SF Lunchwalk: North

SF Lunchwalk: North, third in a series exploring the city instead of eating lunch.

I am exploring north along streets mechanized from below. Gears, pulleys, and cables live under the street, humming and clapping, droning and singing, partaking in the communion of automata.

I would begin not listening to machines, but to the bells of the Salvation Army. Passing a giant tree which these islanders clearly worship, my legs took me swiftly beyond the sparkle to the hard, clean edges of less populated terrain. I walked through a tunnel where the city's sound stretched out in long bellowing reverberance. There: on the other side, another world with yet another tunnel leading west. As I had decided to head strictly north with my hour of exploration, I left this second tunnel for another lunch hour walk.

Little boxes under the street are now singing out, easily heard in the calm of the northern streets.  I step off from my sheltered, raised path to get a closer listen.  I stand in the middle of the street, kneeling over the crevices where the heavy cable cars slide, laden with travelers seeking the typical view, those seeking to own the iconic moment.  I am vulnerable here, where walkers should not be, and especially because I am kneeling over these mundane things and, triggering a passerby to think "I see something, should I say something?"

I reach the edge of the map half an hour into the walk.  Returning south to the office, I trace this infrastructure which supports the endless touristic loops of the city.  Surprisingly, even the most cliche of San Francisco icons has a depth to it.  The gear boxes and cable junctures add a constant hum to the background static of the city.   Listen:

 SF Lunchwalk : North by nicksowers

What other machines are driving the city?  The street is not the only place to look for them.  An entire expedition is forthcoming which walks the escalators of the city.  Later, I will explore the elevators.  Then, revolving doors:  an endless loop of machines moving an endless loop of people.


SF Lunchwalk: West

A traveler on this new island, my first forays radiate out from the center.  At 12:36 pm, I start walking due west.

Not a few moments pass before I am pressed up against fellow travelers, compressed in the space of the city, stacked like the bricks around us.  A clicking signal indicates to the blind, such as yourself, that a street crossing is permitted by the local authorities.  Let loose once again up the concrete walk, I slip around pedestrians along my strict course of travel.

This staccato pedestrian pace of long strides along the blocks and standing still at the corners is the dominate rhythm of a city walk.  Giving in to this rhythm does not preclude the variety of encounters--spatial, social, sensorial--which are possible.  The corner of a block leads to collisions between unlikely actors.  The frictionless straightaway, on the other hand, permits a certain isolation, allowing me to observe and record a singular cut through the cityscape.

These blocks of buildings form larger groups of blocks with distinguishable characteristics (tall buildings, hard surfaces, voids of parking garages, etc).  These groups may form called districts or neighborhoods, but I abandon those artificial boundaries.  Look, listen, to the physical properties which unite them.  This walking radius is an island: the order it contains is the order I have given it.  By walking through the heterogeneous clusters of built and un-built space, I produce an organization.  I organize space by walking through it.  Then recording sound and reassembling that sound into a single track, I attempt to illuminate that order, to give clarity to it through a language of sound.  Listen:

 SF Lunchwalk: West by nicksowers

At the beginning of the track, I am compressed on a corner.  Layers of travelers cross over me, vehicles shred the space of the possible, and a man with a cane bends over talking to a woman inside her car with a small dog in the driver's seat.  An open-deck tour bus with the driver's well-beaten narrative, amplified, is momentarily captured by my microphones before disappearing off the edge of the map.  Above my head taps a hand against the stucco face of a building to a beat independent of the street.  Shrill brakes and electric bus straw snapping, the volume thickens.

Cars roar up and down an artery named after Van Ness.  They drown out the layering of space, flattening the sonic sphere momentarily until I cross it.  Walking further up, a slight increase in elevation, and I find a tennis court.  Leaf blowers signify greater affluence.

Later, at a two-block wide park, at the boomerang moment on the walk, I welcome the great depth of field. Hills to the south are visible with their own little orchestras of sirens and cars tinny like the sound from a miniature train model.   At the park, space releases itself from a tight coil.  The aural vista opens wide. The city is out there.


SF Lunchwalks

Lunch break. Got an hour? Take a walk. Inside of a thirty-minute radius, an infinitely detailed (though finitely bound) landscape is within reach.

SF Lunchwalks: Morsel of San Francisco which I can reach in a one-hour roundtrip from my office.

SF Lunchwalk 01 : Cracks is the first in a series of soundwalks, where I take a walk for an hour instead of eating lunch (or eat lunch while walking). My goal is to record the sounds of a unique slice of the city, to hear the city anew through the stereo microphones of my Zoom H4n recorder.

