Sounds of Silence [8]

We should be designing cities for better acoustics.

A snowy walk through the streets of Fort Greene, Brooklyn reminds me of my childhood. It has been 17 years since I have lived in a climate that has snowy winters and it is a pleasure waking up to snow blowing past our apartment windows, covering the surrounding rooftops, and accumulating on the streets. Snow transforms the city in many ways. Often overlooked and under appreciated is how it transforms the city’s acoustics.

I love cities and have lived in some of the largest and busiest urban centers in the world. From the frigid winters of Montreal to the heat of Bangkok, the crowds of Shanghai to the artistic hub of Berlin, the outdoor paradise of Portland to my current home in New York City, each place has it’s own character and pace of life. And each has it’s own soundscape.

Almost every morning in Portland I was unpleasantly awoken at sunrise by the screech of crows. Here in NY there is a constant drone of the noises of city life. Traffic roars along Flatbush; people unrelentingly express their love of car horns; sirens grow and fade as ambulances or police race through the streets; helicopters whirl overhead as they crisscross the sky carrying police or billionaires to some important destination. The biggest downside to life in a city is this constant noise.

Snow changes all of that. Traffic dissipates as people huddle indoors. With less traffic, there are fewer car horns, reduced tires on the roads, and less emergencies needing attention - thus fewer sirens. Flights are grounded leaving the sky clear of human made sounds. Meanwhile the falling snow blankets the city with an acoustic carpet, deadening the audible soundscape.

It is refreshing, and a reminder that cities are more pleasant without the rumble and rattle we all make. The quiet streets are a joy to wander down. In the park you hear the deadened sounds of children laughing as they sled and play in the snow. An occasional dog barks. You hear the slight wind or creak of trees. The snow muffles the intruding sounds beyond the park’s borders.

We need to remind ourselves that cities don’t have to be so noisy. We can design places that have better acoustics and thus create better places to live. We can restrict traffic - either by closing streets, removing lanes, or implementing congestion pricing. Adding protected bike lanes would encourage people to drive less. Charging for parking and subsidizing public transit would further reduce car use. Electric vehicles can replace the roar of combustion engines. It would be an easy political win to ban helicopters as they are completely unnecessary and only serve a tiny handful of people.

The design of our streets, public spaces, and buildings can consider the acoustics of the urban environment just as they respond to climate, weather, and other functions. While we currently focus on how things look, we rarely discuss how the built environment impacts how things sound. I hope this changes.

Cities can be places where the noises of nature outweigh the sounds of human. Sirens and traffic could be the exception rather than the dominant force in the urban soundscape. I’d rather hear the sounds of wind, the songs of birds, or simply have quiet spaces to walk and think, even when I’m in the heart of a dense urban environment.

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Weekly Reading

  1. The Architectural Drawing Prize
    My love for architecture and the art of design is strong, even as my frustrations with the profession grow. It is seeing things like this that rekindle my passion for architecture. From beautiful hand drawings to captivating digital creations, Architectural Drawings can be incredible pieces of art that tell captivating stories and describe imaginative spaces. Below is an incredible image inspired by Piranesi and a hand drawn section drawing that I found beautiful. Check the link for all of the finalists from 2020.

  2. Why Is The Modern World So Ugly?
    I’ve long felt that the profession was too afraid of the word beauty. It was rarely heard in architectural school or during design studio critiques. Discussions revolved around function, choreography, concept, diagrams, but rarely what the building looked like.

    when architecture reached modern times, the very word beauty became taboo.

    I firmly believe that modern architecture often is beautiful, and that we can design beautiful structures and spaces in any style. But unless we discuss beauty as part of the design process I fear that most of our buildings will continue to be rather ugly. Anyway, this is a good essay on the subject.

    Modernity became ugly because it forgot how to articulate that beauty is, in the end, as much of a necessity for a building as a functioning roof.

  3. Ready Set Containerize: City Moves Ahead With Open Streets Garbage Plan
    A little NYC centric, but more importantly, how has this taken so long? One of the first thing we noticed after moving to Brooklyn this past year is piles of trash left on the sidewalks. This article is pointing out how the current situation and future plan still prioritizes space for cars over people but I feel it is at least a step in the right direction. How has the city not moved forward with better garbage control policies over the past 100 years or so? Isn’t having containers on each street a no brainer? I don’t think any other city I’ve lived in has relied on people just piling up garbage on sidewalks as the primary sanitation plan. So ridiculous.

  4. Human Made Mass Now Exceeds All Living Biomass on Earth
    A short read that is basically summed up in the headline. Fascinating none-the-less. My gut feeling is this isn’t a good thing. Is there any possibility of turning back? Probably not.

  5. The Case Against Gas In Our Homes
    It is safer, healthier, and cheaper to not put gas lines into new housing. It is also better for the environment. I always advise the clients I work with to go all-electric on their custom homes and ADUs making all of our projects net-zero energy ready.

  6. Why Urban Acoustics Matter
    As I discussed above, architecture and cities should be designed for better acoustic experiences.

Weekly Design Inspiration

Courtyard House - Designed by The Marc Boutin Architectural Collaborative

Located in Calgary, Alberta this house is a great example of a modern/contemporary design that still has a soft sensibility to it. The depth of the façade on the floating box, the warmth of the light reflecting off the wood fins, and the way that interior maintains views to the courtyard garden are wonderful. The home is distinctly contemporary. The manipulation of the grading, sinking the main living spaces below ground and carving out the back courtyard, shrink the scale of the project to respond to the suburban context. It is a project that is specific to the site, one of the design values I hold dear.

My Work Featured in Dwell Magazine.

A couple of ADU projects I helped design back in Portland, were recently featured in Dwell Magazine. It is fun to see your work published. Thank you to Brian Libby for writing the article and Dwell for publishing it!

Sharing the love.

a person/organization that deserves more attention

Evelyn Lee | Practice of Architecture

I first met Evelyn when we were both volunteering on various committees at the American Institute of Architects. I was on the National Associates Committee as Evelyn was a leader on the Young Architect Forum. Both groups were focused on emerging professionals within architecture, how the practice should be planning for the future, and how the institute can better support and engage young practitioners as their careers develop and they grow into leaders within the design community.

Evelyn is now the Senior Experience Designer at Slack Technologies molding a career that bridges architectural design and the tech world. At the same time, she has started Practice of Architecture, a website focused on helping develop leadership and other professional development skills for firms and individuals. In their own words:

The Practice of Architecture helps individuals and firms identify opportunities for leadership & growth, building careers & practices that prosper in today’s changing world.

Intro to their Podcast:

Episode 1: Practice Shifts

Please check out the Practice of Architecture website, and support Evelyn and the community she is building. It is much needed as the profession of architecture changes and adapts in our rapidly evolving world. I have personally benefited from the content they are creating - articles, podcasts, and courses - and encourage other emerging professionals and mid career architects, or anyone interested in continuing education to take advantage of this fantastic resource.

Things I spend time on:

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