Spaces are saturated with noise or moving imagery, which is pushing consumers to seek solace in soothing environments with limited distractions. Katie Baron, senior editor of retail and spaces at Stylus, investigates noise-management systems, contemporary cocoons and sound-absorbing materials fuelling the desire for quiet
The Quiet Space
In search of comfort and tranquility
I have seen a growing consumer desire for spaces that offer solace from the hyper-connected, image and noise-saturated modern world. This is leading to a new wave of residential and commercial spaces that present a sense of intimacy, calm or relaxation. New forms of architectural cloaking and camouflage are helping to 'quieten' the visual landscape; many of these ambitious designs are being fuelled by new materials innovations.
The digital management of sound and the dampening of excess noise through absorbent materials are moving beyond specialist spaces into everyday hospitality and home environments. Consumers are reacting positively to soothing spaces that provide a level of intimacy, retreat or relaxation, in retail, home, work and leisure spaces. Intelligent precision sound-management systems and tactile yet functional materials are combining to allow spaces to be aurally manipulated in unprecedented ways.
Cloak & Camouflage
Dampening visual noise
With urban environments becoming increasingly crowded, designers continue to explore concepts that minimise visual clutter, including industrial architecture.
An example of this is by American artist Ned Kahn. Working with international design studio Urban Art Projects (UAP), he has created a camouflage for the multi-storey car park at Brisbane Airport using a shimmering facade of 250,000 individually mounted aluminium panels. Suspended 1m from the building, they move with the breeze, cloaking the structure and allowing it to blend into its surroundings.
Diffusing colour through layered materials is another method I've seen used to soften imposing structures. The educational farm and eco-museum in Rosny-sous-Bois, France - designed by French practice SOA Architects - is masked by a layered polycarbonate facade in numerous opacities and shades. Appearing like a blur of plant life, the structure acts as camouflage, maintaining visual tranquillity.
Another example is the Aichinger House in Kronstorf, Austria, designed by Austrian studio Hertl Architekten. This employs extraordinary exterior curtaining to soften the appearance of the former commercial space.
Designing Calm & Intimacy
I've noticed that the idea of cocoons as structures, creating pockets of intimacy, is also growing in popularity. This is directly feeding consumers' desire for spaces that deliver respite from the hyper-connected modern world.
The installation Rock Chamber by Israeli designer Arik Levy for the Bisazza Foundation exhibition space in Vicenza is a homage to solace: a cave-like cushioned pod upholstered in yellow fabric with a single, central light source. Discussing the space, Levy commented: 'It's not the escape that is important but the lack of private, calm and relaxing spaces around us. Designers have not yet started to pay attention to these issues other than in the work environment.'
My favourite adaptation of this concept can be seen in the work of French artist, Laurent Grasso, who's Anechoic Chamber in Hong Kong explores the need to retreat. Two further effective uses of fabric to create a cocooning are in the gym of the Benedictine Archabbey of Pannonhalma, Hungary, and the Dental Bliss Clinic in Bangkok. For a summer festival, the Archabbey was transformed into an intimate performance space, using rolling layers of translucent polypropylene suspended from the ceiling. The design, by Hungarian architects Dániel Baló, Dániel Eke and Zoltán Kalászi, used material to reduce echo and soften the hall's stark contours.
The Dental Bliss Clinic, designed by local studio Integrated Field, has subverted traditional clinical styling through the creation of a cocoon-based aesthetic. Translucent curtaining, warm lighting, modular cushioned leather seating and a palette of whites have been deployed in the waiting area to reduce the anxiety experienced by patients and foster more frequent visits.
The cocoon concept is also evident in the retail world. An excellent example was seen at the beginning of the year in the London Selfridges' No Noise initiative. This included a Silence Room - a tranquil lounge space inside which visitors were asked not to bring their shoes or mobile devices - and a Quiet Shop, where consumers were only able to purchase debranded luxury goods. The space was created in collaboration with British meditation organisation Headspace and alternative lifestyle magazine The Idler to promote ways to live a more balanced life.
The desire for softness is also manifesting as an aesthetic. Soft and warm-looking materials, including bleached wood, leather and brass, encapsulate intimacy in Australian skincare brand Aesop's shop in West Village, New York. Designed by the Australian March Studio, the simple interior features gently curved ceilings and leather flooring panels. Fixings are hidden to create an intimate, calming ambience. The interior also echoes the Selfridges initiative, in the noticeable absence of branded signage and promotional material.
Quietness without silence
While loud noise in hospitality environments can be frustrating, silence can be just as undesirable. I have seen a number of new innovations helping align sound to venue, shaping ambience.
American audio solutions hub Meyer Sound Laboratories premiered its Libra and Constellation sound management systems in a Californian restaurant in 2012. Combining sound-absorbing textiles, microphones and hidden speakers, the sophisticated systems dampen acoustics in echo-prone areas while creating a low-level wash of sound using remixed recordings captured within the space. Controlled using a tablet interface, they allow for precision acoustic dynamics. Much of the Constellation system relies on the properties of key interior materials to create acoustic buffering. The materials are hidden in the restaurant's decor as printed art canvases, burlap sacks, salvage denim and Tectan - a relatively inexpensive, acoustic-absorbent material.
American-Canadian design practice RVTR's research project Resonant Space, devised with international lab Arup Acoustics, is a generative sound system inspired by traditional Japanese origami techniques. It uses a three-pronged approach to manipulate spatial acoustics; the geometric system integrates reflective, absorptive and emission panels comprised of bamboo and expanded polypropylene.
Individual panels of the facade react to sounds created within their vicinity and adjust their positions accordingly, allowing acoustics to be responsively tailored. The research holds great potential for musical performance and recording spaces.
While hi-tech electronic systems may be at the sci-fi end of innovation, developments in foam cell structures and felts are aiding the quest for quiet in homes, work and leisure spaces.
Global materials company BASF's Basotect melamine resin foam is highly regarded for its acoustic and visual qualities. Manufactured in 50,000 hues, its web-like structure is easily shaped and offers superb thermal and acoustic insulation. It has been used as a decorative, sound-absorbent element in the Barceló Raval design hotel, Barcelona, the Children's Museum of South Dakota, and in the interior of a Russian helicopter, designed by Moscow-based Vemina Aviaprestige. By adding custom-made, 40mm-thick sections of foam to specific areas of the aircraft noise levels were reduced significantly, making on-board hearing protection redundant.
Environmentally conscious Finnish materials specialist Konto has developed a peat-based acoustic dampening product. Used as an oil spillage absorption material in 2010, the company has since developed fibrous boards for interior use as sound-wave absorbers. The material is manufactured in naturally flecked 20mm and 40mm sheets that can be cut or painted - traits that have led to its use in sound-dampening artworks for public and private spaces.
Other companies are embracing recycled PET felt. The panels in the British sound-reducing tiling system Soundtect comprise 70 per cent recycled material. Relief patterning on the tiles, used on walls and ceilings, creates a homely cosiness in both work and residential spaces. .
Architects, artists and interior designers have always sought to better our environment. Traditionally the problems have been with little or ill-conceived space, poor lighting and impracticality. Their shift in focus, prioritising texture and mood over size and light, reacts to popular feelings of stress and dissatisfaction with the modern, hyper-connected environment. But this movement should not be viewed as a rejection of technology by creative disciplines. On the contrary, the problem is spawning creativity in approach, as inventive designers look to technology to solve the very problems it has supplied.