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Editorial> Design Down the Volume
As restaurants and bars grow increasingly loud, Alan G. Brake calls on architects to consider noise levels.
Keith McNally's Schiller's Liquor Bar on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
Pedro Reis / Flickr

A recent report in the New York Times confirmed what many of us know: New York restaurants are too loud. As residents and workers we live with a constant din of urban noise, but as the article stated, many of the places where we choose to spend our time and money, to gather and unwind, are actually damaging our hearing more than car horns and jack hammers. Of a random sampling of nearly 40 restaurants, bars, stores, and gyms, nearly one third exceeded healthy noise levels. Bars and restaurants were the worst offenders, some registering noise levels of up to 105 decibels, levels that cause headaches and hearing loss. (For comparison, a subway train pulling into a station registered at 84 decibels).

The report was alarming, but also pointed to a design problem—and a trend that has gone too far. The cause is obvious, and architects and designers are often the culprits. The much-imitated Keith McNally look of soaring spaces, tile walls and floors, zinc bars, and plenty of conviviality combine to create cacophonous noise levels that are both harmful and unpleasant. Designers often strive to create noisy spaces on the misguided assumption that loud bars and restaurants reflect happy customers, and that roaring rooms generate buzz and hype, not just ringing ears. On an aesthetic level, isn’t great conversation—spoken at a civilized volume and actually understood by listeners—one of the essential ingredients of a memorable meal? On a more serious level, designers are contributing to a public health problem.

Many of these spaces actually violate labor laws, and their owners could face citations—if regulations were ever enforced. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued 14 violations for noise levels in New York last year, all for construction sites and factories. None were issued for bars and restaurants.

Designing for auditory comfort and safety should be a priority for architects and interior designers. Our collective sanity and long-term health, as well that of restaurant and bar workers, is at stake.


A Note of Thanks

On a brighter note, on behalf of everyone at AN, I’d like to extend my gratitude to Julie V. Iovine, who is stepping down after six years at the helm of the paper. She has been an extraordinary colleague, mentor, and friend to everyone here. Her intelligence, grace, and humor have marked every printed page and blog post. Thank you, Julie.

Alan G. Brake