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Acoustic Tile as a mediating technology of organization

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter considers the history and organizational effects of the suspended acoustical tile ceiling in terms of the difference between ‘space’ (below) and ‘plenum’ (above). Reviewing the development of the acoustic tile since the early twentieth century, and the construction systems with which it was suspended to create a plenum between ceiling below and floor above, the chapter argues that this separation gave the ceiling new meaning. Increasingly, by isolating the mechanical hum of environmental technologies within the plenum, the suspended acoustical tile ceiling maintains a difference between the silence of ‘space’ and the noise of the mechanical systems that serve it.

Keywords: acoustic tile, suspended ceiling, space, plenum, silence, noise, organization

Once the limpid domain of gods and angels, by the mid-twentieth century the ordinary ceiling had come to conceal a matter-filled, noisy ‘plenum’, a term shared by engineers and philosophers to denote a chamber where energy flows, waves propagate, and particles collide (OED, 2006). Architects still use the term ‘space’ to refer to what lies below ceilings but not necessarily for what is above them. When suspended, ceilings make room from plenums of varying depths and configurations into which a building’s ‘services’ or ‘systems’ are typically compressed. There are many types of suspended ceilings, most of which consist of commercial products flexibly assembled to accommodate a wide variety of spatial needs below and technical needs above. This flexibility, which allows the integration of lighting, ventilation, and enclosure, constitutes the ceiling’s most architecturally salient characteristic as a medium of organization. That medium’s more basic function, however, is to separate visually and acoustically the world above, in the plenum, from the world below, in space.

More often than not, in large commercial, institutional, or industrial structures, the membrane that separates plenums above from spaces below consists of a material known as acoustic (or acoustical) tile, hanging in a gridded mesh like a film of water in a spider’s web. Where the modern equivalent of a frescoed ceiling may be the dramatically lit shell or vault, acoustical tiles suspended in ceilings do not normally supply the eye—or the ear, for that matter—with anything so poetically ambitious. On the contrary, these tiles and their ceilings are most commonly made to disappear, visually and aurally, such that attention may focus on the paperwork on the desk or on the conversation around the table. The tiles themselves have played no small part in this art of disappearance, an art that deserves greater attention in any consideration of what the term ‘media’ may connote in its fullest, most plenary sense (see Durham Peters, this volume).

(p. 16) Sounds of Silence

‘Ever since her birth she had been surrounded by the steady hum’ (Forster, 1909: 119). When E. M. Forster wrote ‘The Machine Stops’, mechanization was a noisy affair; by 1950, silence was its signature. In buildings, the background economy of silence and noise evoked by the line from Forster’s story centred on the mechanization of air to regulate temperature. Around the time Forster wrote, mechanically regulated air began migrating from industrial environments like cold storage facilities to spaces, like offices, populated by human beings (Banham 1984; Osman 2018). The architectural historian Reyner Banham describes the process as, essentially, co-evolutional. Techniques for circulating air gradually aligned with techniques for cooling it and regulating its humidity. This required tentacles of metallic ductwork, which required, in turn, a secondary spatial system threading through the building. Intake, distribution, and exhaust ducts typically ran vertically alongside elevator shafts or stairs, and at first, horizontally above a central corridor, with vents feeding and drawing air to and from rooms lining either side.

Banham nominates the Milam Building in San Antonio, Texas, designed by the architect George Willis and the engineer M. L. Diver and completed in 1928, as ‘the earliest fully air-conditioned office block’ (Banham, 1984: 128). Though only circulating unconditioned air, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building, completed in Buffalo, New York in 1906 (for Banham, the ‘annus mirabilis’ of the air-conditioning business), supplied a model for the vertical shafts. The movie industry, with its need to cool hundreds of bodies enclosed in a single large space, ‘introduced the general public to the improved atmospheric environment’ (Banham, 1984: 128). And the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society (PSFS) Building, designed by the firm of Howe and Lescaze and completed in Philadelphia in 1932, was serviced by a central Carrier air-conditioning plant located more than half-way up on its twentieth floor and integrated into a coordinated system that terminated, in some places, with air diffusers built into light fixtures built into ceilings suspended from the steel structure above.

