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.

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Morfeus Arkitekter. Photo: Silja Lena Løken / Statens vegvesen
Norway Opens Another Spectacular Roadside Bathroom
Morfeus Arkitekter. Photo: Silja Lena Løken / Statens vegvesen
Morfeus Arkitekter. Photo: Silja Lena Løken / Statens vegvesen

Norway’s National Tourist Routes will change how you think about rest stops. As part of a decades-long program, the Norwegian government has been hiring architects and designers to create beautiful roadside lookouts, bathrooms, and other amenities for travelers along 18 scenic highways throughout the country. One of the latest of the projects unveiled, spotted by Dezeen, is a glitzy restroom located on the Arctic island of Andøya in northern Norway.

The facility, designed by the Oslo-based Morfeus Arkitekter, is located near a rock formation called Bukkekjerka, once used as a sacrificial site by the indigenous Sami people. The angular concrete and steel structure is designed to fit in with the jagged mountains that surround it.

The mirrored exterior wall of the bathroom serves a dual purpose. On the one hand, it reflects the scenery around the building, helping it blend into the landscape. But it also has a hidden feature. It’s a one-way mirror, allowing those inside the restroom to have a private view out over the ocean or back into the mountains while they pee.

The newly landscaped rest area near the bathroom will serve as an event space in the future. The Bukkekjerka site is already home to an annual open-air church service, and with the new construction, the space will also be used for weddings and other events. Because this is the Arctic Circle, though, the restroom is only open in the late spring and summer, closing from October to May. Check it out in the photos below.

A bathroom nestled in a hilly landscape
Morfeus Arkitekter. Photo: Hugo Fagermo / Statens vegvesen

The mirrored facade of a rest stop reflects concrete steps leading down a pathway.
Morfeus Arkitekter. Photo: Hugo Fagermo / Statens vegvesen

A person stands outside the bathroom's reflective wall.
Morfeus Arkitekter. Photo: Hugo Fagermo / Statens vegvesen

A wide view of a rest stop at the base of a coastal mountain
Morfeus Arkitekter. Photo: Trine Kanter Zerwekh / Statens vegvesen

[h/t Dezeen]

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Snøhetta
Norway's New Hotel in the Arctic Circle Will Produce More Energy Than It Uses
Snøhetta
Snøhetta

A new hotel coming to Norway’s section of the Arctic Circle will be more than just a place to stay for a stunning fjord view. The Svart hotel, which is being billed as the world’s first "energy-positive" hotel, is designed to “set a new standard in sustainable travel,” according to Robb Report.

Built by a tourism company called Arctic Adventure Norway and designed by Snøhetta, an international architecture firm headquartered in Oslo, it’s one of the first buildings created according to the standards of Powerhouse, a coalition of firms (including Snøhetta) devoted to putting up buildings that will produce more power over the course of 60 years than they take to build, run, and eventually demolish. It will be located on a fjord at the base of Svartisen, one of the largest glaciers on Norway’s mainland and part of Saltfjellet-Svartisen National Park.

A hotel stretches out above the water of a fjord.
Snøhetta

The design of the hotel is geared toward making the facility as energy-efficient as possible. The architects mapped how the Sun shines through the mountains throughout the year to come up with the circular structure. When the Sun is high in the winter, the terraces outside the rooms provide shadows that reduce the need for air conditioning, while the windows are angled to catch the low winter Sun, keeping the building warm during cold Arctic winters. In total, it is expected to use 85 percent less energy than a traditional hotel.

The sun reflects off the roof of a hotel at the base of a glacier on a sunny day.
Snøhetta

Svart will also produce its own energy through rooftop solar panels, though it won’t have excess energy on hand year-round. Since it’s located in the Arctic Circle, the hotel will have an abundance of sunlight during the summer, at which point it will sell its excess energy to the local electricity grid. In the winter, when it’s too dark for solar energy production, the hotel will buy energy back from the grid. Over the course of the year, it will still produce more energy than it uses, and over time, it will eventually produce enough excess energy to offset the energy that was used to build the structure (including the creation of the building materials).

“Building in such a precious environment comes with some clear obligations in terms of preserving the natural beauty and the fauna and flora of the site,” Snøhetta co-founder Kjetil Trædal Thorsen explains in the firm’s description of the design. “Building an energy-positive and low-impact hotel is an essential factor to create a sustainable tourist destination respecting the unique features” of the area.

Svart is set to open in 2021.

[h/t Robb Report]

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