“Ambience is a poetic enactment.” [i] “Ambience implies a particular conception of situated perception.” [ii] Ambience is an instant sensation of a specific space.  This paper will try to delineate a trajectory of thought in relation to the notions of ambience, sound perception and the sense of place. These are here presented as three separate concepts, however, they only co-exist in relation to space. We will present each concept in isolation trying to clarify how one relates to the other in the formation and decoding of space.
Ambiences can be said to exist as objectivestatuses of the built environment, in the form of static configurations and combinations of immaterial qualities of a certain space.
In the first instance, the brain makes use of sensory perception to acquire the whole of the ambience and processes it as a unit. This view is supported by John Dewey’s point of view, in which he defines the notion of situation, which is not an isolated object or event but rather a whole – what we call ‘status’. [iii] According to Santayana a situation cannot be subdivided in a series of qualities and as such is perceived as a whole through its ‘pervasive quality’. [iv] This perspective breaks the classical division of empirical philosophy, which identifies a set of primary (form, number, movement, solidity) and secondary (colour, sound, smell, taste) qualities as composing parts of an experience.
It can be proposed, however, that ambience is something internal of the mind, which only exists as the brain processes all the information of the external world. In other words the brain is responsible in creating the intended representation as a unification of infinite properties and qualities of a space with the space itself. To this extent it is commented that the bilateral processes of the memory system quickly undertaking comparisons of known and presented stimuli is what frames the ambient space itself. In filmographic terms the notion of ambience can be reduced to the collection of those sound properties of or originated by a specific architectural space.
Whilst it would be of interest to further expand the notion of ambience, this is beyond the scope of this paper in which this discussion shall be proposed with the sole intent to provide a common ground of understanding to expand the relation between ambience, sound perception and the sense of place.
Sound & Perception
The relation between the perceiver and the perceived is that of a Russian doll to its fellow Russian doll. In other words the perceived becomes part of the surrounding environment and object of perception, this is particularly true in the case of sound perception.
Sound works as an enactor or in other terms as an activator of the static condition of buildings and surrounding architectures, giving life to them, awaking them from the profound coma in which they entered once construction works have come to completion.
Sound like other forms of psychophysical stimulus, necessitates a due amount of decoding, interpretation, and continual comparison. Like ocularcentric stimuli the manner by which an atmosphere is generated is determinable not by what is present, but how the cognitive systems evaluate and cross-examines the patterns of information. This, alone forms the notion that sound itself is a psychophysical material – a pseudo-solid matter which creates, distorts, and permeates multiple layers of interpretation. As a multi-directional structure the generation of ambience through sound-based matter is similar to the notion of proxemics determined by Edward T. Hall, [v] in that at any one time there are a collective number of sound-based ambiences colliding – each interjection creating a new form. However the responsiveness of an ambience is quantifiable along a Wundt curve, measuring the positioning of a pleasurable or un-pleasurable ambience. [vi] The curve itself relates to the cognition of experience by individuals, who crave novelty, but also find the sense of ambience either naturally pleasurable or undesirable without large amounts of conscious calculation. This is a natural phenomenon, measurable across a bell curve whereby the level of cognitive stimulus generated by ambience, and the spaces thus formed, can be evaluated by an individual in terms of its desirability and positive / negative impact. As with all humans we are much more attuned to perceiving negative forms of ambient space than that of positive.
It is this series of cognitive sensations acting as a material feature, which is a more intrinsic part of a sensorial exploration of place. Users of space employ these layers to opt-in and opt-out of interaction with the environment itself, and furthermore in terms of psychophysical interaction the user's response to the ambience emitted from a given environment provides as much of a platform for decision making as physical essence. The frequencies of ambient space generates pulse-like systems which are intrinsically measured by an individual's Wundt parameters, meaning that their motion through the proximity of the material soundscapes will automatically determine their level of willingness to engage or disengage with such an environment. Whilst it is acknowledged that the generation of sound itself requires the interchange of different materials itself the trajectory of sound generates a 3rd space material form, a new set of materials upon which new borders, engagements, and interactions are generated within a sensorial space – i.e. that constructed of ambience.
Sound, therefore, can also be seen as a negotiator between users and architectures.
Sense of place
When dealing with the notion of sense of place, there are at least two approaches. The first, once again, sees the ‘sense of place’ as a distinctive innate quality of place, the distinctive and unique ‘perfume’ that a place has and can be found in no other place; it is something that cannot be replicated and either the place has it or not. But what is the distinctive and unique ‘perfume’ of the petrol station next door in Milan other than the one of petrol? Augé would argue that this petrol station has none because it is not a place to begin with, but it could be argued that the division between place and non-place that Augé proposes does not necessarily serve to delineate which places hold a sense of place. [vii] In other words it can be suggested that, Augeanlly speaking, even a non-place is able to convey a sense or a multitude of ‘sense of place’, which will be referred to as senses of place in its plural form.