But it was not until the steel industry began mass-producing open web trusses through which ducts and other services could be threaded that the suspended ceiling became a system that, in effect, integrated all the other systems. According to Banham, this began in the early 1930s, with a series of commercial efforts to organize the plenum-space between the ceiling below and the floor above, which culminated—symbolically at least—in the perforated ‘Acousti-vent’ suspended ceiling developed by Burgess Laboratories in 1936. As the name implies, this particular system combined a dual-purpose ceiling tile, made of perforated sound-deadening material that simultaneously dampened acoustical reverberation and distributed air circulating in the plenum above into the space below. All that remained was the integration of lighting.

As suspended ceiling systems became standardized, and the tiles themselves regularized into modular units (eventually two-feet by four-feet in the United States, which (p. 17) dominated the post-war market), fluorescent lighting tubes and fixtures, which developed in parallel, began to conform to the modular standard, as did the mechanical air vents and diffusers that became more common than the perforated panels. The suspended ceiling became a uniform, gridded, modular membrane from which air and light emanated and into which ambient sound disappeared. Thus was born, sometime around 1950, what Banham called ‘the tyranny of the tile format’ (Banham, 1984: 216).

Acoustically, the tile’s function was principally to inhibit the propagation of sound waves emanating from activity in the space below, thereby minimizing the presence of the acoustician’s mortal enemy, reverberation. But, a propos Forster’s background mechanical ‘hum’, it also served to isolate that space from the sound of air moving through ducts and passing through dampers in the plenum, above. By the 1950s these sounds, evidence of the building-machine’s proper functioning, were made more or less to ‘stop’ in order that the human beings below might better concentrate on their office work and other allegedly ‘post-industrial’ activities. The tile’s function was, therefore, less tyrannical than transcendental, in the sense that it helped separate out two aural regimes: the low clamour of bureaucracy below—what Friedrich Nietzsche once mischievously called the ‘hammering of the telegraph’ (Stiegler, 2009)—and the ‘hum’ of the mechanized enclosure above.

If the acoustical tile ceiling helped secure the difference between the ‘industrial’ domain of building systems and the ‘post-industrial’ domain of office work, it was only via the development of the comparably small but significant ceiling tile industry. Emily Thompson has described the emergence of an early twentieth-century ‘soundscape’ out of technical experiments associated with a culture of listening, on the one hand, and the abatement of noise, on the other. The former took shape largely in environments, like churches and concert halls, designed for attentive audition achieved through the calculated minimization of reverberation. The latter, which was internalized by modern music (and was, we can add, anticipated by Nietzsche in his early reflections on dissonance), was associated with workplace reforms—some technical, some social—focused on eliminating the ambient sounds of the industrial metropolis that drove what became known as the ‘roaring twenties’. Running through this is a story of enhanced technical knowledge embodied by the empiricist ‘founder’ of modern acoustical science, Wallace K. Sabine, followed by development, case-by-case application, and eventual commercialization. In Thompson’s vivid telling, acoustical materials like the ceiling tile therefore belong to an overall ‘rationalization’ of the built and lived environment, to which ‘culture’, in the form of architecture, music, and the visual arts, both contributes and responds (Thompson, 2002).

Subtle and convincing in its detail, Thompson’s story nevertheless relies on a sort of below-grade Weberian progressivism, wherein the material world and the cultural world perform a teleological pas-de-deux, the apotheosis of which is the optimized electroacoustical environment of Radio City Music Hall. After this comes cultural disillusionment with technological ideals, after which, in turn, comes a kind of acoustical pluralism epitomized in late twentieth-century music halls designed to provide flexible (p. 18) acoustical environments that accommodate a variety of different auditory tastes. This account downplays the dialectical relation of attention to distraction, of listening to silencing, and the resulting techno-teleological paradoxes of which the development of acoustical ceiling tile is but one.

The acoustical ceiling tile makes its first real appearance as a commercially available product around 1927, with the appearance of Acousti-Celotex, from the Celotex Company (Thompson, 2002) (Figure 2.1). Acousti-Celotex was adapted from the company’s felted board made from sugar cane fibres, which was perforated to allow sound absorption through the holes. Its appearance on the market was followed by Acoustone, Quietile, and Perfatile, all from United States Gypsum (USG). Like a variant of Acousti-Celotex, Acoustile was made from mineral wool and Quietile from wood fibre, while Perfatile covered a standard rock wool tile with a paintable surface of perforated metal. All of these ceiling finishes were generally adhered directly to a substrate, such as wood furring or gypsum board, which was in turn secured to the floor structure above. As Thompson explains, Howe and Lescaze’s PSFS Building made early, dramatic use of a suspension system called Mutetile, from the Acoustical Corporation of America, in which perforated, rock-wool-filled cast-plaster ceiling tiles were ‘spring suspended’ from the structure above (Thompson, 2002).