On this first soundwalk I am looking for cracks between buildings. When I find one, I stick the recorder in there.

 Giant cracks exist too, beneath freeways, where freeways unfold, colliding ever so slowly.  Listen:


Death by Stereo

Edgar Frog: I think I should warn you all, when a vampire bites it, it's never a pretty sight. No two blood suckers go out the same way. Some yell and scream, some go quietly, some explode, some implode. But, all will try and take you with them.


The Revolution will not be Amplified

A mobile loudspeaker array

Something like what you see above will not be found around the #occupy movements growing in cities around the globe.  An amplified platform, broadcasting a clear and distinct message, is fittingly absent.  It is not permissible by many of the occupied downtown neighborhoods, nor is it even necessary as a technology for these groups to express themselves.

The NYPD requires a Sound Device Application, plus 45 dollars per day, to use amplified sound in a public space.  This includes battery-powered bullhorns.  While numerous groups have applied for permits, it stands within reason that the NYPD is not going to be granting any permits to the Occupy Wall Street movement. How is one to speak to a crowd of hundreds?

Free and requiring no permit is the human microphone. Anyone who has heard one of the celebrities speaking to the crowds will be familiar with its odd cadence and glitchy translations.  The concept is incredibly simple: a group of people who can hear the speaker simply repeat what was said, causing speech to move at a slow and deliberate pace.

Corporate art as sound amplification near Liberty Park, NY  (edited; orginal by Cryptome)
While the human microphone is an awesome, almost church-like display of the power of a group, it is worth thinking about how the built context of a protest group might assist in the un-powered amplification of speech.  We know from stages and well-designed lecture halls that reflective surfaces near the speaker amplify sound.  The same principles can be taken outside.  The above image caught my attention when I realized that corporate art is often made of large, hard surfaces.  This group of activists found a 'natural' site of sound amplification and gathered around it.

In lieu of being approved for one of those amplified sound permits, perhaps Occupy Wall Street or any number of Occupy movements around the country should solicit pro bono advice from an acoustics engineer at the Arup SoundLab.  Or better yet, find a blind person.  Acoustic wayfinding helps the blind use sound reflections to navigate urban space.  There might be hidden sweet spots in some of these parks and plazas that would help amplify the human microphone.

Slavoj Zizek and the Human Microphone (edited; original by Cryptome

I was watching Slavoj Zizek's human-microphone-amplified speech and what struck me most were not his words but the situation of my watching the video.  This video, with the recording taken from somewhere in the middle of a giant human microphone, left the impression of the crowd generating the words, and the speaker with his tiny voice becoming anonymous.

To top it off, next to the human microphone video was a google ad for a loudspeaker array, from a company called TVi Audio.  The slogan? "Experience the Revolution".


Listening prostheses

Horn Antenna, Holmdel, New Jersey, circa 1960 (via)
I came across this image by chance, just flipping through images of Bell Laboratories.  The image itself speaks of a colossal effort to listen to something.  Was it a particular sound that was sought out here?  Not sound, but another kind of wave energy would be collected in this ear in the landscape.  This ear with its ability to rotate and point to a particular part of the sky could subtract out all of the radar and radio waves inundating the electro-magnetic landscape.

This engineering effort to eliminate noise led to a most unexpected discovery.  Research at the Bell Laboratories in the 1960s was conducted in concert with NASA's Project Echo using the above pictured Horn Antenna. The antenna was constructed to eliminate noise in order to receive a precise microwave signal reflected by a satellite in orbit.
The Horn Antenna, at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in Holmdel, New Jersey, is significant because of its association with the research work of two radio astronomers, Dr. Arno A. Penzias and Dr. Robert A. Wilson. In 1965 while using the Horn Antenna, Penzias and Wilson stumbled on the microwave background radiation that permeates the universe. Cosmologists quickly realized that Penzias and Wilson had made the most important discovery in modern astronomy since Edwin Hubble demonstrated in the 1920s that the universe was expanding. (via)
Granted, the "noise" was not audible in Penzias and Wilson's microwave radiation, but the concept is directly analogous to sound waves.  Sound mirrors along the UK's southern coast, built to detect aircraft in the decade leading up to WWII, were, like the Horn Antenna, used for a very specific purpose.   These concave concrete shells permitted a listener--or a microphone--at the focal point of the reflection to pick up the droning sound of approaching aircraft before the planes would become visible.  The giant mirrors become outdated before the war, and were effectively replaced by radar.   No great scientific discoveries would be made here, but the project is all the same critical as we turn our attention to new possibilities for listening prostheses.  What other vast engineering efforts with the aim of sharpening signals have potential for other listening purposes?

