CLOSE
Freepenguin via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Freepenguin via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

7 Whispering Galleries From Around the World You Can Visit

Freepenguin via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Freepenguin via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Curving walls and towering domes can produce great architectural effects. But in some cases, their acoustic qualities are even more impressive.

A whispering gallery takes advantage of the properties of certain curved spaces to offer a unique sound experience. To know if you’ve found one, stand facing a sloping surface while a friend does the same several yards away. When you whisper into the wall, your partner should hear your voice as clearly as if you were standing next to them.

This seemingly magical phenomenon can be explained by whispering gallery waves. When whispers hit the circular or semicircular surface of the gallery, those vibrations cling to the surface and “creep” along the gently curving path. The slight angle of the structure keeps sound waves from dispersing out to either side. When the message reaches its intended listener, it’ll have barely diminished during the journey.

Whispering galleries can be found in some of the most iconic landmarks on Earth. Here are seven enchanting examples.

1. ST. PAUL’S CATHEDRAL // LONDON

 
St. Paul’s in London is home to perhaps the most famous whispering gallery, a circular walkway perched 257 steps above the floor and around the perimeter of the cathedral's famous dome. At nearly 100 feet up, the balcony is not for the faint of heart, but if you’re not ready for a trek yourself, you can send your whispers for a spin. Although architect Sir Christopher Wren didn't design the balcony for its acoustic properties, they've since become well-known: In the late 1870s, the British physicist Lord Rayleigh used it as the setting for groundbreaking research on acoustics. He was the first person to propose the existence of “whispering gallery waves” that travel along a curvilinear path. Today visitors to the cathedral can recreate Lord Rayleigh’s experiment as it was done 140 years ago.

2. THE GOL GUMBAZ MAUSOLEUM // BIJAPUR, INDIA

Santoshsmalagi via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

 
Vijayapura, India is home to the 17th century Gol Gumbaz Mausoleum, final resting place of Sultan Mohammed Adil Shah. Its name literally means “circular dome,” and the distinctive topper forms one of India’s most famous whispering galleries. Visitors walking along the balcony that rings the dome’s edge can have the chance to test it out. As is the case at St. Paul’s, sound vibrations hug the walls of the walkway while the dome curling above keeps wayward sound waves contained. A whisper originating at one point can be heard on the opposite side of the 44-foot wide space.

3. GRAND CENTRAL STATION // NEW YORK CITY

 

At most spots in Grand Central Terminal, maintaining a conversation with someone standing 30 feet away during rush hour is an impossible task. There’s one place where that doesn't apply. The herringbone-tiled roof arching outside the Grand Central Oyster Bar creates a whispering gallery in the middle of Manhattan. Rather than transmitting the whispers horizontally, sounds waves shoot up one of the four corners, along the arched surface of the ceiling, and back down the pillar on the opposite side. Travelers passing through Grand Central will know they’ve found the right spot when they see what looks like tourists talking to themselves in the corners.

4. THE BENCH OF WHISPERS // SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, SPAIN

 

Not all whispering galleries are located beneath domes. Sometimes the back of a semi-circular bench will do. After this granite bench was constructed in a park in Spain around 1916, it didn’t take long for couples to catch on to its unique sound effects. Word of the location spread among young singles, and it soon became a popular meeting place for unmarried couples looking for privacy. In a time when the courting process was strictly monitored for indecent behaviors (i.e. touching, or even speaking), the Lovers Bench, or the Bench of Whispers, was the perfect solution. From afar, two people sitting on opposite ends can appear to be minding their own business, when in reality they’re exchanging illicit whispers of affection.

5. THE ECHO WALL IN THE TEMPLE OF HEAVEN // BEIJING

Daniel Case via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

 

Erected in the 15th century, the Temple of Heaven long served as a setting for prayer ceremonies asking for good harvests. Today the UNESCO World Heritage Site is a popular Beijing tourist destination. The Imperial Vault of Heaven, located south of the Temple’s main structure, is surrounded by a smooth, round wall—known as the Echo Wall—that’s heard half a millennium's worth of whispers. To get the full experience, visitors should plan to arrive early to avoid being drowned out by crowds of tourists with the same idea.

6. THE WHISPERING ARCH (FLÜSTERBOGEN) // GÖRLITZ, GERMANY

Andreas Praefcke via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

 
The whispering gallery in Görlitz, Germany is easy to miss. Instead of an ancient church or mausoleum, it’s located in the entryway of a regular building in the town's Lower Market area. The channeled stone arch above the doorway at house No. 22 carries sound waves from one end to the other. The Flüsterbogen, or “Whispering Arch,” as it's known, is one of many charming attractions in the medieval German town.

7. THE U.S. CAPITOL BUILDING // WASHINGTON D.C.

 
The dome of the U.S. Capitol building is more than a distinctive silhouette against the Washington D.C. skyline. When it was first constructed, the structure helped amplify the voices of members of Congress, long before microphones appeared on the scene. According to one urban legend, John Quincy Adams pretended to be asleep at his desk while listening to echoes of his opponents’ conversations happening in different parts of the room. This so-called “whisper spot," now part of he National Statuary Hall, is now designated by an official plaque on the floor marking the location where the former president sat during his time in Congress. According to the Architect of the Capitol, the whispering gallery effect can still be heard in sections of the hall, but the building’s acoustic properties are less pronounced than they were prior to its renovation at the turn of the 20th century.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Buckingham Palace Was Built With Jurassic Fossils, Scientists Find
iStock
iStock

The UK's Buckingham Palace is a vestige from another era, and not just because it was built in the early 18th century. According to a new study, the limestone used to construct it is filled with the fossilized remains of microbes from the Jurassic period of 200 million years ago, as The Telegraph reports.

The palace is made of oolitic limestone, which consists of individual balls of carbonate sediment called ooids. The material is strong but lightweight, and is found worldwide. Jurassic oolite has been used to construct numerous famous buildings, from those in the British city of Bath to the Empire State Building and the Pentagon.

A new study from Australian National University published in Scientific Reports found that the spherical ooids in Buckingham Palace's walls are made up of layers and layers of mineralized microbes. Inspired by a mathematical model from the 1970s for predicting the growth of brain tumors, the researchers created a model that explains how ooids are created and predicts the factors that limit their ultimate size.

A hand holding a chunk of oolite limestone
Australian National University

They found that the mineralization of the microbes forms the central core of the ooid, and the layers of sediment that gather around that core feed those microbes until the nutrients can no longer reach the core from the outermost layer.

This contrasts with previous research on how ooids form, which hypothesized that they are the result of sediment gathered from rolling on the ocean floor. It also reshapes how we think about the buildings made out of oolitic limestone from this period. Next time you look up at the Empire State Building or Buckingham Palace, thank the ancient microbes.

[h/t The Telegraph]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Ker Robertson, Getty Images
arrow
architecture
5 Scrapped Designs for the World's Most Famous Buildings
Ker Robertson, Getty Images
Ker Robertson, Getty Images

When an architect gets commissioned to build a skyscraper or a memorial, they’re usually not the only applicant for the job. Other teams of designers submit their own ideas for how it should look, too, but these are eventually passed over in favor of the final design. This is the case for some of the world’s most recognizable landmarks—in an alternate world, the Arc de Triomphe might have been a three-story-tall elephant statue, and the Lincoln Memorial a step pyramid.

GoCompare, a comparison site for financial services, dug into these could-have-been designs for Alternate Architecture, an illustrated collection of scrapped designs for some of the most famous structures in the world, from Chicago's Tribune Tower to the Sydney Opera House.

Click through the interactive graphic below to explore rejected designs for all five landmarks.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios