Sound and Design in Trafalgar Square


Sound Portal

If you noticed a small black rubberized building appear in Trafalgar Square last week and wondered what it was all about, then read on. We went down to find the ‘design you can’t see’ at this year’s London Design Festival.

Installed courtesy of the creative think tank BE OPEN, designed by ARUP and part of the London Design Festival – the Sound Portal has played host to 5 contemporary artists’ unique soundscapes played back using Ambisonic technologies. The listener sits on a central platform, surrounded by a 360 degree array of vertical speaker stacks, which delivers a truly spatial listening experience. The idea is to focus on the design you can’t see – that of acoustics and sound – rather than a visual spectacle.

Associated seminars at the Hospital Club and the V&A discussed the importance of sound in modern day design. Beautifully designed restaurants where you can’t hear your fellow diners, impressive light-screen installations that require racks of noisy fans for them to stay cool, even the room in which we were hosted at the Hospital club where we could hear conversations on the stairwell over that of the speakers – prove that simple acoustics are often overlooked. The talks brought together people from the experimental music scene Matthew Herbert “I’m asking car manufacturers to tune their cars in the scale of G major: traffic jams will sound so much nicer”, the neurosciences Lauren Stewart “We’re using regular rhythmic beats to help premature babies learn to feed better” and the design world Tom Dixon “When I designed a range of sex toys, it was an absence of sound that was most important”.

In a move away from his usual jazz-core mayhem, Warp artist extraordinaire Squarepusher presented a gentle nylon-string ’s guitar composition. Using a specially modified classical guitar, with a separate output for each string, he made excellence use of the space. Notes appeared from surprising angles before joining together to fill the interior of the room. The resulting experience was incredibly immersive and calming.

Another stand-out piece was by Oxford Contemporary Music artist in residence, Nathaniel Robin Mann. Combining old sea shanties (a reference to Lord Nelson’s monument outside) with British outdoor ambiences and strings, he had physically swung speakers around a soundfield microphone to add movement to the layers of audio.


Emerging from the portal, after 30 minutes of intense listening, a lot of people were commenting on the surrounding noise and chaos of Trafalgar Square, having not really noticed it earlier. This was an unusual but smart site for a sound installation, which made its visitors more aware of the ambient sounds around them.

Mike Bamford, String and Tins