The notion of senses of place, in its plural form, has brought in the second approach. The ‘sense of place’ is no longer an innate quality of a space but rather something external, which exists in the mind of those experiencing the space itself.
If we consider popular physical environments, such as mega-structural spaces such as stadia where a multitude of different events take place, initially, when first built or designed, these architectural pieces are celebrated for their engineering, materiality, and ingenuity of form. However they remain lifeless, soulless, without the layers of structural sound that create the ambient boundaries of the event being held. This, as a material formation itself, produces a continual evolution of the architectural piece – determined by the aforementioned psychophysical experiences and new proxemic boundaries.
The materiality of the ambience itself is, however, not interchangeable between events, but is event specific – the stadia itself being a vessel to enable the generation of the ambient material. This material exudes in transmittance internally and externally depending on whether you are involved or engaged with the ambience, or are simply exposed to it – a la the ambience being 'forced' upon you in passing. Yet regardless of the willingness to be engaged the force of the transmittance allows for a clear interpretation of the event itself. A passer by can understand when a football team scores due to the soundscape formed, but are not wholly engaged in the collection of ambient structures being formed inside. Similarly, the social construct of the sonic ambient forms – in an environment where the physical materials are generally limited – demonstrates how an environment generates alternative forms of non-interchangeable ambient forms, based upon the undertakings within such constructs. In the light the ambience formed at a football match, the chants, barriers, songs, “oohs” and “aahs”, if transported to an alternative event, such as a rugby match or musical concert in the same space, would not fit the social context of that period in time, and vice versa. The culture of the temporal society determines the form of sound-based material ambience that is generated, and which is associated with that given event. It is a fluid material, but one which is applicable to an event to become known as an associative force.
Whilst society and time provides small changes to the structure, say proxemic, of the ambient form, as per the Wundt curve some sound-based forms when introduced can skew the expected ambient constructs. One example of this can be found in the 2010 FIFA World Cup, held in South Africa. Culturally at such football matches in this country the 'Vuvuzela' a form of horn, is used and played in generating a new ambient atmosphere. Yet the 'West's' exposure to this alternative ambience has caused some degree of disagreement. The noise was compared by UK journalists as being likened to the sound of a thousand bees, and since the conclusion of the World Cup measures have already been taken by many UK Football Clubs to ban these instruments as they are not a welcomed part of the cultural ambient form of sound expected or wanted at UK matches. This itself demonstrates the power of the materiality of sound in this manner, which despite songs, drums, and bands being a part of a sonic ambient culture the introduction of a new piece has skewed the Wundt Curve over too far. In terms of discussing the generation and formation of ambience it is only sound which can push these boundaries thus far, whilst still being a fluctuating force that is filled with tradition.
It seems pacific to suggest that a place is not just a passive, static object but rather a flexible entity that changes its characteristics based on people’s perception, interpretation and use of its own ambience. However, what is the ambience of a petrol station? Can we alter its placeness, its being place, without altering its destination of use through the sole modification of the sonic realm? In other words, if we change the sonority of a petrol station is the sense of space affected?
As we have seen sound works as a catalyst and shall be seen as an atmosphere on itself or as an element that contributes in the formation of an atmosphere upon which people are able to connect, add to or interpret their surrounding and in doing so they immediately generate a new sense of place. The engagement between people and their surrounding makes the intangible sense of place become tangible, audible and visible and in doing so it promotes a sense-of-place-sharing at community level. To conclude, it can be suggested that sonic ambience, perception and the sense of place all serve as catalysts in the creation of a series of shared and well identified places within the same physical space.
[i] Timothy Morton, ‘Why Ambient Poetics? Outline for a Depthless Ecology,’ in Wordsworth Circle Journal, vol. 33, 2002, p. 1.
[ii] Jean-Paul Thibaud, “From Situated Perception to Urban Ambiences,” Centre de recherche méthodologique d'architecture (Nantes), First international Workshop on Architectural and Urban Ambient Environment, February 6-8 2002. Nantes: Cerma, Ecole d'architecture.
[iii] John Dewey, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. (New York : Henry Holt and Company, 1938).
[iv] George Santayana in John Dewey, Philosophy and Civilization. (New York: Minton, Balch & Co, 1931), pp. 93-116 & John Dewey, Art as Experience. (New York: Minton, Balch & Co, 1934).
[v] Edward T. Hall, The Hidden Dimension (Grantham: Anchor Books, 1966).
[vi] Wilhelm Wundt.  Principles of physiological psychology. Edward Bradford Titchener (trans.) (London: Allen, 1904).
[vii] Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London: Verso, 1995).