Joseph Clarke

Joseph Clarke

The Architectural Discourse of Reverberation, 1750-1900 (2014)

Reverberation occurs when sound waves bounce off a faraway surface but reach the listener so rapidly that they are not heard as a separate echo, but seem merely to hang in the air momentarily. Despite architects’ interest in acoustics since antiquity, reverberation was not understood as a discrete acoustic effect until the eighteenth century and seems to be a uniquely modern concern. Before becoming the principal object of acoustical engineering with the birth of this discipline around 1900, it was the focus of more than a century of efforts to engage the design of the auditory environment as an architectural problem. This dissertation traces the architectural history of reverberation, examining how it contributed to and was shaped by ideas about the formal and technological manipulation of architectural space. Framing reverberation as an architectural mediation between sound and listeners, it examines changes in the sounds produced in buildings, the auditory expectations of their occupants, and the architectural means by which sound has been conceived, represented, and controlled.

The contemporary stakes of this undertaking are the subject of an introductory chapter, which points to the recent rise of auditory themes in recent discourse but also to the fact that explicitly sound-based projects are rarely able to claim deep disciplinary roots. Drawing from recent scholarship on sound across academic disciplines, it elaborates Theodor Adorno’s concept of Nachhtiren or “listening after” sound and the contexts of its expression.

Modern acoustical discourse was founded on—but also reacted against—interlocking theories of resonance and echo, studied since antiquity and elaborated in the seventeenth century. Chapter 2 examines the erroneous idea that the components of a building should physically resonate as well as “echotectonic” procedures meant to formalize the geometrical and rhetorical manipulation of reflected sound. It argues that the contradictions and ambiguous conceptual overlaps between these effects prepared the way for modern theories of reverberation. The remainder of the dissertation analyzes eighteenth- and nineteenth-century efforts to conceptualize and manage reverberation, most undertaken in the context of theater design. Chapter 3 shows how the conceptual parameters of modern acoustical discourse were established in the French Enlightenment, as architects worked to expand their design methods in response to the auditory demands of a broadening public. While Pierre Patte sought to rationalize sound in orthographic drawings, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux countered that it was fundamentally other to visible phenomena.

This tension informed the efforts of Romantic designers in Berlin, where the acoustical failure of a major theater underscored the need for a new approach. It was Carl Ferdinand Langhans who first proposed a model of reverberation as a distinct architectural effect. Chapter 4 shows how his “catacoustic” model of the reflection and diffusion of sound was related to contemporaneous innovations in literature, painting, music, and philosophy. Links to his work on early virtual reality technologies demonstrate how the theory of reverberation was implicated in a broader rethinking of architecture as the design of experience.

In the absence of a systematic way to represent the spatial behavior of sound across cultural and scientific discourses, the cultural figuration of reverberation and its technical control came to follow parallel but distinct tracks. As the final chapter argues, the incipient fragmentation of acoustical discourse is embodied in Richard Wagner’s music-dramas and in the highly reverberant Festspielhaus built for their presentation at Bayreuth. This artistic enterprise necessitated a new level of technical sophistication in performance hall sound, fueling demands for an applied science of acoustical engineering, even as Wagnerian aesthetics provoked cultural theorists to posit “reverberant” conceptions of architectural space.

This historical investigation yields several new conclusions. Architecture has long been imagined as a form of auditory media, a means of transmitting sound, and efforts to imagine and influence the spatial behavior of sound were deeply implicated in the development of space itself as an architectural concern. Yet the lack of a consistent means to represent reverberation has been a key impediment to its architectural conceptualization. With design and representation methods today undergoing profound changes, it is possible that acoustics may once again be recognized as a fundamentally architectural field of practice and theory. It is hoped that this history will contribute to disciplinary engagements with the auditory environment by tracing critical links between the sensation of immersive “liveness” experienced in reverberation and the problem of historicizing acoustics itself.


My research and teaching explore how modern architecture has defined itself as a discipline through particular techniques, theories, and representational conventions. I am especially interested in the complex relationships between media and architectural form. My first book, Echo’s Chambers: Architecture and the Idea of Acoustic Space (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021), shows how acoustic experimentation in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries challenged European systems of architectural thought. At present, I am studying methods of office design in the 1960s that attempted to derive spatial organization from models of bureaucratic communication. I am also developing a project on the history of architectural autonomy as an idea. In recent years, I have held visiting fellowships at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. Before becoming an art historian, I was trained as a designer and practiced architecture at Eisenman Architects and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. I co-organize the project Canada Constructed: Architecture, Landscape, History.