Listening to New York: Architecture Professor Captures Sounds of the City

Abstract painting of something going into the water

Soundscape New York

From “I Love New York” to “New York, New York,” a plethora of songs have provided a rich musical legacy about New York City. But what about the city’s sonic landscape – the noise and scrape of early morning garbage trucks or the non-stop chatter of an endless array of languages competing all at once?

As an expert in the field of “soundscape architecture,” Karen Van Lengen, Kenan Professor of Architecture at the University of Virginia and a former dean of U.Va.’s School of Architecture, has spent time collecting and documenting such sounds of the city.

The results of her work will be on exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York March 10 through June 7 in the audio-visual installation, “Soundscape New York.” The immersive exhibit enhances the experience of iconic New York City buildings through a combination of audio and interpretive animations projected on a screen.

A collaboration between Van Lengen and artist James Welty, “Soundscape New York” features the actual sounds of a space coordinated with a visual animation. For example, Grand Central Terminal’s soundscape includes clangs and echoes, depicting a flow of movement that amplifies the station’s status as a primary transportation portal of New York City.

Van Lengen recorded and edited audio of the New York spaces and then made drawings in conjunction with particular sounds. Using Van Lengen’s drawings, Welty created the animated spatial environments and choreographed the sound figures that express various textures of the buildings.

“Soundscape New York” is part of the “Soundscape Architecture” website created in 2014 with U.Va.’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, under the direction of Worthy Martin, associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Virginia School of Engineering & Applied Science. Lauren Massari, a U.Va. alum in architectural history and a multimedia designer for IATH, also contributed to this project.

In celebration of the opening of her new exhibit in New York, we sat down to find out more about her unique field of study.

Q. What exactly is “soundscape architecture”? What does it actually mean to have “an auditory understanding of architecture?”

A. “Soundscape Architecture” is the name of the website launched last year to celebrate the characteristic sounds associated with particular iconic buildings in architecture. Grand Central Terminal is a good example: It has an oceanic sound that fills us with the joy of being in one of the great world centers. As designers of spaces, architects pay little attention to aural qualities in the making of architecture, but sound does become deeply influential in our experience of spaces that we make.

Q. How does your research with sound have practical applications to architectural design. Beyond creating art, what’s the purpose?

A. Both the website and the exhibition in New York are ways of celebrating the act of attentive listening – of all that we can discover, enjoy and remember about our travels through spaces. Architectural design begins with an awareness of spatial characteristics and how they have been deployed to create successful architectures. I am simply interested in elevating the status of aural perceptions to create a more equal partnership with the visual components of architecture and its design process.

Q.  How do we get people to focus and listen to their own environments and better understand the public realm through listening? Why is this so important?

A. Sound is ephemeral, but when we listen attentively to a space, we discover the multiple layers of information far beyond what we can see. We become participants in the fluid space of actions, words and the sounds that we share with others. The physical public realm is still our strongest collective entity from which we can directly engage in one another’s lives.

The act of listening opens us up to a world of wonder, complexity, diversity and shared memories. To listen is to be present and gives us access to this world of wonder – to its possibilities of experiencing special places and sharing them with others. 

Q. How did you go about recording and collecting the sounds of New York City that are incorporated in your new project and this exhibit?

A. I made several recordings of each space. They are all different and yet they all share common characteristics. When I returned to the studio, I listened to all of the samples and eventually selected one 60-second segment that I felt captured the sense and quality of the space. While recording, I used a handheld recorder with binaural microphones placed near my ears in order to simulate the actual sensation of listening in that space. 

Q. How did you choose the architectural spaces you recorded?

A. I spent almost 30 years of my life living in New York City negotiating all kinds of sounds, so I have a deep experience with the city’s sounds. The spaces used for our exhibition and website are the spaces of highly distinctive and memorable aural qualities.

Q. Before James Welty brought the project to completion, you created a series of drawings inspired by the city’s sounds. This is an interesting artistic process -- creatively drawing sound. Can you describe this process?

A. In the discipline of architecture, we normally celebrate the product – that is, what we make, the final building or interior. This project is much more focused on process. To achieve our sound animations, I listened deeply to the recordings, and that listening experience took me to a place where I wanted to make drawings out of the sounds. It’s not scientific but interpretive.  

Jim Welty also worked with the sounds to create a visual sound environment. He then choreographed my drawings into this new space to make an entirely new world of animated sounds. This process celebrates the layers of actions, events and moments that would otherwise go completely unnoticed.  And counter-intuitively, after making these animations, we remember the visual environments more readily.  

So it is a deeper way of knowing these particular frames of experience. These listening projects change my future perceptions of the space. Grand Central unfolds differently every time I go there now, and I am deeply grateful for the joy that gives to me.

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Robert Hull

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