By Robert Such. Published in Architectural Record.

Despite its name, Son-O-House is not a house but a permanent public artwork that is both a pavilion and sound installation. Located on the outskirts of Son en Breugel in the Netherlands, it represents the second joint venture by NOX Architects and Dutch composer and media artist Edwin van der Heide. NOX, headed by Lars Spuybroek, first collaborated with Van der Heide on the FreshH2O eXPO pavilion on the island of Neeltje Jans, the Netherlands, in 1996-7.

“I wanted sound that makes people move,” says Van der Heide, who also wanted to move sounds from one part of the building to another, and then record the subsequent movement of people. Physical human movement was also the starting point for the pavilion’s architecture, whose curves are derived from the human body in motion. Spuybroek and his office analyzed the movements of the limbs, joints and extremities of people as they walked around a house, and formed a conceptual model, where paper strips codified the complex array of bodily movements in the house. Three types of cut were developed.

As Spuybroek explains, “When a hip movement,’ for example, “was accompanied by a joint movement, like the flexing of an elbow or knee, the strip of paper was cut down the middle. We then mapped additional foot or hand movements by another cut.” When connected, the flimsy paper strips could support each other. The paper model was digitized and the final arabesque structure made from plasma-cut stainless-steel ribs and expanded steel mesh. The various orientations and the mosaic of stainless-steel panels result in a camouflaged appearance and produce a visual experience that changes with lighting conditions and the visitor’s viewpoint.

Visitors to the 3,229-square-foot interactive Son-O-House must not only stoop to enter some areas of the building, they must also watch out for the uneven concrete floor. As they walk through the space, 24 infrared sensors pick up and record their movements; this statistical information is stored in a database. In the process, 20 speakers distribute shifting acoustic frequencies to create a slowly evolving soundscape. 

People in turn respond to these sounds, some of which are dissonant and repellent, by either moving away from or advancing toward them.

Slight phase differences between sound waves from nearby speakers can produce quieter and louder spots again, in response to the visitors’ movements. Because of the system that Van der Heide has developed, over time effective sounds are retained and sounds that don’t cause movement are eliminated. As a result, people leave behind an acoustic trace of their presence in the building, and returning visitors will share a different acoustic experience. With this unusual structure, architecture and sound join together to offer visitors different aural and kinesthetic experiences. In their second collaboration, Spuybroek and Van der Heide have dramatically explored the relationship between time, place, and the perception of sound and architecture.