Research on Performance Space Acoustics in Developing Countries

Amphitheatre de Verdure,  Kinshasa, Congo

Amphitheatre de Verdure, Kinshasa, Congo

Performance spaces are often taken for granted in first world countries like the United States where an audience can expect beautiful sounds and musicians can expect clear and elegant spaces to perform in. This however is generally not the case in developing third world countries where resources are often limited and the country does not have the economic means to construct elaborate performance environments.

Most developing countries will utilize their economic means to focus on problems that may seem more severe such as health care and political infrastructure. Examine the Democratic Republic of the Congo located in the continent of Africa for example.

This country is diverse in its people, culture, geography, languages, politics and more importantly, its economy. This has been declining since the late twentieth century, with the world’s 3rd lowest GDP per capita.

While there is a desire for music and the stage, such ideas are often dismissed due to corruption, lack of stability, and violent conflict within the country.

There are however, many sustainable ways that performance spaces can be created by understanding the basics of acoustics and how it works as well as knowledge of available resources and the natural climate. When applied to countries such as Congo, these principles can create flexible and ideal spaces for music in third world countries.

The design of a performance room itself is integral to the way that sound waves will bounce off of one another. First and foremost, concave roof structures should be avoided due to a focusing effect that it causes. Convex surfaces are preferred since they allow for a clear diffusion of sound. Similarly, fan shapes for musical halls should also be avoided because it prevents sound reinforcement with a lack of sound distribution. More ideal shapes would include a shoebox, stepped fan and reverse fan designs. A second note in room design is to refrain from creating two parallel reflective walls which result in echoes similar to what is seen in corridors where the sound tends to bounce around.

The back wall of any performance room is significant because of the way the sound waves will reflect off of it, causing possible echoes that may be unpleasant and unwanted. Generally, it is useful to place absorbing material on the back wall to help take away or minimize unwanted noise.

Materials. An interesting material that has recently come to the market is recycled cotton fiber. Essentially, this is the product of reusing Blue Jean material to create insulation that is both exceptional in sound absorption and can also aid with heat loss and gain in an environment. To further diminish undesirable echoes, another option is to generate a rumpled or splayed surface.

Like any other structures, ideal building materials for concert halls include wood, steel and masonry construction. However, building materials become an essential question when deciding not only the aesthetic, but also the functionality in a tropical country like Congo. In a tropical environment, many materials will begin to rot quickly and are often at the mercy of insects such as termites.

There are several solutions to these problems that can be both sustainable and efficient. Timber is likely to be a desirable material of choice in a tropical environment and can be treated with resins or oils to prevent termite infestation. Wood is also ideal when dealing with extremes of humidity as it will expand and contract. Another possible local material is the use of Bamboo. There are several possibilities with this material from panels to full scale construction in a region where it is readily available.

A material that is important to avoid and use as minimally as possible is plastic. The Congo has a major problem in dealing with plastic which can be seen in the polluted streets of the capital city Kinshasa where used water battles are thrown onto the streets and are seen collecting there. Plastic is extremely difficult to decompose and its usage must be discouraged.

However, the plastic bottles that are seen filling the streets can be utilized for insulation. This is an easy process that can be done by hand and it can pose as a major sustainable and economical solution.

Dynamic space. A concert hall is a dynamic space that is influenced by various acoustical factors that are indispensable in creating a successful space. At the same time, sustainable strategies must be well thought out when applying design principles and practices to a developing country.

Scaled for Community. Any new building in such an environment can have a major impact on the community. It is essential to always consider the scale of the community as well as any existing problems so that the building becomes an integral and productive aspect of the culture rather than a piece that adds to the waste.

Researched and written by Shreya Agarwal,
Class of 2016, Penn State University