Husserl explains) change the sound perception field in a subtle but significant way. It is known in acoustics and also known by the user… who intuitively knows about the use of things (cf. Gibson)

The concept of “device” is stimulating: perceived at body level and with a body, a system provides “holds” or affordances in terms of perception and action. These considerations question architecture and living systems in detail, and different applications can be found in contemporary situations involving the city and architectures. That wasy, I have defined 3 levels of work on the relationship between space, movement and sound: articulations, limits and inclusions.

Illustration of a movement that changes the listening relationship: on the floor or standing, in a garden that is exposed to the sounds of traffic (listening)

Definition of the 3 categories: articulations, limits and inclusions depending on the scope of the movement that generates a change in listening

  1. Articulations: depending on the way I move, forms of differentiation – continue as I move.
  2. Limits/thresholds: weaker scope of body movement – transfer between two sonic milieus. The composition changes subtly, but enough to be perceived. The relationship to the overall environment changes and is transformed. I belong to one environment or the other – we can go in and out of one or another.
  3. Inclusions

Stakes (examples)

Creating sound articulation spaces to consider the differences between “rooms”

Rites of passage between worlds of uses

Role of these transitions in the memory of journeys

Example: behind the scenes 

Creating limit thresholds that allow to belong to two milieus at the same time depending on the observer’s position

Dual stakes of withdrawal and participation: exposure/action

Possibility of choice by the user

In big urban spaces/interior volumes: creating inclusive rooms that prevent from escaping from a dominating ambiance, concept of interlocking

Inclusion: Idea that is more connected to the imagination of one thing contained in another thing. We are included into a sound envelop, but this envelop is itself contained in yet another, bigger one. Feeling of being caught in that first envelop. Large volumes, housing, urban public spaces.

Illustrations of effects in family gardens – compare between a gardener that is standing and that is not. Two recordings – very little difference. But two different levels: ground/head.

1st recording: crouching.

Now: standing – children are audible.

The position of the head in a very small difference in “altitude” still changes the perception.

Three different effects that can accompany our perception of space.

Different versions of one same space. Idea of inclusion that doesn’t require a movement – feeling of Russian dolls; the eye doesn’t necessarily work.

Formation parameters
Distance and nature of walls/listener
Morphology of the envelop contours
Altimeter situations, those are criteria that are meaningful to express myself and make “passive” sound architectural in the way I intend it

In our experience from 2003, it was possible to see how affordances (still Gibson, we can talk about opportunities for action, hold, influence, invitation in France) are sensitized, i.e. how we use, or not, these acoustic abilities for communicative, aesthetic or social ends. This experiment of a bus shelter, double-sided sound system, was carried out. It was interesting to reflect upon sound design and to experiment spatial “systems” that could be included in housing and public space.

Inclusion or limit? We tried to show, in a simple way, how we could make aware of the limits/thresholds. Spatial vocabulary – some sounds can be heard.

Recording work (tests with people – call someone, and see how they interact with that space): footprints were interesting to study, variation in depth, distinction between close/far, turning their back to the sound, we can rely and lean on something. The space was set to simulate a road environment. Staging of the bus shelter – not real conditions, experimental conditions.

From those three elements, I can think about ways to design space to enrich and provide situations to listen and produce. More studies now, students working on systems (doors, openings), ability to produce relatively explicit localised situations to visualise.

We can thus enrich the vocabulary related to ambiances.

More works on textures and materialities, that could mean something in terms of possibilities of accompanying design with sound (with tools)

To think about ordinary situations, we worked on balconies, which are important in housing. A more refined work could bring about interesting situations in terms of limits/inclusions, with the sounds (local or surrounding). Shorter studies, they don’t always end up in fully-fledged forms. Small scale.

How can we generate places to communicate with the inside, but also allow to produce sound, without creating tensions with neighbours. Usual questions in architecture, but that go beyond when we think about the way we move.

On a bigger scale, we worked on recreating paths in wide green spaces, family gardens. Those gardens can create sound situations.


