As a young architect preparing for her licensing exam, Karen Van Lengen spent countless hours studying in the voluminous reading room of the New York Public Library. There, she came to think of the sounds of the oak chairs scraping across the terra-cotta floor as the roar of the lion statues regally guarding the entrance to the building.
Throughout her career, including her decade as the dean of UVA’s School of Architecture, Van Lengen says she has always felt drawn to and inspired by the sounds of buildings. Now, she has launched a website called Soundscape Architecture, a virtual library of sounds of iconic buildings from around the world. Her collection of sounds of New York City buildings and a corresponding art installation by artist Jim Welty are on exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York.
“We live so much in a visual-image oriented culture that we have begun in architecture to forget about the real experience of the interior of a space,” Van Lengen says.
Last year Van Lengen completed a fellowship with UVA’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, during which she collaborated with a team to produce the Soundscape Architecture website.
“The whole intent is to have people stop and actually listen,” says Worthy Martin, acting director of IATH and associate professor of computer science, and “to have the sound, as a spatial experience, provoke a reconsideration of the architectural space.”
One example is Grand Central Terminal in New York. “If you stand in the middle of Grand Central, and you close your eyes, it is a beautiful oceanic sound of people coming and going, activities happening,” Van Lengen says. “You can hear the tinkle of silverware and the trains coming in.”
It’s among 20 spaces featured on the interactive website, which was a team effort with Martin, Welty and composer Troy Rogers.
The website aims to raise awareness about sound in buildings, both among students of architecture and the general public.
Van Lengen uses a binaural microphone to create a 3-D sound experience that she then edits down to 60-second intervals. Then, with colored pencils, she draws her interpretations of the sounds, which Welty then turns into digital animations. “It’s a little bit like Fantasia,” she says.
At the City Museum of New York, the exhibit, called “Soundscape New York,” is an immersive experience, with a nearly floor-to-ceiling screen showing the animations.
“It reminds you when you’re in the space again, to think about it in a different way,” says Donald Albrecht, the City Museum’s curator of architecture and design.
Van Lengen hopes to bring “Soundscape New York” to the architecture school when the exhibit ends in June.
Visit the Soundscape Architecture website.