Soundscapes. The sound of the city

“Have you not noticed, walking through the city, how some buildings that populate it are silent, and others talk, while others, which are rarer, sing?” This asked Paul Valéry’s Eupaline for an imaginary Socrates, referring to an often inaudible “voice” hidden behind the domain of the visual image.

Asking ourselves about the multisensory nature of the world around us, about the essence of the voices and sounds that animate it, means asking a deep question, able to find a lived and authentic dimension of the places. This is especially significant for complex organisms such as the cities, often characterized by abstract logics and political visions, which seek to relaunch the appeal of the skyline, losing sight of the quality of public space on the ground, in which relationships develop “at eye level.” The problem of sound raises the need for a different awareness of urban space and our responsibility to it.

The current situation makes us all unaware of the growth of a “background haze” in which “sound” is synonymous with “noise”. It leads us to shift our attention – and this is the most serious aspect – from the real collective world to the virtual personal sphere, in private areas (houses, cars, our own person) dominated by wireless connections, headphones , headphones, active isolation systems. , portable speakers, etc. (at least as long as the batteries are charged).


The current situation makes us all unaware of the growth of a “background haze” in which “sound” is synonymous with “noise”

We are witnessing the emergence of a vicious circle, in which the growth of “noise” produces disaffection and the consequent lack of listening by the public, making individuals more permissive than noise itself. A situation that involves the impulse to reflect again on the relational dimension of the sound elementabout the systems of social significance it unleashed, about the ability to build collective habits and practices.

To identify some elements in favor of this perspective, it is appropriate, first of all, to point out the inadequacy of some contemporary assumptions. The first refers to the simplistic contrast between “natural sound” and “artificial sound”: a commonplace that tends to relate the quality of interventions on the city with the simple ability to generate square meters of “green” in a progressive equation. between chromatic. attractiveness and quality of life. As if the chirping of some bewildered bird, fed by the crumbs of our burgers, could really change the situation.

It also comes to go beyond the sterile alternative between “noise” and “silence”becoming aware of the fact that “Silence doesn’t exist,” John Cage said – and that, on the contrary, every sound, inserted in a context of correct relations, can become significant and fascinating.

On the contrary, these two prejudices should stimulate some questions to support a positive approach: what meanings are involved in our constant search for silence and naturalness? What models are being pursued unconsciously, beyond the idea of ​​a mere escape from the daily frenzy?

It is precisely from the recognition of the artificial and noisy character of the city that one must begin to reflect for oneself. sound potential, making masking, deception, perceptual illusion the tools to awaken that dormant relationship between individuals and their “minor senses.” A perspective that should be based precisely on the dissemination of “dematerialized” technological tools that can be integrated with the built environment, capable of communicating in a sophisticated way with the public. The silly Christmas carols broadcast on the shopping streets in December, with a view to a mere incentive to consume, could be transformed into a starting point to study the interaction between sound and social habitswith a view to better guidance, education, coordination of collective habits and behaviors.

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Composition of the soundscape of Piacenza (recording by Martino Mocchi)

The real focus of the reflection will be on the project: overcoming the idea of ​​sound as an element to consider a posteriori, to correct or mitigate by installing a sound-absorbing panel, but to plan in advance. , in a understanding of acoustic communities and the different needs that characterize them. It is a matter of moving from the traditional attitude of negative restraint, which seeks to reduce noise, to a positive approach, which seeks to improve the sound and auditory experience of the people who live there.

A perspective that should enjoy the attention of architects and urban planners, on the one hand, and the political and administrative class on the other, also with the aim of improving a still inadequate law.

Although it is a minority, there are several examples that show how it is possible to imagine a constructive path. In an important document from 2004, entitled City of Sleep. Mayor’s environmental noise strategyKen Livingstone’s London administration draws a very clear line of action, recognizing the guidelines of European Directive 2002/49 and relaunching the sound as an instrument of construction and interpretation of collective space.

At the design level, we could then cite the experience of Peter Zumthor or the historical collaboration between them Le Corbusier and Xenakis: just to prove the sound’s ability to “increase” the experience of architecture, generating attractive spaces and encouraging new types of use and exchange among citizens. Again in this sense, more “original” interventions can be found – such as those of the Funnel Wall in Dresden or the MUURmelaar in Leuven – or more contextualized solutions on an urban scale – such as the Marine Organ in Zara or Jay. Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago.

The possibility of integrate this vision of the project with the latest technological tools trace of even more radical and experimental perspectives, where the soundscape becomes an element to interact directly with the movements of the audience. Experiments conducted since 2012 by Sound Gardenwithin prestigious contexts such as the Venice Biennale and the Milan Triennial.

This is enriched today by the widespread use of smartphones and other digital devices for data collection and exchange. Think, for example, of City of silence: an app that has expanded the concept of sound map, turning it into a real project tool, aimed at identifying the “quiet areas” provided by European legislation.

Another area of ​​experimentation concerns the world of sound design, where, in the wake of Max Neuhaus’s pioneering explorations of the New York subway, numerous solutions have been developed over the years that are able to link with the forms of urban life. . . Yuri Suzuki’s work at Pentagram Studio is a clear example of this.

An articulated scenario, then, which on the one hand demonstrates the growth of the tools and potentialities linked to the subject, on the other hand continues to emphasize the limit of our cultural paradigm, still dominated by the visual as the only reference for understand town planning. space. It is a matter of emphasizing the issue, with the aim of building cities that are more welcoming, aware and respectful of our way of life.

To find out more

City of sound. For a meeting between architecture and soundscape by Martino Mocchi (LetteraVentidue)

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