Note: This is a summary of a talk given at Postopolis!, taken in real-time, with minimal editing. Reader beware! Postopolis! was organised by BLDDBLOG, City of Sound, Inhabitat, Subtopia, and the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, and ran from May 29th-June 2nd 2007. Flickr group for photos here. YouTube videos uploaded here. All Postopolis! posts here.
The New York-based architect Joel Sanders closes day 3 of Postopolis! for us. Geoff had previously covered Sanders' Mix House idea – and extended it – here. Sanders gave an entertaining, impassioned talk, centred around "new technologies for living" as he put it.
The first residential project he showed "displaces the quintessential suburban lawn underground", partly for practical reasons – it's situated in Minneapolis, which has harsh winters and mosquito infested summers – but also for personal reasons. The bachelor owner wanted a private spa. So the banked fence Sanders created lends a zone of privacy from outside, but when seen from the interior it dematerialises the boundary, covered with astroturf, and angled up such that from the picture window it looks like an arcadian image of lawn and sky. The entrances to the residence are also playful, framing silhouette of bodies entering and exiting the house.
That playfulness is also visible (possibly?) in the second residential project Sanders shows. This derived from an exhibition, 'Big Brother, Architecture of Surveillance', and is dubbed the 'Access House', on an island off the coast of Georgia. This takes as its inspiration, the "ubiquitous feature of the American vacation home: the picture window." Yet it defends against the "double-edged nature of picture window" (Sanders shows images from films, a particular influence, I can see, of people looking through pictures windows or being seen in picture windows) by ensuring the vulnerability is ameliorated by pervasive surveillance techniques throughout the house. A central core, carrying all services, including a dumb waiter – "a sophisticated tree-like mass" – forms a kind of "updated American hearth", which also carries CCTV footage of the outside and all rooms, to all areas and spaces within the house. It's ultra hi-tech, with motion sensors tracking the house and surroundings, as well as screens indicating events elsewhere, weather, people in remote locations etc. It's an attempt to transform home surveillance devices, turning the house into "a benevolent Big Brother, with eyes throughout house", in order to make it feel safe. (Personally, I'm not sure this would do anything other than make the inhabitant more paranoid and less trusting!). The multiple split screens throughout play on the sense of thurllers and horror movies, and also of being watched as well as watching. Sanders seems to hint at the contradictions here. Indeed, there's a 'panic room' in the basement - where you can watch images of house, watching images of outside.
Continuing the theme of transparency, and into perhaps the most interesting of Sanders' projects, is the Mix House. This is fascinating. He says, "we tend to be indifferent to acoustics" in contemporary residences, and think only of "competing with traffic outside". Normally, he continues, "architecture is about being quiet", whereas there's a rich history of sound and architecture - especially in pre-literate societies. He talks of the clarity of sound in the Greek amphitheatre, of the intentional use of sound spaces in Medieval and Gothic cathedrals, which were "designed by acoustics as much as visual principles - they were considered 'sacred resonators'".
Sanders says this changed with the invention of printing, and Palladio, "under the spell of perspective", which began to organise architecture under what would become seen as a "Western ocularcentric perspective". (Again, Juhania Pallasmaa's 'The Eyes of the Skin' springs to mind.) So what we end up with, as the "quintessential icons of modernism" is the floor-to-ceiling window, the curtain wall. These present acoustical problems, but have dominated architecture since. Sanders credits Emily Thompson's book, 'Soundscape of Modernity', with this mini-history of sound and architecture. Looks worth reading.
So this signature element of modernism actually "signals a divorce between place, space, sound." Architecture is again quiet. So the Mix House attempts to re-introduce sound into the residence, to play with both visual and aural transparency. It suggests a "sonic picture window and sonic entry porch", and a further "sonic window, oriented towards the sky". Sanders mentions the ingenious listening posts and acoustic mirrors in Norfolk and elsewhere (more here, just because I like them) as an inspiration. Also a series of microphones, cameras and a sort of bellows mechanism to manipulate the sound. The sonic picture window, aimed at the backyard, can swivel to extend its range. There's even an eavesdropping skylight. The idea is that sounds from inside and outside can be sampled and mixed, combined with other sounds, to compose original soundtracks for the house - to "create new domestic soundscapes" in his words. (Personally, I'm always interesting in listening to displaced sound when mixed with that of the street outside; I've spent many happy hours listening to, say, Jake Tilson's dislocated recordings of India, or Sublime Frequencies' Indonesian night recordings, when in central London.) This is a lovely idea, particularly if it was extended to project sound from inside to the outside – again playing with that double-edged nature of the picture window – and then combined to form the sounds of neighbourhoods. In some senses, with sharing of iTunes libraries over the internet possible now we can mix our record collections together, but we're not forced to confront our neighbourhood, enabling a sometimes unhealthy withdrawal into personal domestic space. It would be interesting to think through how we could create new civic sounds as well as personal domestic soundscapes.
Finally, Sanders shows us how these sound-based themes have been extended into his firm's low-budget renovation of Campbell Hall school of architecture, Charlottesville, VA. Asking, "can you link spaces sonically?", they've designed a form of audio spotlight, based around closely-focused directional speakers. These enable "semi-public sound interactions". Trying to deal with the reality of students wearing iPods and effectively turning themselves off to the sound of public space, these distributed audio spotlights have three channels - a combined playlist (music contributed by all students); a channel from other rooms in the school, where students can hear crits, or tune into other views within school; or wire in other schools altogether.
There is some beautiful work, and bigger projects, detailed on the JSA website, but in the work he chose to present at Postopolis! it's clear that Sanders' firm is exploring some fascinating terrain here, fusing architecture with digital technologies that see media as something malleable. Whilst I'm personally uneasy about the surveillance projects, I'd hope that the Mix House and related work will help lead to a renewed interest in sound – and other senses – in architecture and public spaces.