Acoustic Tile as a mediating technology of organization

Figure 2.1 Acousti-Celotex Sound Conditioning Products advertisement, detail

(Source: Architectural Record, July 1950)

Systems like these derived from a variety of plaster or plaster-like finishes or boards developed earlier by USG and others, like Keasby and Mattison’s Sabinite (which was later acquired by USG), or Nashkote, an asbestos-felt-and-canvas laminate board by Johns-Manville. Like the first ceiling tiles, these boards were generally secured directly to a wood, metal, or concrete substrate, and thus can be described only as quasi-systems. Their immediate, even less systematic and more artisanal precursors were Rumford Tile, a mixture of clay and feldspar made porous by burning out peat from the original compound during firing, and Akoustalith tile, a mixture of pumice and Portland cement, both of which Sabine himself developed in collaboration with the celebrated tile manufacturer and artist Rafael Guastavino in 1913 and 1916, respectively (Weber, 1995; Thompson, 2002).

Thus goes the sequence: from stone-like Guastavino tiles lining vaulted masonry spaces, to a thin, often perforated plane suspended on metal hangers from a steel or concrete frame, of which the PSFS Building was an early, stylized example. Emphasizing the mechanically produced silence of the PSFS workplace as emblematic of Taylorized efficiency to which the building’s innovative air-conditioning system also contributed, Thompson mentions that the main banking room’s ventilation ducts were dampened with sound-absorbing materials, a technique which later became common with the widespread use of air conditioning. These ducts were sources of both comfort and distraction; their metal shells vibrated with the cool air passing through them, and the resulting hum competed with the acoustically and thermally conditioned hum of business just below. A minor inconvenience, to be sure, and one easily solved with the addition of a little more sound-absorbing material. But the muted reverberation of this ‘hum’ in the PSFS plenum reveals a paradox familiar to students of technical media, wherein one of the unanticipated side effects of silence is noise.

(p. 19) (p. 20) Integration

A case in point is the design of libraries. As suspended acoustical tile ceiling systems became widely available in the immediate post-war years, architects, engineers, and their clients began utilizing these systems in a variety of different building types, with outsized implications. For example: the November 1946 issue of Architectural Record opens its special section on university libraries with a quotation from Vannevar Bush, the engineer and head of the wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development, to the effect that current information technologies, including books and libraries, are unable to keep pace with the ‘prodigious rate’ at which scientific and technical knowledge was expanding. The editors responded by highlighting what they called ‘the development of automatic equipment to meet the crisis in storage and reference, and the development of modular construction to meet the certainty of change’ (‘University Libraries’, 1946: 97). This they illustrated with a detailed presentation of designs for the Charles Hayden Memorial Library at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), by the architectural/engineering firm of Voorhees, Walker, Foley, and Smith.

The design for MIT’s three-storey Hayden Library is gridded inside and out, including the ceilings. Unusually, air-conditioning ducts rise along the outside walls, branching into plenums above two stacked, double-height book-storage and reading areas that form the building’s core, and terminating in regularly spaced anemostat diffusers embedded into the modular suspended ceiling. An accompanying article on library acoustics calls attention to the twin effects of air conditioning: on the one hand, sealed, air-conditioned environments eliminate outdoor noise with permanently closed windows; on the other, the very silence of the library makes it all the more necessary to reduce the hum of the ductwork threading through the plenum. The author, an acoustical consultant, is worth quoting at length:

There has been discussion regarding the degree of quietness to be sought in a library. Some believe that by reducing the overall noise level unduly the ear is made overly sensitive to sudden sounds. But the consensus is that noise within a reading room should not exceed 30 decibels, approximately the same intensity of sound as that encountered in a quiet residence.

Sound-absorbing materials used, such as wall coverings, acoustical ceilings, and resilient flooring, are selected for their efficiency in absorbing higher sound frequencies, since high frequency noises at average intensity are the most disturbing to a person with average hearing. Reverberation time, although a secondary factor, should be reduced to somewhere between one-half and three-fourths of a second.