Anechoic chamber at the Harvard Acoustics Research Laboratory 

An anechoic chamber is also a kind of prosthesis, serving to eliminate sound reflections in a room.  Bell Labs built the first one, and Harvard's Acoustics Research Laboratory also built one.  ( See Beranek's Box  by Laci Videmsky for a short film on the anechoic chamber at Harvard  )  John Cage famously sat in Harvard's anechoic  for a period of time and emerged with a striking observation:
I heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.
JC's conclusion was that there could therefore be no such thing as silence.  As long as we live, a fundamental, background hum, pervades our experience.

So if silence is not possible, if a pure signal can never be achieved, a counter-project to the one of noise reduction emerges which is to amplify that background sound.  Such is the allure of the Sonic Pavilion by Doug Aitken - a mile deep boring into the earth with microphones and accelerometers at varying depths.  We hear the sounds of the earth, of seismic plates shifting, of a background geologic hum, transposed to the range of human hearing.  This representation is not at all trying to hear anything, to cull any particular signal or data set.  It is simply a project about listening.  Listening for the sake of listening, for the pleasure of recording that which is buried, masked, and otherwise un-listenable.

The listening prosthetic is ultimately about itself, which is partly why that photo of the Horn Antenna is so compelling.  Yes, as a piece of technology, it is out-dated.  Like the sound mirrors, it is a ruin.  It is no longer fired up to listen to the background waves of the Universe.  But the larger project of augmenting the act of listening continues.  Let it be a monument to listening.


Lo-fi Architecture

Hi-fi architecture: a concert hall, a lecture room, a sound stage.  A great deal of acoustic engineering and formal design decisions goes into the production of these spaces. The remaining spaces we inhabit, the everyday architecture of hallways, kitchens, lobbies, and public streets--these are largely not designed from an acoustic standpoint.  Less than lo-fi, which would suggest some sort of technology for directing sound, the majority of our environments could be described as no-fi architecture.  Sound is often considered in the no-fi case to be an irritant, to be eliminated if it is to be paid attention to at all. 

Why bother with engineering an environment for precise listening  when the occupant--a passerby on the street, a visitor to your home or office, etc--is not engaged to listen as a concert hall goer might be.  The occupant of a no-fi environment must first have a desire to listen.

Rather than giving up on the no-fi environment, and while recognizing that design is a premium commodity which makes hi-fi architecture attainable only for user group who will pay for it, architecture, landscape, and sound intersect in an uncharted middle ground. I am calling this new ground "lo-fi architecture".

Hi-fi and lo-fi take their root in sound engineering, in both recording and playback.  In general we like our sound to be more authentic, more "true" to artist's intention which leads to a vast engineering effort to perfect the recording and equally perfect the dispersion of the sound into individual listening environments.  So why would anyone favor a "down-graded" sound, either intentionally stripped of its fidelity or of a lower quality due to a lack of economic means?

One answer to that question lies not so much in aesthetic preferences as it does in a punk, culture-jamming practice.   In lo-fi audio and music, this is exemplified by circuit bending. Circuit bending is the technique of modifying a circuit board to produce (or unleash) sounds that were previously "locked up" in the circuit.  Musicians and noise artists particularly enjoying warping toy keyboards and all manner of things.

Circuit bending as a material practice could translate up in scale to the built environment.   How can the landscapes we live in, which are becoming ever closer to being mass-produced, be re-wired or "bent" by the user?  Moving beyond the metaphor, designing for the sonic environment at large is a tangible domain for individual experimentation.

DEMILIT experiments acoustically with stormwater pipes on the street
Tinkering, rather than designing, is the mode of sonic reclamation of our built environment.  But even the tools of tinkering are designed--subwoofers, amplifiers, speaker wire.  Lo-fi architecture seeks to enable a building's occupants or a street's pedestrians to shape their experience, using the tools readily available on the market (the bombastic detritus of sound from a car amplifier escaping the car, for example).  Listening intently then to these un-listenable or otherwise uninteresting environments may just reveal a hidden soundtrack to our lives.  It may also tease out the politics of sound in the public arena - who controls sound, how is it controlled, and to what ends.  


The story of life is this: static

Give me 20 D Energizers.
20 C Energizers?
Not C, D. 
C Energizers?
D, motherfucker, D. Learn to speak English first, all right?
How many you say?
20, motherfucker, 20.
Motherfuck you.
Motherfuck you? You, you all right, man.


