In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Overhearing History:Sound as Historical Material
  • Pamela Jordan (bio) and Dr. Sabine von Fischer (bio)

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Figure 1.

Swiss acoustician Franz Max Osswald's 1930 photographic study comparing concave fluting and troughs for sound propagation in a cinema hall, taken in a two-dimensional model filled with water. (ETH Image Library, ETH Zurich)

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Dr. Sabine von Fischer is an architect, architectural critic, historian, and writer based in Zürich, Switzerland. Her research focuses on the interconnections of acoustics, sound, and architecture amid the technological advancements of the twentieth century. She has held research positions at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, and ETH Zürich. She has lectured and published widely, including her recent book Das akustische Argument ("The acoustic argument"; Fischer, 2019; English translation is forthcoming). In the following interview, Pamela Jordan and Sabine von Fischer discuss recent interdisciplinary research projects, the challenges posed by considerations of sound in historic architecture, and the important role historians have to play in helping develop this understudied aspect of historic place.


Sabine, it is a pleasure to speak with you today. You have researched and written extensively about sound in architecture. How did sound and epistemologies of acoustics first enter your work?


I grew up in a musical family and enjoyed concerts, but when I studied architecture at ETH Zurich, I completely ignored the elective course in acoustics, as most of my classmates did. It was only later that I took the class, when I returned for my PhD in history and theory after practicing architecture for a number of years. It was a long detour before weaving acoustics into architecture, and I found upon arrival that there are many different ways of bringing these disciplines together. That also fascinated me. Acoustics is a discipline entangled with physics, psychology, neurology, communication, social studies, and many more fields besides architecture. In fact, one of the problems with the history of sound in architecture is the methodological challenge inherent in the multidisciplinarity of the subject. I think those who work professionally with acoustics have a very broad mind-set. And you cannot work with sound without acknowledging the complexity—that can be a wicked problem!


So you really identified sound as an interdisciplinary question from the start. Did any of your PhD advisers have experience with the history of sound?


Not really, not in relation to architecture. The complexity probably leads a lot of people to shy away from considering it historically. But I really enjoyed the interdisciplinary setting of the research because it helped me broaden my horizons to other disciplines and new ways of looking at architecture. [End Page 133]

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Figure 2.

Artist Max Neuhaus's sonic study of the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue in New York City for his sonic art installation Times Square, 1977. (Silvia Neuhaus, private archive)

I think it's important to bring an attention to sound into the field of architecture. My ambition is to do research not only from the traditional perspectives of art and architecture but also from the history of STS (science, technology, and society studies). This is where sound studies is often positioned. Something fundamental has changed in the history of architecture recently: the history of technology is no longer considered a separate field. So it was also important for me to bring these fields together. I also wanted to consider everyday situations and designs in my research rather than only major works, since most publications about architecture and sound so far have focused on concert halls and opera.


That focus on the everyday is evident. Your research covers a wide range of subjects, from early acousticians' influence on architectural design, to the changing materiality of domestic spaces and the resulting shifts in sonic expectations of privacy. And you have discussed in your work that sound can function as evidence. How do you approach sound as evidence?


Well, one of the other challenges to doing this work is that there is no proper...


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