(Content, 1946: 121)

By mid-century, the applied science of acoustics had thus become a matter of well-studied convention, even as its boundaries had also become extraordinarily porous. (p. 21) If, as Thompson shows, fifty years earlier this science was principally one of auditory concentration governed by reverberation, by now it was one of diffusion, in every sense. At which point silence was again paradoxical: in the limit case of university libraries, harnessed to what Vannevar Bush, an MIT alumnus and former Dean of Engineering, had described the previous year as the ‘endless frontier’ of scientific knowledge (Bush, 1945), the technical production of silence, or ‘quietness’, risked over-sensitizing the reader’s ear to unexpected high-frequency sounds.

Within the instrumental reason exemplified by Bush’s post-war programme for a ‘national science’, the poly-technical problem became one of not disturbing the reader—an archetypal knowledge worker—while providing her or him with adequate light and comfortably conditioned air. At MIT, as in countless libraries, schools, offices, hospitals, and other institutional spaces in North America, Europe, and eventually worldwide, the modular acoustical tile ceiling bore the burden of coordinating these oftentimes conflicting needs. Certain architectural efforts dramatized the high threshold of integration that this implied. At the General Motors Technical Center in Detroit, which opened in 1956, the architects Eero Saarinen and Associates collaborated with the engineering firm of Smith, Hinchman, and Grylls on the design of a custom-built ceiling system that combined pinpoint, high-pressure air distribution at grid intersections with a smoothly luminous surface, where more attention was paid to the attenuation of sound coming from the air ducts than to its absorption by the ceiling tiles. There too, significant efforts were made to coordinate the design and location of wall partitions with the ceiling grid, in apparently seamless integration with the modular curtain wall on the exterior of each building. Whereas, the project of three-dimensional modular integration reached a climax of sorts in the Union Carbide Building in New York, designed by Gordon Bunshaft and Natalie de Blois of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, which opened in 1960. There, it really was the grid itself, visibly and graphically inscribed into the all-purpose suspended ceiling, that governed. Hardly a mechanized ‘tyranny of the tile’, the Union Carbide Building’s highly aestheticized seamlessness aimed at proto-cybernetic, organic integration, or organization (Martin, 2003). Underwriting it all was a fetish for flexibility that the Architectural Record editors had already echoed when they described the Hayden Library’s gridded modularity as a technical response to the ‘certainty of change’.

In a recent PhD dissertation, Alexandra Quantrill has added at least one more example to this potentially long list: the near absolute enclosure of the open-plan workspaces in the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank Headquarters (1979–86), designed by Norman Foster with Arup Associates and many others (Quantrill, 2017). Emphasizing the controversies that erupted over the cost of technical performance that valued what she calls an ‘aesthetics of precision’ during the building’s long gestation period, Quantrill shows how the building’s exterior wall surfaces and systems (or ‘skin’) formed an uneasy, fragile alliance with raised floors (to accommodate wiring) and suspended ceilings (to accommodate the rest). As the building’s location attests, by this point the networks of expertise and industry to which suspended ceilings belonged had extended unevenly around the world.

(p. 22) If technical publications can serve as proxy for further detail on this process, it is instructive to note that the American design manual for architects, Architectural Graphic Standards, did not feature guidelines for the installation of acoustical ceiling tiles until its fourth edition, in 1951 (Ramsey and Sleeper, 1951). The publication’s fifth edition, issued in 1956 with a foreword by Eero Saarinen, significantly expanded those guidelines to include ‘Acoustical Suspended Ceilings’, ‘Louvered Suspended Ceilings’, and ‘Corrugated Plastic Suspended Ceilings’ (Figure 2.2) (Ramsey and Sleeper, 1956). The rough equivalent in Europe, Ernst Neufert’s Bauentwurfslehre, first appeared in German in 1936 and became, following its National Socialist career and in English translation in 1970, the industry standard in those technical environments (the majority, that is) that utilized the metric system.

