Feeling It; Exploring Sound and Space and their Contribution to Aural Architecture

by Caitlin


In this essay I will be examining the discipline of aural-architecture and discussing artists who work in this field. I will be exploring the term aural architecture, and zoom in on the idea of sound as a means of shifting architecture into a sensory and embodied realm. I also spend time assessing the impact of a sonic reality in a predominantly occularcentric world (LaBelle, 2006). I will link aural-architecture to Lefebvre’s discussion of space, and the divide between mental, physical and social space (Lefebvre, 1991). To conclude I will discuss the impact of spatial and sonic studies on the emerging field of aural architecture and explore similarities between notions of social space, and interaction with sound led art installations.

So lets start with Aural Architecture. The term refers to a broad field of study that examines the interplay between architecture and sonics (LaBelle, 2006). It’s roots date back to the 1950’s when artists such as John Cage and Oskar Fischinger were examining the social location of sound outside the cultural and architectural constraints of the music hall, stage, theatre and church. During Cage’s practice he made controversial and notable challenges to the idea that sound was a child borne of the practice and theory of music. Creating works such as 4’33 and Silent Prayer challenged audiences to listen to the silence in between the music for an entire performance, and in the case of Silent Prayer, Cage challenged the popularisation of Muzak, by countering a repetitious and dragging soundtrack played in the background of shopping malls and retail centres with the broadcast of silence. Both these works are important for aural architecture, as the manipulation of convention and use of sound (or silence) as a medium, was repeatedly located in unusual cultural and physical spaces not associated with traditional modes of cultural production /consumption, and often outside of venues associated with musical or sonic performances. Sound became the leading medium to challenge and redefine social conventions associated with particular spaces such as the mall and the music hall.

There is not time to give a whistle stop tour of the historical distinctions made between sound art, sound and music, I will save that for another essay. Let us now focus on sound over music, and look to the sonic artwork of artists Max Neuhaus and Bernard Lietner, two artists who have been working with space, site and sound, and aural architectural practices for over 30 years. I intend to refer to their work as examples of artists who work within the discipline, and then draw out shared attributes of their practice. Lietner is an artist and lecturer, who originally trained as an architect at the Technical University of Vienna. Since the late 1960s, Leitner has been working between architecture, sculpture, and music, conceiving of sounds as constructive material, as architectural elements that allow a space to emerge. He belongs to a set of artists who work in the area of sound installations, and is regarded as the pioneer who introduced sound into installation spaces. He prefers to strip his installations of visual forms, fully immersing the listener in an auditory landscape (Archdaily, 2011). For Leitner, the exploration of space and sound is done through the medium of the body, and it is this interest that underpins his physical – sonic architectural installations that envelop the senses of the visitor (not viewer). Within the same channel of thinking is Georgina Borns assertion that the act of listening is inherently embodied (Born, 2013). It is widely acknowledged that sound is concerned with the act of listening, in both the conceptual and physical sense. In Leitner’s case, the body is part of the perception of sonic artwork. He expresses such values in statements such as “I can hear with my knee better than with my calves.”


Bernard Lietner, Sonorous Presence, Sound Installation

Max Neuhaus was a classical musician and sound artist who also understood the sonic relationship to the human body and geographical environment, and a sense of specific place. His work was concerned with sound installations and sound sculptures, often situated in a particular place, where site was part of the conceptual and material content of the final work. Neuhas started as a professional musician, giving performances of pieces by composers including John CageKarlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez in numerous music halls. He then went on to focus on sound sculptures that worked with electronic sound that would emanate from particular sources, in relation to their location in specific sites. Notable works include Drive in Music (1967), Siren (1989) and Time Piece (2003; 2006). His work uses site as material, and his interests lie in the exploration of how sound, when installed outside the conventions of the gallery, music halls, or concert hall is shaped and influenced by the social and natural forces at play within the installation. This interest can be grouped under the term expanded field (Krauss, 1978), which refers to the turn in sculptural practice in the 1970’s where sculpture, and sound work situated itself in conversation with the complicated and unpredictable forces of landscapes, environment and architectural spaces. The expanded sonic field was integral to Neuhaus, who was particularly interested in the sonic terrain of the city. In his work Siren, he made multiple recordings of alternative siren sounds including spacious pauses, to allow public normally spooked and made anxious by the colloquial sound of emergency service sirens, to still be alerted but not alarmed, and the pauses to provide space to locate the source of the siren and move out of the way in a calmer manner.


