His Master’s Voice

President Charles William Eliot of Harvard unwittingly stimulated the creation of modern architectural acoustics when in 1898 he suggested that Henry Higginson consult with Wallace Sabine, a young member of his physics faculty, about the design of the new Boston Symphony Hall. Higginson, a financier, philanthropist, and owner of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, had commissioned the construction of the hall and he was determined that it keep out the sounds of the world and faithfully render the sounds produced within.

The design of acoustically satisfactory settings for voice or music had emerged as a new architectural problem in the late eighteenth century, when the shift from royal to public patronage of performances called for the construction of concert halls and opera houses on a far grander scale than those required for audiences limited to the circles of courts. For example, the Margrave’s Opera House at Bayreuth, built in 1748, accommodated 450 people; the Teatro alla Scala, completed in Milan in 1778, 2,300. Although the acoustics in most of the boxes were poor, La Scala was on the whole pleasing. All the successful European houses were the products of aural luck and reliable models. Some imitated classical designs; others, like the Neues Gewandhaus in Leipzig, took the form of the shoe-box hall, a long space, rectangular in cross-section with a high ceiling and balconies along the sides. Several treatises attempted to establish geometric principles for assuring the good behavior of sound in a closed space. The original Drury Lane Theatre, in London, designed in accord with such principles, had to be rebuilt because it proved to be both visually and acoustically inadequate.

American architects sought to recreate the acoustical qualities of the good European houses, hoping, in a historicist spirit, to manipulate classical forms in ways that would both create excellent acoustics and associate their name with the structural design. The New York Academy of Music, for example, was patterned after the Berlin Opera House. But the results of such American projects varied in quality and few were wholly pleasing. The breakaway from classicism of Dankmar Adler, the Chicago architect and partner of Louis Sullivan, produced the acoustical triumph of the city’s Auditorium Building, completed in 1889, a functional structure in the American idiom. In designing the hall, Adler made the first use of the design principle advanced by the Scottish engineer John Scott Russell in 1838 (it is still used today)—that to optimize sight and hearing in a listening space, the seating should be arranged on an upward curve away from the stage so that a direct line can be drawn from the performer to the head and shoulders of each listener. But while Adler also held that the surfaces of a hall should be designed to turn sound toward the audience, he offered no dynamic principles—Sullivan said that he really relied on intuition—to account for the acoustical success of this and other spaces he designed, notably Carnegie Hall in New York City …

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