architectural writing & design

Extract from final year dissertation The City of London Cries. Contact Éva for full version.
Intro - Sonic London  

The great city of roar

"London has always been characterised by the noise that is an aspect of its noisomeness." (Peter Ackroyd, The London Biography, Chapter 5).  Pre-industrial London has been equated to the roar of a monstrous creature, a living organ, a human body, a breathing beast but its earsplitting soundscape was a token of life itself.  A true Londoner associated himself with his cities thunderous reverberation and took pride in its boastfulness.  In sharp contrast to the glorious past soundscape, the contemporary metropolis resembles a grinding monotone machine.  The fear of the unnatural sound quality stems not only from the fact that the artificial is louder than the natural.  I propose that perhaps, following the introduction of automobiles and pneumatic drills the sudden hatred towards urban noise stems from the deep-rooted terror of a living creature, a fear that the living will suffer defeat from the artifice.  The aim of this dissertation was to investigate the possibility of creating private and public spaces with particular acoustic qualities, to increase the occurrence of chance encounter, to encourage a tactile and direct engagement with the built environment for experimental musical production and to break the boundaries between physically segregated spaces.

I designed a small sonic city quarter in London by proposing to redevelop a derelict triangular site in Snow Hill - in the old cattle market around Farringdon - into a sonic quarter, called the City of London cries.  My project reflects on and reinvents elements traditional to urban design; pavement, the city wall, courtyards and churchyards.  Dwellers of this community would have the chance to play their immediate environment as a giant musical instrument.

The title of my project refers to a peculiar conclave of inhabitants extent from modern London; street vendors selling their ware from carts or baskets announced their arrival by repeatedly singing, shouting, crying out a few musical lines such as: “Buy my shrimp, come buy my shrimp!” Today the only trade advertised solely via audio remains small scale drug trafficking: dealers negotiate with coded whistles around Kings Cross and a large part of Soho becomes a live screech orchestra after sunset.

First Chord - Sonic London

Percussion - novelty in the old pavement

The sonic quarter makes its presence felt gradually, we pass an invisible border when suddenly our footfall noise starts to sound different.  Parts of the usual portland stone pavement slabs are replaced by timber - used for the world's very first pavements around Holborn Circus - then we step on steel, copper and rubber. Footsteps play the pavement as percussion as we approach the site, echo chambers with different depths under the slabs produce different pitches.  Timber crunks under high heels, steel clings and clanks under heavy Timberlands, copper splams under leather soles then suddenly the silent patters of trainers on rubber adds suspense to the footfall orchestra.

bird's eye view of the quarter with the resurfaced pavement and roads leading to the site  digital montage printed over scaled OS map on Bockford water colour paper

pavement detail, original scale: 1:10, digital montage over scaled drawing printed on Bockford water colour paper
Inhabitants and visitors choice of footwear, his or her body weight, the speed and style of walk produces vastly different sounds.  It was intriguing to think of the foot and footwear as drumsticks to the drum, to see the foot as an extension to the built environment.  It is everyday practice in the architectural discourse to pay attention to how the body inhabits space but a lot less consideration is given to the type of sounds bodies can produce in the (wo)man built environment.  In this sonic world I proposed an individual can be heard from afar rather than be seen and if a person does not want to be recognised by his or her steps an alternative footwear might be the only choice.

I made a pair of shoes by folding lead and stitching it with copper wire.  Although it is dangerous I loved working with lead, its a pleasant metal to handle, to some degree it behaves like textile.  The sheer weight of the shoes, my fear from the poisons of the material altered my footfall to the point where it was impossible to tell it was me.  A new sonic alter ego prodded the pavement.

Lead shoe with brass stitches at scale 1:1

Depictions of the quarter focusing on three different occasion: 1.general overview without a specific time, 2.overview on a Sunday, 3. overview on a Monday

early model of the pavement leading to an enclosure, painted MDF model at scale 1:1250  

On the second plan the church is in focus as on a Sunday the bells would blast out all other noises and footfall noise would be minimal. The third image shows the quarter on a Monday morning.  The steady echo of footfalls as workers rush on the first day of the week overshadows everything else. The pavement pulsates intensely whilst everything else remains in relative silence.

