Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. TV & Radio
10 June 2020updated 03 Aug 2021 12:35pm

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. 

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

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

Content from our partners
A healthy conversation, a healthy career
A sustainable solution for inhalers
Why modelling matters: its role in future healthcare challenges

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