Leaden Or Golden?
A Short, Fraught History of Urban Silence
Noise complaints are as old as cities. Yet from Seneca's complaint about “sound that can make one weary of one’s years” to the nightclubs shut down today, history hints that the yearning for silence may be more about control than decibels.
Within St Paul’s Cathedral, there is a whispering gallery. As described in E. M. Cummings’ 1850 companion to the building, it is located at the top of stairs “so easy and so commodious that a child could climb them without fatigue.” It was, and remains, a “curiosity and wonder” because of the acoustics of its circling wall: “The least whisper on one side appears as if it were close to the ear on the opposite, though the semi-circular distance between them is not less than 140 feet; and the shutting of a small door resounds through the place like a clap of thunder, or the discharge of heavy artillery.” Outside, a frantic city flows in cascades of noise, but within the acoustics of this sanctuary, whispers can be heard.
Silence seems antithetical to the city. Urban spaces are not just noisy, they are noise. To replicate the traffic sound of the Place de la Concorde during the rush-hour, George Gershwin incorporated actual Parisian taxi horns into An American in Paris. Inspired by the sound and motion of a train journey between New York and Boston, his Rhapsody in Blue aimed for “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot,... of our metropolitan madness.” To conjure up New York City in his Amériques, Edgard Varèse placed sirens in his orchestra. The electric bells, player pianos and aeroplane propellers of George Antheil's Ballet Mécanique unleashed the crazed energy of the city so well it resulted in a riot at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. By the time it reached New York, it was receiving critical notice along the lines of, “Makes Boiler Factory Seem as Quiet as Rural Churchyard.”
The old St Paul’s, which burned down in the Great Fire of London, had had a section of the central aisle known as Paul’s Walk. The place was notorious as a rowdy meeting place, a harbour for noise as much as the Whispering Gallery would later be to silence. In his Microcosmographia of 1629, Bishop Earle wrote that Paul's Walk was “a heap of stones and men, with a vast confusion of languages, and were the steeple not sanctified, nothing could be liker Babel. The noise in it is like that of bees, a strange humming, or buzzing.” Earle condemned it as “a thieves’ sanctuary, who rob more safely in a crowd than a wilderness,” and claimed, “of all such places it is least haunted by hobgoblins, for if a ghost would walk here, he could not.” Yet in doing so, the bishop revealed the attraction of the site. Here free ideas, gossip, slanders and plans could be formulated and exchanged, concealed amidst the chatter, at a time when to speak in quiet corners was to arouse suspicion and attention from the authorities. It was hard to pick out an individual dissenting voice. Anything incriminating, overheard in the clamour, could easily be denied as coming from someone else in the crowd.
There is a point, subjective and movable, where the city threatens to overwhelm the citizen. It is there in the Ancient Rome of Seneca, “Here am I with a babel of noise going on all about me. I have lodgings right over a public bathhouse. Now imagine to yourself every kind of sound that can make one weary of one’s years.” He then goes on to castigate weight-lifters, ball-players, hair-removers and merchants hawking all many of products, “each publicising his wares with a distinctive cry of his own.” In Victorian London, Charles Dickens similarly railed against noise polluters for interrupting the concentration spans of the learned and extorting from them, “Professors and practitioners of one or other of the arts or science... tending to the peace and comfort of mankind... are daily interrupted by street musicians. They are even made especial objects of persecution by brazen performers on brazen instruments, beaters of drums, grinders of organs, bangers of banjos, clashers of cymbals, worriers of fiddles, and bellowers of ballads; for, no sooner does it become known to those producers of horrible sounds that any of your correspondents have particular need of quiet in their own houses, then the said houses are beleaguered by discordant hosts seeking to be bought off.” Musicians were not immune from unwanted noise. Hogarth's The Enraged Musician (1741 - below) depicts an indignant violinist glaring at a cast including a crying baby, singing milkmaid, a barking dog, a pissing boy and a knife-grinder gathered round his window.