Acoustic Tile as a mediating technology of organization

Figure 2.2 Acoustical metal suspended ceilings

(From Ramsey and Sleeper, Architectural Graphic Standards, 5th ed. (John Wiley & Sons, 1956))

As Nader Vossoughian has shown, Neufert’s project aimed at the ‘normalization’ of design standards, exemplified by Neufert’s near-maniacal dissemination of the A4 paper format and his introduction of metric standards for the manufacture and laying of bricks (Vossoughian, 2014). Rather than assemble generic products into prototypical building components and systems, as did Architectural Graphic Standards, ‘the Neufert’ (as the reference manual has come to be universally called) delineated rule-based norms and standards that functioned as what Vossoughian calls ‘instrument[s] of socialization’. Still, it is telling that as late as 1966, the manual’s relatively brief section on acoustics was limited mainly to concert halls, a detail that remained consistent in the second ‘International’ English edition of 1980. Nor did the original or later editions of the Bauentwurfslehre—again up to 1980—include any norms for the design of ceilings, acoustical or otherwise. Even the otherwise expansive section on office buildings was restricted to spatial organization, furniture layouts, and modular construction illustrated mainly with floor plans rather than by the ‘reflected ceiling plans’ that serve as the architect’s main coordinating device for the mirror world above.

To track even in abbreviated fashion the dissemination of the suspended ceiling in Europe, Asia, and in the decolonizing South, a trade publication like the West German Bauen und Wohnen is more useful. There, what seems a straightforwardly rapid progression again appears: from relatively small-scale designs utilizing common materials like brick and plaster in 1950, with no advertisements for building systems or other sophisticated construction elements, to larger projects, with many European examples utilizing suspended ceilings in 1956, and with advertisements for ceiling systems from Zent-Frenger and Deutsche Philips, to similar examples from Japan by 1960. This line quickly ramifies when followed into other, similar publications tracking the latest large-scale architectural projects around the world in the 1960s and 1970s. In all of this, however, the prosaic suspended ceiling grid with inlaid acoustical tile, lighting fixtures, and air diffusers is but one interface within the flux of technological change. Like the conflicts hidden in the surfaces of Foster’s HSBC Headquarters, far from signifying something as simple as ‘progress’ or ‘modernization’, the obliquely visible, barely audible ceiling accrues profoundly different meanings under profoundly different historical and sociotechnical conditions.

(p. 23) (p. 24) Media and Organization

In what sense, then, should ‘acoustic tile’ be counted as one among countless potential ‘media’? If the above summary is any kind of guide, the answer does not lie in an inventory of the possible meanings attached to the suspended acoustical ceiling by the late twentieth century, even as that technical system joined others circulating in the contested semantic fields of decolonization, globalization, and neoliberal development. Rather, the significance of the acoustic tile as a component in such a system may be sought in its phatic function, its status as interface or channel. But even here, meaning-effects multiply. What, for instance, is the effect of the acoustic separation rendered by the tile, between an idealized silence in the habitable spaces below and the discordant hum of the mechanized spaces above? What, in short, is the meaning of the technologically produced distinction between ‘plenum’ and ‘space’ with which we began?

Rather than conclude with a definitive answer to this question, let us review its implications. Viewed (or listened to) from both sides, the suspended acoustical ceiling occupies an intermediate, intermedial threshold. During the twentieth century, this threshold in no small measure gave meaning to the term ‘space’ by subtracting the clatter of machines and the chatter of humans that would otherwise have bounced from ceiling to floor to wall and back, taking mechanical, acoustic measure of that space’s physical and psychic enclosure. Now, space could be experienced to a non-negligible extent as an empty continuum serviced by a potentially unlimited system of gridded surfaces of which the suspended ceiling was paradigmatic. Absorbed into that ceiling’s porous, intricately woven or compressed substance, residual sounds mixed there with less distinct and more occasional noise coming from ‘the machine’ itself: the hum of the systems that filled the ceiling’s plenum. The ceiling grid maintained the separation. Below it and between its lines was an organizational apparatus. In the plenum above, ductwork, wiring, and lighting fixtures jostled for position in the flux. In this and many other ways, the tile itself contributed to a reordering of the universe, with the heavens now filled with real, godlike servomechanisms. The task of these systems was not to abstract or to rationalize. It was to preserve the humanity of humans by keeping them in their place in ‘space’, content to wonder now and then whether the air entering their bodies contained meaning as they moved their sheets of paper around. Just enough material remained in that space to pose such a question. This is what media do.


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