Our language of design is based on operative spatial deformations such as  print, deliting, and fold.

Each of them calls different potentialities of uses, for example :

– print generates hollows in the solid and afford to sit in variable depth so that listening to the soundscape or talking someone could  sound quite different.

– the little space between different layers of wall (deliting) offers limit situation depending on the angle and the distance of the ear and the eye, the oscillation of the head while one is walking according to the slits in the surface may rhythm the listening.

– folds generate an envelope which offers surfaces of reflection near the head and shadow or could afford to lean on.

  • Exploration by students on an opening system that senses a precise signal in a public place
  • Exploration on surfaces with the rhino, grasshopper tools
  • Application on research about balconies, which could be designed based on these articulation, limit and inclusions experiments, to address the relations between inside and outside spaces.
  • With Esquissons, that we started to use and that is developed by T. Marchal
  • It is also possible to reflect on urban scales, like in this case, to re-qualify large green spaces and re-colonise the environment by its uses (family gardens, for ex.) to recreated dynamics of crossing paths and possibilities for phonic articulations, such as limits or thresholds between household and street or “inclusion rooms” that create a localized ambiance.

Question 1: This morning, we walked in the galleries. I’m sure you know this place very well, what can you tell us about it in terms of limits/inclusions, etc.?

Answer: Yes. Some types of passage. Volumetric differences, the passages allow for transformations, which are significant for the place. Either belong to the park, or to the parking lot, etc.

I remember this place in particular. The narrowing, physically and acoustically, creates a compression, and, at the sound level, articulations (not necessarily the result of an act of thinking). Interesting to study the different types of transitions/articulations, etc.

Idea of progression. Studying the experiment time could be interesting. What would be the elements to think those spaces?

How can we do that?

Question 2: In those places of permeability, if there is another material approach, is it possible to draw people in? Utopia?

Answer:  Example of large volumes. Sometimes, long lines. What are the opportunities that these places bring about? (work places: example of Louvre – not possible to get out while working) Interesting to study those spaces in terms of the three aspects, inclusion/articulation/limit etc.

We shouldn’t maybe study the situations in their globality. Choice to position oneself according to a specific point of view. Information desk at the museum: 6s reverberation under the Pyramid. Sonic mass, no hold onto it. Do we tackle the entire volume, or are some parts enough?

Different type of work, in terms of the way we process space.

Question 3: What about the galleries? (Lower ones) Linear space – no use but passage. In terms of sound, sound experiments, could we imagine something?

Answer: Often, the opinion we have of a place depends on the time and the moment in which we observe it. Embryo of uses that can be interesting.

Spatial practice of sound – we can/should/must experiment.

Question 4: Can you talk more about the gardens?

Answer: No project.

Places that were unused – compared to recordings in gardens. The place exists via its soundscape. An environment’s porosity is interesting (auditory/landscape). There’s nothing else. Sort of balance of sounds.

Bring back a sonic colour to a place that no longer has one/doesn’t have one.

To make an architectural project possible, we first need to experiment on sensory experiences. Grégoire’s proposition is very interesting – sensory exploration of gardens as a first step to construction/project. Otherwise, how can politicians tackle the idea of sensory projects? We need to develop a new culture of projects – based on experiences, and what we deduce from experiences.

Urbanistic debates that can be strong at times. Reflections on sounds can question work habits and sometimes reluctant patterns on spatial porosity. It sometimes requires proper criteria to understand the relevance.

Sound in itself has a value. We tend to evacuate the sonic dimension, but it can be interesting and educational –  BUT it’s not trendy for now, which is why I said we had a long way to go.

Question 5: How do we integrate the question of representations and references in situations?

Answer: valid for every situation. Debates here can be interesting with interlocutors. We can’t know beforehand how people will think. Why closing such space if it can be useful? In a concrete way, what is the displacement that we propose? System of power plays.

Debate. It implies a new way of designing projects – inclusion of discussion. Evaluation of agreement/limit/compromises that can satisfy everyone (if possible)

Question of limits. Propositions, discussions, debates. Different positions and points of view. We don’t hide one point of view, we maybe modulate it.

