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?