Both Neuhaus and Litner have been producing sonic work that interacts with space and place, the expanded field and the body since the 1970’s. They both belong to the discipline of sound installation art and the auspicious beginnings of aural architecture. This medium of expression is a characteristic of aural architecture in the sense that sound installations bring into conversation spatial, cultural, geographic, physical and architectural aspects with sonic expressions, be they live, acoustic, electronic, amplified or site specific. As Brandon LaBelle elaborates “Sound-space interplay is inherently conversational in so far as one speaks to the other. When sounds occur they are partially formed by their spatial counterpart” (LaBelle, 2006, p. 149). Sound installation art is a medium concerned with a technical, aesthetic and emotional understanding of the conversation between sound and space. LaBelle argues that a broader sonic-social architectural environment has been sculpted overtly through the medium of the sound installation. This relates back to music concrete’s and early avant garde sound artists interest in separating sound from the conventions of concert hall and creating a specifically conceived and designed space that hosts immersive listening opportunities, and less frequently, site specific on demand recordings. As LaBelle expands, “the project of the sound installation, and sound art in general, stages the integration of the sonic with the built, nurturing mutuality between sound and space, which at time must also be heard as argumentative, antagonistic and problematic. Sound installation activates this intersection, intervening with architectural spaces and making sonic additions” (LaBelle, 2006, p.150).

We have examined a brief history of two artists who paved the way for the emergence of aural architecture, however there are many more that could be named and have made significant contributions to the discipline. For now, we will break apart the term and unpack it, examining the composite conceptual parts of that discipline. These two strange siblings, from very different ancestry but inextricably bound, are the phenomena of sound and space. In this section I will go into more depth discussing definitions, histories and interdependencies of the two conceptual and physical siblings.

Let me start with the phenomena and study of sound. As we have seen, sound is distinctly different from music. Bound by a heritage of cultivating private and public aesthetic experiences, music and sound have both been used to create specific, emotive, symbolic and atmospheric expressions. The capabilities of both music and sound have accelerated with a blooming availability of sound media in the late 19th century (Born, 2013, p. 3). While music is described as organised sound, sound is often described in terms of a perceptible audible environment. To perceive and define both forms of auditory expression, is the ability to hear, and more than hearing is the ability to listen. Michele Chion posits three definitions of listening, that refer to various modes of perception of sound and differing approaches to listening and perceiving sound. These are reduced, semantic and casual (Chion, 2012). Meanwhile the founder of the term soundscape R Murray Schafer describes a soundscape as the perception and interaction with an acoustic environment. To engage with sound is become aware of, attuned to the auditory space, and often an arbitrary and environmental one at that. Music is the conscious construction of part of that soundscape, whereas sound is the study of, manipulation of, and relationship with an independently occurring sonic environment.

Sound is imbricated with different sorts of space, and is not a supplement or addition to that space as music is. Maryanne Amader details the distinction between music and sound. “In regular music you don’t have any models to learn about spatial aspects, because usually the performers are on stage or the music is on the record and you don’t really hear things far away and you don’t really hear things close up and you don’t hear nothings and you don’t hear things disappearing and appearing and all these kinds of shapes emerge” ( Labelle, 2006, p.172). It is this connection between spatiality and sound that aural architecture as a term emerges, the fundamental sonic and spatial interdependency of the source of sound and it’s behaviour on a physical and cultural level after the sound has been made. Sound is ultimately a conceptual term given to an awareness and manipulation of the incidental and intentional aspects of an aural environment.

With the increasing ability to convey emotional, geographic, logical, and all sorts of other information through sonified means, came an examination into sounds ability to describe, convey and shift perceptions of space. Academic and sound expert Steven O Connor of Cambridge University suggests that “the most important and distinguishing aspect of auditory experience is its capacity to reconfigure space” (Born, 2013, p. 3). He argues that with a more readily available sonic cultural expression, has shifted perception from a Cartesian rationalised grid of visual imagination to a more “fluid, mobile and voluminous conception of space” (Born, 2013, p. 3). With the advent of sonic worlds, and sonic expressions has come a shift in perception of space, and indeed new mediums of representation such as sound installations and an interest in deep and reductive listening. While it is possible to observe how space shapes sound and sound shapes space, lets us first examine some existing definitions and theories of space.