Second Chord - Sonic London

Dressing to the occasion – dressing the ballroom for the occasion

The dance which started in the City of London Cries on the pavement would carry on into an enclosure which will allow for musical production in a more controlled environment. The site on Snow hill did not allow for a large building but a rather smallish venue.  A venue is classified as “small” if its volume is not large enough to house an orchestra but is able to serve a small performing group like a string quartet. I experimented with various volumes through quick models made out of MDF till I found the classic shoe-box shape. A string of ideas around a sonic city finally gathered around the problematic of designing a highly controlled environment for two basic human aural performances: speech and music.

studies on light and space variations with adjustable wall, MDF and white card model

early facade design for ball/speech room, it resembled a ghetto blaster, MDF and white card model

sliding sound absorbing wall, collage over scaled drawing

Requirements for a space for speech and music are conflicting.  In case of speech the most imperative decisive factor is that the speaker should be heard distinctly by all members of the audience.  In speech the syllables follow each other rapidly and unless one syllable decays rapidly before the other is formed the earlier syllable will mask the later.  For a quick decay of syllables the reverberation time must be low, but not 0.  Reverberation time is defined as the time taken for a sound to decay by 60DB after the sound source is abruptly switched off.

The PSA, Percent Articulation Index is an analysis of the percentage of consonants and vowels which were heard correctly when reading a list of monosyllabic nonsensical words.  A PSA of 80% allows the audience to understand every single sentence effortlessly. The time taken for a sound to linger depends on the room dimensions, geometry and the amount of absorbent materials on the surfaces and in the room. Music requires relatively long reverberation time although this varies with genre.

As a rule of thumb the optimum reverberation time for concert halls is:    RT=1.8-2.2 sec

for speech is at least less then a second:    RT<1 sec

Reverberation time in a space decreases by shrinking the volume or lowering absorption.  For a space I had the option to design a variable volume but opted to experiment with absorption and surface treatment instead.

With an earlier design - the lead shoe - I was dressing humans to bridge the gap between the built environment and the body to enable the body to be used as drumsticks.  This time I designed a hall to be clothed.  The space had to dress to the occasion.  The ballroom will have to follow events that take place inside by shifting its interior lining.  Just like its occupants the ballroom has to dress to the occasion, therefore the acoustical devices I use in the project evolve around surface treatment.

Third Chord - Sonic London

Dressing and undressing the ballroom to the occasion - drapery and bare walls Diffusing patterns

The ceiling pattern resembles a classic white shirt, it appears to be drapery dipped into plaster.  It is reminiscent to fabric carved on a baroque sculpture. In baroque motion was incarcerated on artworks as if the figures were captured in a moment and froze.  To eradicate stillness, folds in the drapery and clothing were used to exaggerate motion.  My diffusion panels are a reinvention of the baroque stone drapery for the 21st century.  This plaster drapery runs vertically along the length of the ceiling which leads to a visual distortion: at first sight the reflected ceiling plan can be seen as if the drapery was running from top to bottom.  The creases and the folds become denser in the corners which are rounded off to prevent undesired reflections.

reflected ceiling plans. top left shows the ceiling suited for music with the plaster ornaments only. bottom right depicts the ceiling in speech model
Representing ephemeral qualities like sound and abstract concepts (or the fourth dimension) like time in architectural drawing is not normally in the realm of a practicing architect.  In the everyday dummy run an architectural drawing is a legal document between contractor and designer, a set of instructions to aim the realisation of the final tangible object. One of the interesting paradoxes of being an architect student is that we spend years drawing projects which will never be built.  An accurate set of drawings marked “for construction” seems a bit of a hoax under these circumstances.  In my speculative work I aimed to experiment with traditional architectural representations - line drawings and scaled plans, ordinance survey maps, elevations and cross sections - created digital “watercolours” still keeping scale and measurements but overlaying them with colour montages. Representing the passing of time, mood shifts, sounds or any kind of movement proved to be difficult but an out of the ordinary way of working. I ended up pondering on textures as these were most suitable to evoke memories and impressions of sounds. Textures also hold an imperative role in architectural acoustic.  The drawings started as scaled line drawings, then became montages, collages focusing on surface treatment.

two plans and a reflected ceiling plan of the quarter. focus is on representing surface materials with their audio quality rather than lines, forms and boundaries

white card models of the sonic quarter to scale 1:100
all rights reserved. all images and words © eva baranyai, 2011