Profiles in design: Acoustician Raj Patel
By Kelsey Eichhorn
May 15, 2017
Starchitects aside, we hear little about the individuals whose cumulative decisions shape the built environment. To peer behind the curtain of today’s design field, we’re asking engineers, architects, policymakers, and others about their personal experiences and opinions.
Raj Patel leads Arup’s global acoustics, audiovisual, and theatre consulting practice from New York. I spoke with him about growing up in London, post-punk influences, and the invisible art of acoustics.
You studied acoustics in college. Were you passionate about music as a kid?
I can’t remember the world without music. Both my parents liked to sing, and my dad really liked to whistle. They sang a lot of Indian music, mostly old film songs. The radio was always on in our house. So there was always a lot of music in my life.
In fact, my parents bought me a drum kit when I was only three. I started playing the recorder around the age of seven and trumpet a couple of years after that. I was mainly playing classical music and learning theory, but we also had a jazz band at school. There was a good music culture at our high school. I bought my first electric guitar and bass at age 14 and have continued to play ever since.
The punk and post-punk music scenes were really vibrant in London at that time, and also surprisingly accessible via both radio and TV. I became really interested in post-punk and new wave, where electronic music tools were creating new opportunities for sound.
The two bands that really fired my imagination as a teenager were Bauhaus and The Smiths. They really started to expand my thinking beyond just music on its own.
How do you mean?
The interesting thing about both was that the imagery they used was very stark, and the background influences in their music were quite apparent.
Bauhaus was named after an art school. When you open that book and start learning about Bauhaus as a movement, you realize it’s about art, it’s about architecture, it’s about integrated practice: how science and art and technology merged into the art of living.
Then the Smiths used a lot of Warholian imagery, American imagery, on record covers. Once you opened that door, it led to the Velvet Underground, La Monte Young, noise music.
So these bands really opened up a whole new world for me — especially the art part, as I was never very good at drawing or painting. Those influences and the can-do attitude of punk became quite a prominent thing for me.
Can you elaborate on the connection between music, architecture, and design?
I remember vividly a quote from the Bauhaus guitarist, Daniel Ash, about how he was much more interested in the sounds things made than in music or being musical.
That made sense to me. I was always interested in the sound of spaces and in noise in general. There was a long alley that led from the main street to the flats we lived in when I was growing up. It had a great sound when you whistled and made noise, and we always used to “play” it when walking home.
I always liked architecture, liked thinking about different things people could do in cities. When I was young, my dad used to take me and my brother for adventures on the Tube on Sundays, pointing things out as we walked through new neighborhoods. I remember Bankside and Battersea Power Stations particularly — I always thought they were beautiful buildings. There were a lot of postwar buildings that I liked, lots of brutalist concrete. Even the Penguin Pool at the London Zoo. It’s funny to think about now because of its connection to Arup, but as a kid I thought it was stunning. My mom has a photo of me as a four-year-old wearing a sombrero by the Penguin Pool.
Somebody once described postwar London as being in black and white. You were taught about the war; you went to the battlefields in Europe with school; war movies were on the TV all the time. It really felt that way until the late ’70s, early ’80s, when London suddenly became Technicolor. Music and immigration changed how London felt. First- and second-generation nonwhite immigrants were growing up and making big cities like London their own. DJs like Don Letts brought West Indian music to the punks, and it infused everything. So this idea of place, and the changing nature of place, just naturally seeped into you.
At that point I couldn’t imagine ever living anywhere other than London. To me, London was the quintessential cosmopolitan, multicultural, diverse, exciting city.
So you had this love of music and this appreciation for art and for architecture. It seems like Arup was an obvious fit?
It does, but the reality was much more random. As I was already playing so much music and intended to continue, I had decided to read history — which was marginally less arty than art school, which I had no hope of getting into due to lack of skill.
One day I picked up a prospectus for the University of Southampton at random, and the first thing in the index was acoustics. Most career advisers and teachers back then didn’t even know acoustics existed as a career path, so no one told me that the best way to merge my interests in math and physics with my love of music was through studying acoustics.
So that’s what I did. Arup was the place to work in acoustics at the time, but the one position in our graduating class was already taken by my classmate Joan Watson. But I was lucky. While I was working a temporary contract job after graduation, she asked me to do some independent work for an Arup job, Glyndebourne opera house. Off the back of that I got a full-time job offer. I started work on December 1, 1993.
And the rest is history?
Pretty much, yes.
I was really privileged to be mentored early on by two people who were a big influence on me, Derek Sugden and Richard Cowell. Derek was one of Ove Arup’s earliest hires. He started as a structural engineer and later founded the acoustics team. He became interested in acoustics because his dad was a good whistler, and he remembered listening to the different sounds his whistling made when they went various places, which mirrored my own experience.
An architect who Derek worked with, Michael Hopkins, wrote about how Derek said that sound was as important as the surface of a building. For Michael, the idea that our ears define the nature of a space was revelatory.
Derek said a lot of revelatory things, actually. He taught us all how to communicate our ideas about sound to architects and designers in a way that made our work better. For me, he was the last bon-vivant-raconteur designer. There were few people like him and probably fewer to come.
Good acoustics is the invisible art. When done well, it elevates your experience of space and place to a whole other level.
My other big influence at Arup was Richard Cowell. He was an architect first, then became an acoustician. He had interned in Mies van der Rohe’s office and shared my enthusiasm for Bauhaus. Like Derek, he was able to balance the art of design with the technical analysis and rigor required in complex acoustics and vibration projects.
Really everything about them both — their ability to blend their passions in sound and design, to look at design holistically — continues to inspire me.
Acoustics gives you a unique perspective on design, a human-centric perspective. You’re always thinking about how you want people to feel, what message you want to convey. For me that’s the essence of great design — and why good acoustics is the invisible art. When done well, it elevates your experience of space and place to a whole other level.
Over the years, Arup has developed lots of tools to help integrate acoustics, sound design, and soundscaping into the wider design dialogue, especially with the SoundLab.
Today, acoustics and sound are being treated much more seriously, and I like to think we played a role in that.
This is post 11 of 13 in the Profiles in Design series
- Profiles in design: Power player Cierine Nicolas / Sep 19, 2017
- Profiles in design: Chicago preservationist Bonnie McDonald / Jul 20, 2017
- Profiles in design: Acoustician Raj Patel / May 15, 2017
- Profiles in design: Sustainability specialist Tiffany Broyles Yost / May 4, 2017
- Profiles in design: Urban planner Margaret Newman / Feb 1, 2017
- Profiles in design: Arup Fellow Alisdair McGregor / Dec 7, 2016
- Profiles in design: Structural specialist Kristen Strobel / Nov 9, 2016
- Profiles in design: Newly minted mechanical engineer Geoffrey Iwasa / Nov 3, 2016
- Profiles in design: Lighting designer Toby Lewis / May 12, 2016
- Profiles in design: Architectural adventurers Design with Company / Feb 4, 2016
- Profiles in design: Technology consultant Dan Michaud / Jan 7, 2016
- Profiles in design: Plumbing engineer Sebastian Lopez / Nov 9, 2015
- Profiles in design: Structural engineer Matt Clark / Oct 1, 2015