Historically speaking, the first conceptions of space, Lefebvre claims, were originally referred to as a mathematical terms. Definitions of space included theories and terms such as non Euclidean spaces, x dimensional spaces, and curved spaces (Lefebvre, 1991, p 2). However, through this abstract definition a rupture occurred between the conception of different types of spaces; there was the abstract concept of space, achieved through mathematical abstraction and the idea of immediately tangible notions of space, expressed as conceptual, social or ideological space within a social context. In The Production of Space Lefebvre posits three basic taxonomies of space. He asserts that the broad study of space is concerned with the logic-epistemological notion space and social space, an abstract and mathematical representation of ideas of space. More specifically, he presents three key frameworks of space that deviate from a metaphysical conception of space. The first definition he posits is the conception of physical space, an idea he claims is equivalent to the notion of the cosmos, in as much as physical space is a microcosm of the universe at large. Again, to expand on in another essay. Secondly there is mental space, that can be distilled to logical and formal abstractions, akin to mathematical accounts of space, and lastly there is the term, social space, which is cultural, linguistic and relational (Lefebvre, 1991p. 12).

Within this vein of thought Lefebvre asks the question, does the concept of space reflect differing concepts and explanations of the universe. This may seem like a conceptual chasm, but the two are related in looking at historical prowess and effect of dominant epistemologies that have shaped our world views, and indeed our methods of philosophical enquiry for exploring definitions of and theories around the phenomena of space. He questions the validity and credibility of an epistemology that pursues a singular teleological definition of the universe, and other philosophical explanations of social and natural phenomena. Lefebvre criticises the pursuit of a universal theory of existence and a nomothetic account of reality, and instead introduces us to the work of astronomer and cosmologist Fred Hoyle. Hoyle was an advocate of the theory of panspermia and refuted the big bang theory, instead arguing that life on earth came about through the existence of seeds of life that took the form of cells and viruses deposited by comets, and therefore there are multiple strains of life originating from multiple deposits of basic life forms, instead of one singular theory of how life came to be. You may ask why are theories of cosmology important at this stage of thinking about space, sound and aural architecture. In my mind there is a big link between universal theories of existence and theories of space, and indeed theories of cosmology and philosophical ontology. The cosmos is the fruit while philosophy is the seed of the same fruit. Ontological positions are important here, again we see tensions between the reductive scientific approach and the ideographic approach, which express the tensions between the well-established conflict of ontological approaches of verstehen and erklaren. In the pursuit of a single theory of existence, there is a reductive approach to reality that limits the existence of multiple theories and valid experiences of reality, and indeed the multiple literal, emotional, cultural, poetic, abstract and sonic experiences spaces.