Traces of a Pre-Military Landscape

A definite sonic quality to this 1932 aerial view of San Francisco Bay.  Found via.
Much has been made of exploring post-military landscapes, but what is to be said of the pre-military landscape?

For instance, survey the busy San Francisco Bay in the photo above, just a handful of years before the military began its massive transformation of the watery edge.  It is worth observing how well this landscape lent itself to being transformed by the military.  Alameda Airport, tucked away in the bottom left, was positioned adjacent to the Oakland shipping channel. Both sides of the mouth of this channel would become intensely militarized leading up to WWII.  In the middle of the Bay sits Yerba Buena Island before it and the unborn Treasure Island became militarized.

These peripheral spaces--the thickened crust at the city's edge--were fertile territories for projecting the city's and by extension, the nation's power.  The gridded financial district and the commercial vitality of Market Street depended on these militarized edges for protection and free trade.  Thus the landscape of the bay played a crucial role in projecting American power into the Pacific.

So a curious thing happens to the landscape then when that fountainhead of power withdraws its might.  There is a power vacuum.  An almost infinite array of possibilities arise, then, when the military departs suddenly, by act of congress or explosion of volcano.

This is a roundabout way of announcing my talk "The Post-Military Landscape Future" to be given at Architecture for Humanity's 848 Folsom St. office, at lunchtime on September 7th.  I will be speaking about my tour of US military bases around the world in 2009, focusing on bases closed and bases in transition.  The former military bases of the Bay Area formed a good part of my inspiration for setting out on this traveling fellowship.  AFH and the Open Architecture Network are gearing up to announce a competition on finding strategies for reclaiming military bases: [un]restricted access.  This is an unprecedented opportunity to collect knowledge and project possible futures for military landscapes around the world.

The second local event to announce is that DEMILIT will be leading a walk at the Headlands Center for the Arts on September 25th as a part of the program "Desire Trails".  We will be scraping sounds from the former Nike Missile site, now a Marine Mammal Center, across the lagoon from the old Army barracks in which the Headlands Center for Arts is sited.  Stay tuned to DEMILIT for more details on the event.

Concluding here, it is useful--necessary, even--to interpret the post-military landscape for clues to its pre-military nature.  For we cannot predict exactly how our contemporary landscape will shift due to future militarization.  We can, however, extrapolate from current and past transformations of space what it is that makes up a military landscape.  It is the task of DEMILIT and others to document that change.  The medium of sound, examined and projected here as part of the architectural practice called Soundscrapers, enables but one of many media which may expose these traces of militarization.


Military Pastoral

Busy times offline here at Soundscrapers.

Found in print only, on a newsstand somewhere, is an essay and set of drawings titled "Military Pastoral" in issue 138 of Frieze magazine.  In the article I write about two military landscapes with vastly divergent post-military paths:  Gettysburg, memorialized ad infinitum, and Palmanova, finding new life in its eroding geometries.

The Entropic Timepiece of Gettysburg Memorial Park
Last month, Places over at Design Observer published "Soundscape: Atlantikwal" with several tracks of bunker audio extracted from my military architecture tour of 2009.

Soundscrapers is also involved in a sonic excavation of Angel Island, in collaboration with the DEMILIT crew.  Stay tuned for an announcement on that front.


A misty morel wall

A misty morel wall

Soundscrapers continues the assault on the kitchen over at GOOD.
What would make a good sonic kitchen?
Hit me up over @twitter.



In case you missed it, I have a soundscape for your listening pleasure over at Design Observer's Places.  The recordings are of the temporary city called Burning Man which appears annually in the Nevada Desert.

I was out there for the full seven days, recorder in hand...
As a trained architect who is familiar with listening to cities composed largely of hard walls, I found myself out of my element out on the playa. Right away I became exhausted with recording because everything was subsumed by the maddening drone from hundreds of amplified sound sources. Subtle sounds that I found interesting — a metal sculpture creaking in the wind, or sand skittering across the desert floor — were rendered muddy when I listened to them on the recorder. That can be a great thing about recording sound: you are often surprised by the loudness of the background sounds that we naturally tune out. 
By the end of the first day I doubted whether it would be worthwhile to record anything at all. The task, as I discovered on day two, was finding ways to listen to the noise until it no longer became noise. WWJCD — What Would John Cage Do? This question governed the rest of my week at Burning Man. I tried various strategies. Once, I stood still, eyes closed, as a sea of mad people surged around me. Other times I walked to the furthest edges of the city, until all the sound sources merged into one continuous mass of sound, and I simply listened to its drone.
Be sure to experience the soundscape for yourself, and don't miss Nate Berg's examination of Burning Man as an experiment which has implications for the less temporary environments we produce.


