There are many forms through which one can analyze architecture—drawings, models, digital renderings—but they nearly all cater exclusively to the eyes. University of Virginia architecture professor Karen Van Lengen, FAIA, wants us not only to look outside the box, but to listen to the environment inside the box, expanding our sensorial experience of architecture for a deeper understanding of design. She recently launched a digital project meant to do just that.

Van Lengen’s “Soundscape Architecture” project analyzes 13 iconic buildings, from Grand Central Station to the Taj Mahal, interpreting them visually, aurally, and acoustically. “It comes out of thinking in terms of how to promote the consciousness of our aural requirements in architecture and in our public realm, in general. It’s a difficult issue, because we are predominantly a visually-based discipline," Van Lengen says. "We promote architecture visually, we write about it visually, we think and teach about it with only the visual aspects in mind."

International Building Lobby, Rockefeller Center from Karen Van Lengen on Vimeo.

For years, Van Lengen thought about ways to promote an auditory understanding of architecture and worked on several related projects. In 2012, Van Lengen became a fellow for the Institute for Advanced Technologies in the Humanities under director Worthy Martin and started working on Soundscape Architecture with artist Jim Welty and musician Troy Rogers. Their goal was “getting people to listen to their own environments” and to “understand the public realm through listening,” she says.

Van Lengen spent several days recording the sounds heard at each building, then selected a 60-second sound clip she considered to be most characteristic of the space. “There is a general aura of background sounds for all sound clips. In those, there are particular sounds—someone drops something, the wheels of the train coming into Grand Central Station, silverware clinking—there are particular sounds overlaying the general aura of all sounds making up the background,” says Van Lengen.

The “particular sounds” in each clip provided the working material for 3-D animations of each sound-bite. Van Lengen created images, including ambient background drawings and interpretations of those sounds that stood out from the background. Welty used those drawings to provide an animated interpretation of the aural experience.

For his part, Rogers used the authentic sound clip to produce a new musical composition—an intensified interpretation of the original—meant to “further [enhance] one’s appreciation for the diversity and richness of its aural character.”

Each building’s aural analysis includes the most influential factors in creating the recorded sounds: the interaction of the building’s architectural volume and configuration, the approximate number of people occupying the space, and the composition of materials.

The auditory experience may be hard to quantify, particularly in architecture school, Van Lengen says. But it is nevertheless an important part of the design process. “Our perception of architecture is much richer itself and deals very much with the aural environment, but we don’t use it as a method of analyzing or designing," she says. "That kind of thinking is something we could use in the architecture world."