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Can you hear a building?

BBC Radio 4’s Hearing Architecture suggests you can.

By Antonia Quirke

Something’s gone wrong with my eyes. Should be all right in a month or so but I can’t read or watch TV or movies. That ought to suit a radio reviewer, but the thing is – I miss all of those things. Visuals are easier to consume. Finding sound sufficient takes focus. 

“On Saturday morning I went for a bike ride up on the hills. On Monday I reported for surgery. On Wednesday I was blind,” says Californian architect Chris Downey in “Hearing Architecture” (16 June, 11.30am), an edition of Art of Now that taught me a lesson or two. After losing his sight in his forties ­after the removal of a brain tumour, Downey assumed he’d have to abandon his line of work, but has instead thrived ­designing “acoustically dynamic buildings”. 

Holes drilled in wood to absorb sound, carpet sparingly positioned; the tiniest modulations in sensation conspire to perfect his constructions. “Nice shoes,” Downey will occasionally say to someone walking on asphalt, thrilled by the timbre of certain textiles against it. Corners of rooms are a favourite, not just what they’re built with, but their precise tilt, their proximity to ­entrances and walkways. 

All his clever talk of materials and ­tactility took me down a podcast rabbit-hole, delivering me eventually to the American design show 99% Invisible, and specifically to the 400th episode. It’s called “The Smell of Concrete After Rain”, which is one of “250 Things An Architect Should Know”, according to New York design critic Michael Sorkin, who died in March, aged 71, of Covid-19. 

More of these things include “the distance a shout carries in a city”and “how close is too close”. And (one for Downey) “how to sit in a corner”. Such a good list, with a hint of Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. A dash of European modernism. 

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And as 99% Invisible’s presenter Roman Mars made his way down the list, you could hear that he knew it well. He sounded so ­intimate and forceful it reminded me that, firstly, you can’t beat proper enthusiasm and, secondly, that the best audio is nearly always better than the best telly. Because there is no place to hide. No distraction. You’re stuck – sometimes, magnificently – with the essentials. 

Hearing Architecture
BBC Radio 4

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This article appears in the 10 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, A world in revolt