No contest

The following question comes from a study guide for one of the seven exams required to get an architecture license:

When I saw the question, after getting over my disbelief that this sort of subjective nonsense could even be found on the exam, I put down (D) as my answer. I flipped to the back. WRONG. The answer is (A). Are you kidding me!? It was as though the architecture gods-that-be struck me down on the spot with an onyx hammer.

We needn't be reminded that light and shadow allow us to read geometry and form, that perspective lines help detect distance, etc. etc. Sure, smell doesn't tell us the shape of a room, but in prehistoric times it might have meant life or death. That the texture of surfaces do not affect the quality of space is a hard point to sell. But sound! Imagine walking anywhere without the sound of your footsteps, or of other people moving around, delivering cues to your ears about the general shape and depth of a room. Sound can warm up a space, reflected off of soft, absorptive surfaces; or sound can render space cool and steely.  What visual tyranny that the sense of sound not measure up to sight!

To test this further, consider two rooms where each sense (vision and hearing) is pushed to its limits:

Anechoic chamber at Bell Labs

1.  A room with no sound reflections.  I have been inside an anechoic chamber at UC Berkeley.  It's a maddening sensation when after the massive door shuts and you are left in the space alone, you hear nothing except the sound of blood rushing through your head.  Nothing reflects off of the walls, and there is no sound that is not generated by your body.  If you speak out loud, you are not hearing your voice bounce back to you; you hear your voice resonating in your throat and reverberating in your skull.  It is not pleasant.  Perhaps that is why at this anechoic chamber in Minnesota, a six-pack of beer is given to anyone who can last 45 minutes in there.

Your childhood bedroom

2.  A room with no light reflections.  A theoretical space, a black body room where all the walls absorb all light--so there is light, but the walls are impossibly black and featureless/dimensionless.  It would be cool to look at your hand, perfectly lit up by this imaginary light source (maybe you are bio-luminescent), but nothing else reflects light. I bet you could last hours sitting there, having no trouble looking into a black space.  Maybe you would invent shapes as you did in a dark bedroom as a child.

The absence of the sound qualities in a space, I argue, are more psychologically disturbing than the absence of visual qualities.  Furthermore, heinous visual experiences can be fixed by shutting one's eyes.  A cacophonous sound experience (unless you are a noise music fan) is, well, pretty much impossible to shut out.

Now, all of these imaginations inspired by a licensing exam!  I understand why the question is answered the way it is.  Architects simply haven't been trained to use sound as the primary determinant of form.  I sincerely doubt these exams are the place to instigate change, but I just had to get a little rant off my chest.


Fragmented Skies

The photographer Joachim Schmid was (and perhaps still is) afflicted by a condition known as hyperacusis -- a reaction of severe irritation to sounds of certain frequencies. Apparently airborne sounds like helicopters were causing him great discomfort. Whether or not the object was visible, Mr. Schmid, as a self-imposed therapy, would step outside and take a photograph of the sky.  Each moment of pain, then, was transformed into an opportunity to collect another photograph.  Mr. Schmid writes on his website: "After more than a year and two thousand photographs later, I had nearly stopped noticing why I started taking them. I guess, in this way, the exercise could be considered a complete success."
Tausend Himmel by Joachim Schmid
The project, as a collection of thousands of these photographs, is titled Tausend Himmel, which can be translated as "Thousand Skies" or "Thousand Heavens".  It is provocative that the source of inspiration here is an unwavering discomfort with the environment.  Is is it not a dissatisfaction with our environment which then leads to the production of something better?  The mitigation of noise is such a sensitive issue in our urban and rural environments.  Imagine, then, a population armed with recording mechanisms, aggressively pointing them toward the perpetrating sources.  Would this lead to greater legislation and other means of control of these sources?  Or, would this collective insurgency actually produce a new social order in relation to these sonic infiltrations? Don't ask the parents to clam up their crying baby; just take close-up shots of its screaming mouth.

There is a beautiful ambiguity to Mr. Schmid's project which on the one hand insulates the sounds of the sky from criticism as 'noise' and on the other hand points to the sounds as these incredibly pervasive assaults on personal space.  The artist further plunges us into ambiguity by the title of the work.  Is it simply a work of documentation--a thousand skies--or is it a provocation that we can overcome the perception of sound-as-noise and appreciate all sound as something transcending our daily lives--a thousand heavens?