The aural architecture of many modern spaces is created by architects, space planners, and interior designers—professionals with little appreciation for the subtle aural impact of their choices.
Broadening the concept of aural architecture still further, we include the creation of spatial experiences where a physical space does not actually exist, so called virtual, phantom, and illusory spaces. While listening to recorded music in our homes, we experience a virtual space created by a mixing engineer who manipulated a spatial synthesizer in his recording studio. There never was a performance space. By defining aural architecture as the design or selection of a spatial experience, without regard to the means of implementing that experience, a wide diversity of social and artistic examples in cultures spanning thousands of years can be embraced. Aural architecture is as old as civilization.
Even though an aural architect is a cultural abstraction, we can still examine how social and culture forces influence spatial designs. Over the millennia, a series of progressive changes in the relationship between aural architecture and its social use resulted from an evolution in artistic attitudes, changes in the prevailing theology, and shifts in the way that the senses were used to experience physical and social environments. The difference between adapting a cave for a multi-media religious ceremony and designing a consumer home theater surround-sound system
reflects not only advances in technology, but also changes in culture. Those aural architects who built cathedrals, and those who designed virtual electro-acoustic spaces, were not necessarily aware of how their social context influenced their spatial creations.
There are, however, segments of our culture that take an interest in aural architecture. When given the freedom to choose the aural attributes of a spatial experience, audio engineers, composers, acoustic scientists, and spatial designers function as aural architects. There are conspicuous and
representative examples of artists and architects who explicitly focus on aural architecture. Pallasmaa (1996), the Finnish architect who rejected the assumption of visual dominance, considered sensory architecture as an umbrella theme that explicitly included aural architecture. Schafer (1977), in formulating the concept of the soundscape as a mixture of aural architecture and sound sources, created disciples who have passionately extended and applied his initial
concept. Sheridan and van Lengen (2003) suggested that architectural schools should intentionally include aural considerations in order “to achieve a richer, more satisfying built environment.” When Bagenal and Wood (1931) published their treatise on spatial acoustics, they recognized the social and cultural aspects of aural architecture.
Even within a given culture, people are not homogeneous with regard to their use of their senses. When a group of individuals share a similar relationship to some aspect of aural architecture,
they become a relatively homogenous group, which we call a sensory subculture. We find sensory subcultures both within a culture, and across cultures. Active users of particular kinds of spaces often become a unique sensory subculture if they share goals, motivation, genetic ability, and opportunities for shared experiences. They teach themselves to attend to those spatial attributes that they consider important. From this perspective, those with an active interest in music—performers, composers, and listeners—form a sensory subculture with an enhanced sensitivity to those aspects of aural architecture that apply to their music. Those blind individuals who orient and navigate a space by listening to objects and geometries form another sensory subculture. The experience of aural architecture depends on the individual’s subculture.
By accepting the concept of sensory subcultures, we branch into a related kind of social grouping: professional subcultures composed of individuals who study, design, or manipulate spatial attributes for the purpose of creating aural experiences for others. Often they do not realize
that they are functioning as aural architects. The list of such subcultures, to name but a few, includes ancient shamans who performed ceremonies in caves, recording engineers who use virtual space simulators as part of the production process, cinema film directors who match or contrast the visual and auditory experience of space, social psychologists who study human behavior, and
designers of ceremonial spaces who want the congregation to feel a connection with their deities and their heavenly cosmos. Each of these professional subcultures is unique in terms of their educational training, cultural beliefs, specialized goals, economic rewards, and private agendas. Aural architecture is mostly the result of the values and biases in these professional subcultures.
Individuals who use spaces for a particular purpose, and individuals who design spaces for a particular use, often acquire a heightened sensitivity to particular aspects of aural architecture. Auditory spatial awareness is a multiplicity of related but independent abilities.
Although evolution provided our species with the basic neurobiology for hearing space, each sensory and professional subculture emphasizes only a subset of this endowment. Conversely, those who are neither users nor designers of aural architecture are unlikely to display more than the basic abilities to hear space. Furthermore, cultures without any appreciation for aural experiences are unlikely to develop and support those subcultures with an interest in aural architecture.