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  • Echo's Chambers: Architecture and the Idea of Acoustic Space by Joseph L. Clarke
  • Clemens Finkelstein (bio)
Echo's Chambers: Architecture and the Idea of Acoustic Space By Joseph L. Clarke. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021. Pp. 320.

Inquiries into what tethers the immaterial to the material, or vice versa, have propelled practical and theoretical engagements with the built environment throughout global histories of architecture. Sound has often critically typified these inherently complex processes while skirting an otherwise discipline-pervading ocularcentrism. The branch of architectural acoustics scientifically probes the sonic dimension of engineering structures that shelter desirable sound from unintelligible noise. Its historiography mediates the complementary influence of technological progress and cultural formation. Since historian of technology Emily Thompson shaped the field with The Soundscape of Modernity (MIT Press, 2002) two decades ago, few historians of the built environment have thoroughly interrogated the impact of acoustics on the architectural discipline—notably Sabine von Fischer, Olga Touloumi, and Joseph L. Clarke. Echo's Chambers is Clarke's book-length contribution to this burgeoning discourse and formulates an explicitly "architectural history of architectural acoustics" (p. 3).

In five meticulously composed chapters spanning three centuries, the architect and historian operationalizes buildings as "sophisticated sonic media" whose inclusive spatial practices and conceptions afforded modern culture—in implicit European iteration—with a rigorous epistemic toolset of scientific objectivity, linguistic and representational conventions, and advanced sociocultural techniques of listening. The resulting formulation of a distinct "acoustic space" culminated in the mid-twentieth century, Clarke argues, once the rise of electroacoustic media and digital computation progressively disengaged acoustic space from the architectural structures whose geometric procedures and material properties originally modulated it. The book traces this fundamental transformation beginning with the "domestication of echo" in the fantastical architectural illustrations of Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher's Musurgia Universalis (1650) and ending with the conflicted coupling of acoustic/electroacoustic claims in Le Corbusier's designs for the chapel and campanile of Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, France (1955).

Clarke sustains his extensive audit by reconstructing paradigmatic developments via a set of pivotal agents—some canonical, some marginal—whose specific contributions he embeds in a dense weave of cultural history. Marshall McLuhan's media theoretical conception of acoustic space as a synthetic responsive environment permeates all chapters like a red thread, which at times feels labored amid the refined historical narratives. Kircher's "echotectonic" visualizations of sonic phenomena are thus amplified [End Page 295] in the book by unraveling their configuration in seventeenth-century Italy's budding print culture (ch. 1). Clarke likewise draws from the changing moral sensibilities of modern theater audiences in eighteenth-century France to examine the emergence of an acoustic naturalism, epitomized by the concept of retentissement (resounding) and the performative audiovisual spaces of Pierre Patte (ch. 2). Subsequent chapters mirror this structure, allowing the richly illustrated parts to function independently or in conjunction with others, making the book an excellent teaching resource.

The book's most significant contribution unfolds around the lesser-known nineteenth-century German architects Carl Ferdinand Langhans and Otto Brückwald (ch. 3, ch. 4). Langhans's immersive "catacoustic" principles, mathematically approaching the "ungraphability" of sound and abstracting the spatial behavior of reverberation (Nachhall), materialize in dialog with the political maturation of Berlin's Romantic circles and the technoscientific momentum of the physics of vibration. Brückwald's Bayreuth Festival Theater (1876), enacting the "sensory interconversion" desired by the Wagnerian total work of art, emerges similarly as ground zero for the departure from a real architecture of acoustic space towards a virtual one, by means of electrified technology—further explored in the next chapter with Le Corbusier's electroacoustic displacements (ch. 5).

Each chapter reckons with the culturally contingent formation of acoustic space, each concretizing an acoustic concept and its adoption for perception-bound, modern subject formation. Clarke's elegant prose and astute analyses clarify frequently misused or blurry terminology—vibrant descriptions will make readers long for an accompanying soundtrack. It falls short in the emblematic modern conception of vibration, whose complex spatial properties—omnipresent in the contemporaneous discourse—remain obscure, giving attention to the audible dimension only. The book intersects productively with recent scholarship exploring the coevolutionary entanglements...


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pp. 295-296
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