Hugh Pearman: Silence is a gold mine

Constant noise pollution is the curse of the modern world, according to Hugh Pearman, and the person who designs a way of suppressing it will be his hero

The things people design become evermore intangible. Who’d have thought, a few years back, that the design of images on screens would become a key part of every graphic designer’s portfolio, and a massive new cottage industry? Now think ahead a bit. Websites have become a staple of the business: what’s the next area to move into?

It won’t be a graphics thing. The first big design challenge of the 21st century, even more ephemeral than the Web, will have almost no visual presence. If it works, you may not even be aware that designers are involved. It is the creation of quietness.

The art and science of acoustics is only now emerging from its primitive phase – which is why there are so many acoustically awful concert halls around the world, all of which are now the subject of retrospective acoustic Band-Aid. The delivery of near-perfect sound to an auditorium – or the realisation that good sound is only one ingredient of a good concert hall – is now an established discipline. Not so its opposite: the suppression of noise.

Noise is the curse of the modern world: it always gets worse, and the measures to deal with it must necessarily always lag behind the nuisance. This has been the case in Britain since medieval times – complaints about noise in cities, particularly London, are as old as the metropolis itself. In Ancient Rome, an apparently common complaint was the noise of houses falling down, so badly were they built. More usually, the historic source of the problem has been noisy traders, or vehicles, or rowdy crowds.

What do I mean by noise always getting worse? It’s to do with the way it changes its quality. People can get used not only to a surprisingly high level of constant background noise, but also to sudden bursts of noise, so long as they are regular and familiar, as you get if you live by a railway line, or under the flightpath to an airport. But if the character of the noise changes, or if it happens more often, or at different times, you suddenly notice it again, then you complain. As they do near Heathrow.

Visit Norman Foster’s office and you’ll see white, rectangular panels hanging near the ceiling of the drawing-office. These are anti-noise devices. They generate acoustic waves which counteract the general hubbub. Allegedly. As no-one has ever turned them off while I’ve been I can’t tell the difference. But if they work, plenty of fashionable restaurants and bars could use the technology. Maybe then you could hear what the person next to you is saying.

This same technology is talked about in car design, but it is certainly not yet widespread. It is possible to incorporate it into the vehicle to counteract the wearying effects of road and engine noise. No doubt aeroplane manufacturers are also studying the technology, though they don’t yet seem to apply it. Which is why the Bose Corporation, famous for its clever miniaturised music systems, now markets anti-noise headsets with planes in mind. They look like ordinary headphones, but they do the opposite: they cancel out the surround-sound. They create quietness for you.

This kind of thinking will become very important. Most UK housing wasn’t designed to withstand the aural impact of today’s sound systems. No more are cars designed to contain the noise produced by their in-car systems. One study found that a single car with a faulty exhaust silencer, travelling six miles through London at night, is all it takes to wake up many thousands of people. The same applies to thudding bass-notes from boom-box cars.

As for background noise, the main offender, apart from traffic, is office equipment. Inside the office, all the various gadgets combine to produce a constant background hum. Outside, cheap air conditioning plant broadcasts noise over a wide area. Canary Wharf is notorious for this. But even in most homes, there is now so much electrical equipment on permanent standby that noise is generated constantly.

There is the design challenge: to create environments where unwelcome noise is cancelled out. Obviously legislation can help a bit to suppress noise at source, but you suspect not much. Nor can the whole developed world be fitted with Norman Foster anti-noise panels. Somehow, someone has to develop a way for each of us to move around in a personal zone of relative peace – but not isolation. We won’t all be walking around wearing headphones. Whoever develops the technology, designs a virtually invisible personal platform for it, and markets it, will be one very rich hero.

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