As I’ve recently written, visual urban nostalgia has a place in today’s dialogue about cities. Historical photos, videos and reconstructions of a pre-car era, including imagery of more walkable places are all sources of inspiration for a more sustainable urban future. And they are brought to us, by and large, by the internet.
Click on a link, and the romanticized past appears as a visual analogue to a sound byte about “then and now”. But what about the sound byte itself? For example, as I asked last year–amid “street scenes and carriage jams”— what did the social nature of traffic interactions actually sound like in the late nineteenth century?
The problem is that sound is amorphous, and not easily reconstructed, however important a role it may play in the quality of the urban past, present and future. Consider the “phonautogram” efforts of Thomas Edison colleague Charles Batchelor in 1872 in an urban setting. Click here for a barely audible recording of New York City’s Metropolitan Elevated Railroad, 40 feet away.
Nonetheless, study of “soundscapes“—particularly in the urban environment—has grown from its academic foundation in Vancouver by R. Murray Schafer in the 1960’s. The urban soundscape is an increasing focal point worldwide. Sound-based urban initiatives appear both as prospective planning tools and as historical, documentary exercises to inform an urban past.
Prospectively, soundscapes are an element of the urban environment. Soundscape proponents argue for assistance from the aural as well as the visual, in order to facilitate the identity of a place through careful, qualitative attention to how it sounds.
For instance, one click, here, provides background on the “acoustic landscapes” in Cologne, Germany, and the evolution of Schafer’s thinking when applied to modern Berlin. The Goethe Institute provides perspective from American American Yukio King, who worked on Berlin sound issues:
As at Helmholtzplatz in the East Berlin borough of Prenzlauer Berg. All you could hear there a few years ago were barking dogs and clinking beer bottles. Now that many young families have moved into the neighbourhood, the cries of children drown out these sounds: which King feels has enhanced the area in acoustic terms.
In addition, King attempted a dialogue in another Berlin neighborhood which emphasized the benefits of classic :
In his 2007 project Urban Soundmarks, he not only documented the soundscape of a neighbourhood in Neukölln, a disadvantaged area in the south of Berlin, but drew up an urban planning concept that incorporated sound design and presented it to the borough council. His suggestion was that open-air cafes or a market could acoustically improve this relatively quiet neighbourhood.
Historic attention to soundscapes literally echo the visual and focus on hearing as well as seeing the qualities of cities over time.
Scholars have focused on the recreation of urban sounds to aid in the understanding of historic urban experiences, sometimes at an IMAX-like level. Berlin’s National Museums provide a good, ongoing example in this year’s dramatic exhibition about the ancient. classical city of Pergamon. Sounds accompany a panoramic reconstruction, as “[a]udio impressions including day and night simulations, complete with sunrise and sunset, and ambient sound effects that recreate life in an ancient city, allow the visitor to experience a whole day in Pergamon.”
Similarly, Pittsburgh-based non-profit Public VR‘s website offers an in-process reconstruction of ancient Pompeii’s theater district, which is silent for now, but will soon contain ambient sounds composed with simulated ancient Roman musical instruments.
In another effort, funded research has allowed multinational work on reconstruction of urban soundscapes in renaissance Spain through the study of “musicians, performers, institutions, composers, instrument makers, copyists, printers, consumers, blind balladeers and many others across a broad social spectrum”.
Whether directed to shaping the future soundscape or understanding past examples, one thing is clear. Sight and sound both play roles in understanding cities, and the role of sound is ripe for further exploration.
Pergamon graphic courtesy of Berlin National Museums. All other images composed by the author. Click on each image for more detail.
A similar version of this post first appeared in The Atlantic Cities.