“Imagine floating, surrounded by nothing. There is air to breathe but no ground or surfaces of any kind. There is no gravity. You clap your hands a single time. A spherical wave of sound expands outward in all directions. It passes your ears and continues away from you, never to return. This is the driest possible acoustic environment: anechoic, no reflections,” writes Zackery Belanger. An expert in acoustic architecture and founder of Arcgeometer, a Detroit-based creative studio, Belanger studies the sound of our built environment in connection to the objects and surfaces around us. With a background in physics and architectural sciences that allows him a multidisciplinary approach, he talks about an intuitive bridge. He describes his essay, “Acoustic Ornament” as “six hundred words that emerged from a long and turbulent confrontation with acoustic architecture—a process slow and uncertain, with a purposeful arc, and more akin to artistic exploration than scientific research.” Here, he talks about the crisp, white, pocket-size, design object-resembling book that was launched a few weeks ago at the Design Museum of Chicago during the fitting occasion of the “All Together Now: Sound x Design” exhibition, and why sound matters—in architecture, design and beyond.
How did you first get into acoustic architecture? In what ways has the field changed over the years?
In 2002 I was in Chicago studying architecture and searching for a summer internship. Options were scarce for a student with a background in physics. A Google search yielded architectural acoustics, which wasn’t a field I was aware of at the time. I was hired as an intern at Kirkegaard Associates and decided not to finish my architecture degree. A lot has changed since then, but the most exciting for me is that CNC technology is making dedicated acoustic surfaces more visually interesting.
“Acoustic Ornament” discussed the objects and surfaces that surround us in connection to the sound of our built environment. Tell us about the common ground between sound and design and the ways it affects people’s lives.
We are always surrounded by sound, even when things seem quiet, and nearly everything around us influences that sound. That includes people, clothing, objects, surfaces and our rooms. There is an intrinsic connection between our designed environment and sound because one helps to determine the other, whether we realize it or not.
Your interdisciplinary practice spans art, architecture and science. What are some of the greatest advantages and challenges of blurring the lines between disciplines?
Spanning disciplines allows me to more effectively bridge the gap between acoustics and architecture/design/art. That can mean connecting with and influencing the creative work of others, or developing my own. I might help an architect design a wall surface, or help an artist anticipate the acoustic influence of a piece they’re developing. I might produce a screenprint of a beautiful moment in my own work, or project a silent acoustic simulation to understand or express an idea. Science informs all of this, but creating can be so powerful that I often step outside the established role of consultant. The core goal of “Acoustic Ornament” turned out to be expressing ideas that have roots in science in ways that can influence creative work.
What parameters do you have to take into consideration when designing with sound in mind?
My thinking on this has evolved with my understanding of sound. I rely on my ears less than I used to, and more on my understanding of form and material—and form and material are often best understood with our eyes. I find it liberating to work in acoustics in a way that is driven by the precision we can get from light.
The book also serves as a design object. Can you talk about the idea behind the design?
I felt it was important to harness the technology of the book, which allows independent objects to spread out across the world with undetermined, uncontrollable paths. Some are probably destroyed, lost, forgotten, unread, preserved, shared, worn, and maybe even beloved. Hopefully a few are in back pockets right now, which is how the book was sized. I like the thought that some may last beyond my time, and may be discovered after decades on a shelf somewhere. We can’t anticipate such things for digital files. It was designed by Annemieke Beemster Leverenz and is intentionally minimal. It’s an object, too, so it has a slight influence on the sound of its environment.
What are you hoping the reader will take away from this book?
Inspiration. The book intentionally avoids pushing the reader toward any particular design aesthetic because their imagination is more infinite than anything I could come up with.
The book launch party is taking place at the Design Museum of Chicago during “Sound x Design.” What are your thoughts on the exhibition? Do you have a personal favorite—a piece that strikes you as particularly fascinating?
The exhibition is lovely, and there aren’t enough exhibitions on sound, so congrats to the Design Museum of Chicago for tackling this. Personal favorites: I have two. One is Ricardo Mondragon’s “Triangular Harmony,” for finding a realm of common beauty between steel and music. The other is Rachel Steele’s “Remixing Transit.” Sometimes we become enamored with translating sound into visual forms. This piece is made only of sound; it uses a tiny black device with headphones, and it makes you forget everything visual around you.
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