Remark: Time is an important factor to take into account. Turns between the way people appropriate the space. In the morning, specific public. At lunchtime, other public. Later, other one.

But if the space is appropriated by one public at all times, that can create conflicts. Important spaces can be intervened upon, but there will always be unhappy people: make propositions, but offer alternatives/ways to modulate.

Margin for the users.

We can impose one sonic climate. Important to apply that to very small scales, instead of a macro-thinking. (even if that can be criticised, too)

Idea of adaptable/regulation/no-dominance. Many things are yet to be done/still to be done.

Question 6: What about Place de la République in Paris?

Answer: Doesn’t know that space well enough. Idea of unlimited, neutral space.

Work on large spaces (Défense in Paris)

Talking to people that know the space very well: they go out to eat for lunch and try to find corners to withdraw from the ambiance (even if a little). Small distance from the work space, in which we are constantly immerged, day after day. Only space where we feel like we can escape from the bigger environment.

The uses that are born here are set up in their own way. Some people are disturbed by some uses sometimes. Co-existence. Russian dolls.

Interesting differences in terms of urban life.

Remark 7: Médiathèque des Halles (Paris). The library is there, it’s possible to go out, drink, play, dance. We can be in a “library” ambiance with a book, then go to the café. Many places in one space. We can withdraw while keeping contact/maintaining the same activity. No exclusion. Inclusion instead.

Question 8: Concept of Schizophonia. In terms of design, are there limits connected to that concept? Very little sources.

Answer: Fracture in terms of semantics. Interpretations of sound perceptions. Divisions. We often use it when the sound is broken. Depends on the context – careful. Cf. Schaffer (100 exercises on sound and experiences) – first to suggest ways to open the practice. Dark side of Schaffer (culturalism): before, we listened to live music, and now we listen to it after recording. Fracture from the actual experience.

Idea of acousmatic (Acousmatic music (from Greek ἄκουσμα akousma, “a thing heard”) is a form of electroacoustic music that is specifically composed for presentation using speakers, as opposed to a live performance.) First, we listen, and the rest is discarded for the time being.

How can bring together different perceptions? Question of projects/culture of projects. Common experience, realization that we have different perceptions, and that enriches the project. Architectural, artistic angles. We should diversify the approaches on the same public.

Hard to make disciplines meet, which seem to want to own their knowledge. Day-to-day design.

Lots of work to do.

Question 9: Promenadology? Way to appropriate a place, how do you do this, specific practices?

Answer: Terms that gather together everything. We can use it to analyse, then to design. Promenadology is a way to see opportunities + questioning micro-events. How can we transform spaces that seem to create weariness a priori? Russian dolls effect. One space in one space in one space. It already exists, but we are not aware of it, because we weakened our sensitivities. We need to rebuild experiences to re-train our senses. Most people cannot recognize that it’s going to rain anymore, they don’t feel if they’re too warm or too cold. How can we create systems that make us conscious, with another logic of “promenade”, including in a sitting position?

Conditioning that evacuates actions, uses that we are not used to anymore. Importance of education to make us more sensitive again. Enrich our experiences again.

We don’t need a specific method. G.C. likes to trigger experiences. Here is an angle, I’m going to test it in different ways. That’s how you test a place. Repetition of an experience time and again.

Create variations, it’s a way to know an object (for example). Reiterations and repetitions. What if…? What if…? What if…? Way to vary the subject of study to gain a way to apprehend it. Infinite.

Varying experience conditions is extremely important. Scope in terms of perceptions. A “sliver” of methods. Provoking/triggering events is interesting.

Without variations, what can I say?

Historically, many tools were created/implemented. Some come from our field, others come from others.

Each method has its virtues and its limits.

Translation by Sophie Provost

Citer ce billet
juL McOisans (2019, 10 avril). Building sound spaces. Le Cresson enseigne. Consulté le 24 avril 2024, à l’adresse

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