In 1960s America, Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters sang, in ‘A Quiet Place’, of longing to escape the nocturnal soundtrack of blaring radios, rowing couples, pestering cats and drunks howling ‘Sweet Adeline’. The song would move from the tenements of the Eastern Seaboard to Kingston, Jamaica, evolving into John Holt and The Paragons’ ‘I've Got To Get Away’ and, via Horace Andy, to the council estates of Bristol in Massive Attack’s ‘Man Next Door’. It moved easily because it expressed a universal desire. As tempted as we are to place a curse on inconsiderate neighbours, the distractions reveal how architecture sometimes fails in its attempts to create autonomous rooms of our own. Thin walls and floors, unsealed windows and doors, pipes and vents, and shoddy building materials let the sound of the outside world seep in. The difficulty is how to deal with noise without locking ourselves away in sterile environments.
Sounds are messages. Sometimes they are direct, in the form of sirens, intercoms, the ringing of church bells to mark the hours or the call to prayer. Often the ones that engage us and trouble us most are indirect. Consider how enraged we can get if someone breaks a minute’s silence, talks loudly on the phone on a train, wolf-whistles from above, beeps their car horn unnecessarily, begins building work before eight in the morning or plays tinny music loud on a public bus. It feels in each case like a gross intrusion into personal space. They imply disrespect. They break the implicit social contract that keeps the organised chaos of cities from malfunctioning; the message is this person doesn’t care about you or anyone else. This feeling is at the heart of our problems with urban volume. It is not necessarily a matter of loud and quiet as it is often posed, but rather a question of voluntary and involuntary exposure.
"Ancient life was all silent,” Luigi Russolo claimed, somewhat questionably, in the Futurist manifesto The Art of Noises: “In the 19th century, with the invention of machines, Noise was born." Yet with the Industrial Age came the ability to torment each other with sound in intentional and unintentional ways that we simply could not do as individuals. In extreme cases, it has been used as a means of terror and torture. Stuka dive bombers used ‘Jericho trumpet’ sirens to sow additional fear among their civilian targets. Laying siege to the errant dictator Manuel Moreno’s refuge, U.S. forces in Panama blared The Clash’s version of ‘I Fought the Law’ and Guns N' Roses’ ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ at high volume towards him, day and night. Ten days later, he surrendered.
Much more prevalent are the detrimental effects of noise as an occupational side-effect. Those working on building sites or with heavy machinery are most at risk but passers-by can also be affected. Noise follows transit routes. Living next to a busy roads, railway lines and especially below flight paths have been cited as increasing stress, disturbing sleep, and diminishing memory recall and concentration ability. Studies have suggested that increases in hormones in response to continual noise, where the body at rest is continually set on edge, increases blood pressure and the chance of a heart attack. It is tempting therefore to condemn technology and follow Kierkegaard in asserting, “The present state of the world and the whole of life is diseased. If I were a doctor and were asked for my advice, I would reply: Create silence!”
Things are more complicated than that. While the EU has pushed to reduce car noise by at least a quarter, it has also demanded that electric car manufacturers build noise into their vehicles to ensure that pedestrians can hear them coming. A differentiation should also be made between sudden interruptions and continual ambient noise. The latter can be evocative and atmospheric, even a source of comfort. The city-dweller retiring to the country can often find it too quiet, even ominous, without the faint murmur of traffic or nightlife. At the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, I found myself beset by inexplicable insomnia, only realising later that I had grown used to the background soundtrack of helicopters at night. When they were downed, the silence seemed deafening and I would lie sifting through it unconsciously. “Voices, I think, are more inclined to distract one than general noise,” Seneca wrote, “noise merely fills one’s ears, battering away at them while voices actually catch one’s attention. Among the things which create a racket all around me without distracting me at all I include the carriages hurrying by in the street, the carpenter who works in the same block, a man in the neighbourhood who saws, and this fellow tuning horns and flutes and the trickling fountain and emitting blasts instead of music.”
