So, with acoustics being so important, why don’t architects create curved walls and ceilings?
This is why you might find it hard to put curves with artistic imagination into your architectural practice.
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“Aalto’s treatment of the undulating wooden ceiling of the lecture hall is of great historic importance. The architect today appears nowhere as hesitant as in the region of the ceiling, above the reach of everyday functions. Here, to a large extent, is a freedom of opportunity to excite the plastic imagination of an artist. The solution of the problem of spanning space has always been an indication of the creativeness of the period.”
– Sigfried Giedion (1941)
The undulating wooden ceiling of the Viipuri Library is definitely one of the most exciting elements of historical architecture. Both the organic wooden material and organic form not only bring the outside surroundings inside, but also they also blend, visually and emotionally, the interior space back out into nature. The freeform of the ceiling and wall is an interesting solution to creatively spanning spaces. It is something that sets our imagination free.
Mystery in a curved wood ceiling
The original ceiling was probably built on site by shipwrights about 100 years ago. The construction process was apparently stressful, because there were no drawings and Aalto took many decisions and changed details on site. Sadly, the original ceiling was destroyed following WWII and rebuilt in the late 1950’s. The result was far from Aalto’s original ceiling and the detailing was poor. In 2000 researchers accidentally found the ceiling mockup model in his basement storage and a definitive restoration was made. Each of the wooden strips forming the ceiling was tongue and grooved to its neighbour and nailed to the suspended heavy wooden ribs of ceiling frame. A total of 9 kilometres of wooden strips was installed to make up the ceiling. In his design, further to any acoustic intention, we can see the undulating ceiling is a logical way to hide the structural concrete beams of the building.
“In the intimate hall of the Viipuri Library the irrational curves of the ceiling glide through space like the serpentine lines of a Miro painting. Of course, the architect himself can prove, with meticulous acoustic diagrams, that the undulating form he gave the ceiling enables sound to reach the human ear more perfectly. Here, therefore, scientific reasoning and artistic imagination have merged to free architecture from that rigidity which is today an ever-present menace.”
– Sigfried Giedion (1941)
Aalto claimed that the lecture hall was 99 % acoustically perfect. A bold claim, but what did that mean considering that this was some 100 years ago. Yet, we definitely see his acoustical considerations in his sketches and drawings. Aalto seems to have made perhaps the most considered acoustical treatment of the hall of the Viipuri Library by “convexing” the concave ceiling while considering the sound reflections for concave and convex surface.
Sound diffusion with a curved wood ceiling
The undulating wooden ceiling became an iconic image for acoustical ceilings and an inspiration for many architects working with acoustical issues. Generally the acoustical design of a lecture hall includes efforts to get as much as reflected sound energy to the back of the hall, because the direct sound is weaker here than at the front. It is known today that the acoustical (sound) diffusion properties of an undulating ceiling are greater than with a plane ceiling.
“The more precise the objective starting points can be – as an example I here think of the practical and theoretical room acoustical field – the more absurd it seems that for instance a concert hall is designed from a decorative main idea. The congeniality between form and content has for all times been the characteristics of great architecture.”
– Sven Markelius (1889-1972)
Where did Aalto find the inspiration for his work in general and specifically for the ceiling of the Viipuri Library? We know that Aalto found his inspiration through friendship with the Swedish architect Sven Markelus and he used the acoustics of concert halls as an example of the new rational relationship between function and form.
High quality acoustics
When it comes to music and concert hall experiences, we can’t just isolate the perception of sound. The experience of music in the concert hall is about full interaction of our senses. We can’t measure our tactile experiences, but it is clear that materials and surfaces give certain feeling and influence our perception of the music performed. The great concert hall experience is the result of the collaboration between musicians presenting their intuition of sound and music and architects presenting the feeling of form and material.
Aalto often used wooden linings on the side walls to make the whole room appear like a wooden instrument or act as a violin or, maybe, as a well-meant attempt to control what is the key to room acoustics: the reverberation time. For the musical experience we prefer an almost equal reverberation time at all frequencies. So we need a wooden lining on the side walls to absorb the low frequencies, so that the reverberation time gets balanced. The normal use of thin wooden lining causes low frequency absorption and a lower reverberation time in the bass. The effect of this is a lack of acoustical warmth. Yet, we experience the wood as a visual warm surface. So to improve the acoustics and to get a better harmony of perception in the concert hall, we ought to use thick wooden lining or have the wood linings securely cemented to the solid construction behind for better and more natural sound.
“We see the depth, the smoothness, the softness, the hardness of objects; Cezanne even claimed that we see their odour. If the painter is to express the world, the arrangement of his colours must carry with it this indivisible whole, or else his picture will only hint at things and will not give them in the imperious unity, the presence, the unsurpassable plenitude which is for us the definition of the real.”
– Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1945)
Vision reveals what the touch already knows. We could think of the sense of touch as the unconscious of vision. In the phrase, ”through vision we touch the sun and the stars”, Merleau-Ponty describes his idea of one of our senses. Our eyes stroke distant surfaces, contours and edges, and an unconscious tactile sensation determines the agreeableness or unpleasantness of the experience. The distant and the near are experienced with the same intensity, and they merge into one as multi-sensory experience.
Wood is a sustainable material in nature. It is often proposed as a material promoting perfect acoustics. It was believed to be responsible for “singing tone” and was regularly included in the design of concert halls. Although wood has no magical acoustical powers, it is often used in the design of rooms for music, because its visual association with violin family gives it tremendous emotional supplement to a musician’s creativity. The warm colour of wood, for example, can bring the visual and acoustic intimacy in the built environment. However, a concert hall is not a violin. The walls of a violin must, in part, flex to radiate sound out of the body of the instrument into the surrounding air. The walls of a concert hall must contain sound for listeners inside. Wood paneling that is free to flex can absorb low frequency sound and detract from the warm sound of a concert hall. That is why when using wood in concert hall design, it should be used sparingly, and it should be constructed to act as much as possible like concrete by being bonded to more massive materials, rather than attached with an airspace.
OK; it’s your turn!
Do you like the work of Viipuri Library by Alvar Aalto, with its wavy form and integrated acoustical element as a part of the overall architecture?
Remember that this was done nearly 100 years ago, but we are still only rarely able to create curved ceilings in our built environment? Why?
Well good news – you now can design a seamless, and natural sound landscape by WAVY® Acoustic – would you like to find out how to simply build such a soundscape like Aalto’s?