To conclude let me attempt to answer the question; how do sound and space relate, and how does the basis of this physical conversation contribute to the discipline of aural architecture? Space, Lefebvre postulates, has three main forms. In the relation of the phenomena of space to sound I will focus on one of three taxonomies of space that Lefebvre calls the social space. It is this particular type of space that shares characteristics of sound. Both share non linear, relational and context specific characteristics. Social space is based on the observation and comprehension of social codes specific to that space, while sounds resonance, reverberation and quality is sculpted physically by the shape of space it falls into. Neither are consistent in their physical and conceptual expressions of ideas into action, they are dynamic and perpetually changin. As LaBelle claims “acoustics offers a relational exchange between sound and space” (LaBelle, 2006, p.149). He perceives sound and space as inseparable, locked into a symbiotic relationship. At the crudest level, sound cannot exist without the space that received sound waves, rhythm, and frequency, and sound shapes the way sound is perceived by the subject beholding it. Another significant relation between sound and space, is that both phenomena place the listener within it rather than in front of it; both are embodied sensory data that envelop the individual interacting with it. Further, it is claimed that sound as a sensory stimuli that is ephemeral, dynamic, inconsistent and embodied. Taking these forms it chips away at the Cartesian rationalism that has anchored cultural identity, dominant epistemologies and assumptions stemming from a rationalist and positivist world view. Georgina Born elucidates in more detail by quoting Steven o Connor, with the development of modern sound media, “the rationalized, Cartesian grid of a visualist imagination has given way to a more fluid, mobile and multi-faceted conception of space” (Born, 2012, p. 3). Unlike visual representations such as drawing, painting and sculpture, sonic representation is not static in time. It does different things to the body and the mind. Labelle claims that sound lends to space, and specifically architecture an immediate, sensual vitality (LaBelle, 2006). Sound doesn’t honour one sense over the other, it is inherently multi sensory. With sound, unlike sight you can perceive it through two or three senses at once, it reaches into us instead of statically remaining in front of us. Labelle elaborates, claiming that sound “operates though intensity, through ephemeral events. It’s immersive and noisy, it can’t be easily contained. It operates according to different notions of borders and perspectives” (Labelle, 2006, p. 150). With borders and perspectives in mind let us link the ephemeral, multi faceted and non linear nature of sound to Lefebvre’s discussion of social space as complex system, fluid and context specific. “Social space is not a thing amongst other things, nor a product among other products; rather it subsumes things produced, and encompasses their inter-relationships” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 73). Space is not a single thing, rather can be expressed as a set of relationships between subjects and objects. Social space contains it’s own language of form, materiality, use, appropriation, gesture and production. It is a physical and semiotic language that can be decoded using interpretive and semiotic analysis. There are many meanings imbricated into the fabric and form of one given bench, many utilisations, connotations, and mimetic meanings attached to a couple of planks of wood held together by metal.

We have examined the phenomenological and perceptive similarities between both sound and space, but how have these attributes shaped thinking within the discipline of aural architecture? Aural architecture stems from the term acoustic architecture that has focussed on the science and perception of sound within the built environment (Labelle, 2006). At the same time, like many other traditional fine arts, the architectural realm has been historically understood through graphic representations and occularcentric acts of beholding. It is argued that visual representation, the mark, the sign, the image belongs to the same linguistic tradition as the printed word. The definitions of space and sound as outlined above, and the fluid, multi faceted shape of both help to situate the beholder into an immersive, embodied multi-sensory world, and we interpret them using sight and conceptual abstraction and interpretation. Aural architecture belongs to more complex and relational modes of perception and knowledge and at the same time seeks to expand on the binaries and reductive logic embedded in our culture since the enlightenment. Many philosophers have sought to argue that cognition, thinking and perception lies beyond conceptual and linguistic abstraction and mental cognition, and aural architecture is a discipline that examines the role of social behaviour in the cultural and pragmatic utilisation of sound, sound installations and the built environment of urban centres. Specifically practitioner / researchers such as Brandon LaBelle, Steven O Connor, Max Neuhaus, Bernard leitner and many others identify the embodied, fluid, non linear and abstract attributes of sound and their effect of traditions and methods of comprehension, perception and communication. Henri Lefebvre meanwhile explores the history of philosophical accounts and explanations of space, and explores the features and uses of different sorts of space, as well as interrogating the means and uses of the cultural and economic production of space. Through this brief journey of thought it is possible to see that the shared characteristics of space and sound are the fluid, non linear and multi sensory idiosyncrasies and complexities that validate the discipline of aural architecture and make it a relevant lens to look through when we ask who are designing our cities, towns and rural environments. Through this lens of enquiry, those interested in urban design, urban ambiances and the affect of sonic and spatial material can better examine which professions, policies and budget sheets are paying attention to the affect of sonics and space, and ask how aural architecture could be improved, added to and developed.



Born, G. 2013, Music, sound and space: transformations of public and private experience, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Chion, M. (2012) The Three Listening Modes. In The Sound Studies Reader, edited by Jonathan Sterne. London: Routledge.

Krauss, k. (1979) Sculpture in the Expanded Field, In October, Vol. 8. (Spring, 1979), pp. 30-44. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

LaBelle, B. 2006, Background noise: perspectives on sound art. New York;London: Continuum.

Lefebvre, H. & Nicholson-Smith, D. 1991, The production of space, Blackwell.