The desire to protect gives rise to moralism. Within Hogarth’s boisterous depictions of London, there’s a yearning for order. The artist manages to simultaneously be disgusted and infatuated. Other moralists were not so inquisitive. When Charles Babbage’s campaign against street music is placed alongside his drives against broken windows and hoop rolling, it begins to resemble neurosis. With the infamous Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, moves against excessive noise “likely to cause serious distress to the inhabitants of the locality” were used to extinguish the underground rave scene in Britain. Law enforcement would explicitly target “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.” It effectively put into law Mencken’s view of Puritanism as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." Such views still prevail. The decimation of UK nightclubs in recent years has been down, to a notable degree, to noise complaints; a nimbyism that has accompanied and arguably fuelled gentrification. It seems easier to close businesses and the social haunts of the nation’s youth than to install acoustic insulation in surrounding buildings. Actual noise pollution often seems a secondary factor in such disputes, as it also seems in the boroughs where noise is complained about the most; foremost of which significantly is Kensington and Chelsea.
Architects have a crucial role, then, in containing sound. Some sculpt with it in mind. Louis Kahn placed silence “with its desire to be” right at the core of his architecture. Tadao Ando agrees; intending the monumental stillness of his buildings to “let nature – in the form of sun and wind – speak.” In his Royal Gold Medal lecture, Peter Zumthor urged a move away from the architectural obsession with form towards atmosphere, “The light and the use, and the structure, and the shadow, the smell and so on.” Sound is vital in this process. It is the ‘so on’. It is there in the awe-inspiring immensity of Gothic cathedrals and reverb-enhanced monastic chanting. It is there in the oracle room of the Hypogeum of Hal-Saflieni and the clapping portico in Golconda Fort, where sounds made on a single spot resonate through the entire complex. It may take influence from the caverns of the natural world from the Āli Qapu Palace Music Hall to the stalactites of Hans Poelzig’s now-demolished Großes Schauspielhaus, or even from soundwaves themselves like Le Corbusier and Iannis Xenakis’ Philips Pavilion. In the ‘voided void’ of Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum Berlin, we enter the dark, disconcerting and claustrophobic Holocaust Tower where sound and light channel in from a distance, transforming the everyday outside into something profoundly haunting and disturbing. You feel like you are somehow in the terrible presence of absence.
In the everyday world, buildings cultivate silence. Libraries, art galleries, cinemas and churches encourage meditation in their differing ways. In doing so, we extend a reverence for books, art, film and God that we frequently deny to one another elsewhere. It is often mistakenly thought that the longing for silence must involve renouncing the city for the wilderness or the somnambulist suburbs. There are even architectures for such ventures from Trappist monasteries with their vows of silence, to the pillars of stylite saints. Enlightenment, it is assumed, comes through an absence of spoken words. This belief resulted in the 18th-century cottage industry of ornamental hermits, whereby old men were paid to live in caves to add character and confer wisdom onto aristocratic estates. What these hermits might tell us, as inhabitants of fire-watches, Antarctic stations and urban explorers might agree, is that there is no such thing as pure silence. There is always a generator drone or the sweep of wind, for instance, because we are always within some kind of environment. There is always the inescapable background hum of life. In anechoic chambers designed to absorb sound, the quietest places on earth, people are startled to hear not total silence but the blood circulating through their body. Even in the Towers of Silence, where Zoroastrians traditionally lay their dead, there is the sound of birds.
Sound and silence are other words for society and solitude. We continually try to find a healthy balance between the consuming extremes of the mob and isolation. This mediation characterises urban life. To listen closely might aid us. John Cage’s 4′33″, where a performer plays nothing for four minutes and thirty three seconds, is often interpreted as being about silence, when it’s more about the impossibility of silence. Throughout the duration of the performance, you are drawn to listen to the quiet: the shuffles, the coughs, the background noise, the breathing. It is a tuning of the senses. We might even call it a meditation. “A powerful architectural experience eliminates noise and turns my consciousness to myself” the architect Juhani Pallasmaa writes, “I hear only my own heartbeat... it turns our attention to our own existence. I find myself listening to my own being.” This encourages perhaps a different way of listening, a different focus or intensity. Even noise, where we feel subjected to and overwhelmed by outside forces, does not have to necessitate an entirely passive response. "Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise,” Cage wrote, “When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating." It seems then that it is not silence or a shutting away that we are seeking but clarity, knowing that we are hearing and contributing to what ultimately is the soundtrack to a life we can call our own.
Share this article