“What am I building?” I ask it nearly every day. Often the answer is the same, a convenient cloak for the numerous uncertainties and possibilities the question engenders: I am building a quiet room.
Keep it simple. The walls are made of OSB (oriented strand board) and foam insulation. I have built a door and a corner window out of bent acrylic. When I close the door, the sound outside drops a considerable amount, although I can still hear the other tenants in the warehouse using saws, forklifts, and generators. So it’s a quieter room.
Quiet is a good starting point. Not silence, or anything approaching the sound isolation achieved by anechoic chambers. I am working to transport someone from the multi-channel drone of a larger environment into the single channel stream of a small space. So far I have used the room as a lunch room, a meditation room, a phone booth, and with two friends and some Bad Religion, a rock-out room. It’s a place to get away from the clamor of my workshop and contemplate the future of architecture.
The construction of the walls is important. I am building a room-within-a-room. The outer layer consists of the OSB wall and closed-cell foam insulation to dampen sound. The inner room is entirely detached from the exterior room save for the floor, which rests on rubber isolation pads.
The room also achieves “quiet” by adding sound. Here’s another distinction between silence and quiet. Silence is oppressive and close-ended. Quiet is generative and open-ended. Silence as a verb is what we do to people when we don’t want to hear their voices. Silence as a thing is an eerie void, a vacuum of life, a blankness. Silence is the lack of all sound. Quiet, on the other hand, is a condition which permits the creation of sounds which fits into a coherent mood or atmosphere. Quiet is a space in which we can communicate clearly.
I can add sound to the room via transducers. Four transducers are installed in the floor, with another sixteen planned for the walls. The beauty of the transducer is that the technology is invisible. Whatever a transducer is attached to becomes the vibrating surface, akin to a speaker cone. The finished walls are the speakers, with the transducer operating in the interstitial layers, heard but not seen.
Creating a quiet room requires cutting off and controlling the intake of air from outside the room. Hence I have had to give the ventilation system a lot of thought. A fan placed directly over an opening will allow too much noise from outside. The fan noise itself also needs to be cared for. Air also has to be pulled in from below.
Considering the practicality (the necessity) of bringing air into the room is also an opportunity to think about the air itself. Architecture is a vessel for air, and air carries lots of things with it. Warmth, coolness, dampness, dryness, smells, flavors, narcotics, ….sound. An architecture about sound is like an architecture about air. Air is not perceived through the photograph (unless it carries moisture, dust, or smoke). Air is typically transparent in a photograph of architecture. We are meant to experience architecture as though air is inconsequential. Yet the most memorable experiences I have had walking through a building or in a space is how the air touched me. The smell of an earth floor, touching my nostrils. The sound of a fish market in Tunisia, crushing my ears. I like that saying, “Sound is touch at a distance” because there is a lot to architecture which is about touch, and touch at a distance.
Coming up next: the interior walls. I have been testing out acrylic for the walls, so far with very positive results. It sounds great with the transducers. I also really like the effect of the ghosted white acrylic. The material itself is ambient. It diffuses light and, employed in this quiet room, it will be diffusing sound as well. Over the next few weeks I will be installing wall panels and experimenting with the kind of sound I will be playing within the quiet room.