Acoustic architecture before science. The case of Amsterdam's Concertgebouw
Concert halls are designed for attentively listening to music. To guarantee that the listening experience mediated by these buildings is acoustically correct, architects rely upon math- ematical formulas to measure and predict how a building will sound. Armed with these formulas, they are able to experiment with unconventional concert hall designs without compromising the acoustics. The achievements of modern architectural acoustics are a valorisa- tion of the mathematical formulas used to predict acoustics. Indeed, the development of a predictive theory of architectural acoustics by Wallace Sabine in 1900 has been celebrated as the beginning of a new era of understanding sound and acoustic design. However, overlooked in this scientific triumphalism are the aesthetic standards that shape the acoustic design of buildings for music. Sabine’s formula transformed our understanding of how music behaves in an enclosed space, but it did not change our understanding of how music should sound in these spaces. In this paper I explore these points through a history of the acoustic design of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, which opened in 1888. Through an examination of the history of the acoustic design of the Concertgebouw, I describe the process of acoustic design prior to Sabine as a process of aural imitation. With this concept I reconceptualise the history of acoustic architecture to better recognise, first, how Sabine’s theory is simply a more effective form of aural imitation, and second, how the quantification of sound has led to a subjective idea of good sound becoming fixed as an objective measure of what good sound should be.
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