Listening Beyond the Visible | Pamela Jordan

Listening Beyond the Visible | Pamela Jordan

Presented with the preceding image, and the observation that the acoustics within the large structures are “superb,” what would you conclude about the original use of the depicted site?

Bernard Rudofsky launched his 1964 Architecture without Architects with the image above (taken from a plane by archaeologists in 1931) and a brief description of the Incan archaeological site. He recounted five separate cavities in the mountains of Peru, sculpted through evident terracing where the acoustics were “superb.” Combined with the architectural tectonic forms that resemble a Greek amphitheater, he concluded that the structures were ancient amphitheaters for crowds of sixty thousand or more.1 Subsequent research at the site has challenged this conclusion, finding possible material evidence of either sophisticated agricultural or ceremonial purposes for the terraces, but so far no acoustic study has been conducted at the site to link acoustics to the landforms as the Incas designed them.2 Significantly for the discussion that follows, the simple presence of extraordinary or unexpected acoustic properties does not necessarily demonstrate one kind of architectural intent or operation in the past. “Good” acoustics with clear sight lines does not necessitate a theater. Sound can be a strong signaler and can equally be a powerful research tool, but sonic analysis in historic space is not a yes or no endeavor. Rudofsky’s conclusion does not cite consultations with indigenous knowledge keepers or local practices; instead, he seems to have reverted to familiar visual cues from Western references (i.e., the Greek amphitheater) in order to place the acoustic pattern he perceived at Muyu-Uray (known today as Moray). The presence of noteworthy sonic effect should be researched with a nuanced understanding of the technics of acoustics combined with physical and cultural evidence.

Perhaps the need for such a specialized knowledge base precludes many in the conservation fields from directly tackling sound in historic spaces. It is usually a matter left to specialists: acoustic or sound engineers, acousticians, city planners with noise maps, or archivists and media studies scholars examining past sound recordings…


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