Sarah Barns

Essays and other writing

Recent news and views across urban data strategy, creative programming and digital place-making. 

Sounds Different: Listening to the city

Why listen?

So often the city is apprehended as a visual spectacle, its marvels of architectural and technological mediation understood through the prism of the visual. This reliance on seeing as a mode of understanding is not peculiar to urbanism or architecture, but is in keeping with the wider experience of historical modernization itself, tending as it has to privilege visual over other modes of experience. Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris, for example, is widely recognized as refashioning the city as a space of scenic composition; the introduction of networked transit has likewise been associated with an increased emphasis on the ‘travelling eye’ in shaping experiential responses to the changing cityscape.[2] Reflecting on the impact of public conveyances in the city of Berlin during the first years of the twentieth century, Georg Simmel wrote,

The interpersonal relationships of people in big cities are characterised by markedly greater emphasis on the use of the eyes than that of the ears. This can be attributed to the institution of public conveyances. […] Before buses, railroads and trains became fully established during the 19th century, people were never in a position to have to stare at one another for minutes or even hours on end without ever exchanging a word.[3]

My article on sounding the history of the city, originally published in Space and Culturewas selected as one of the five top articles in architectural theory for 2014. 

Read the article here at Architectural Review (asks for login / email details but no payment required). 

[1] See Mattern, S. ‘Silent, Invisible City: Mediating Urban Experience for the Other Senses’. In Eckardt, F., Geelhaar, J., Colini, L., Willis, K., Chorianopolous, K. and Hennig, R. (eds) Media City: Situations, Practices, Encounters (Berlin, Frank & Timme, 2008), pp.155–76, p158; Bruno, G.The Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film. (New York, Verso, 2002); Boyer, M.C. The City of Collective Memory: The Historical Imagery and its Architectural Entertainments. (Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1996); McQuire, S. The media city: Media architecture and urban space (London, Sage 2008); Zardini, M. ‘Towards a Sensorial Urbanism’, in Zardini, M. (ed) Sense of the City: An Alternate Approach to Urbanism (Montreal, Canadian Centre for Architecture and Lars Muller Publishers, 2005), pp. 17–27. 

[2] Sennett, R. Flesh and stone: The body and the city in western civilisation. (London, Faber & Faber, 1994); Boyer, M. The City of Collective Memory.

[3] Simmel, G. cited in Benjamin, W. (1973). Illuminations, trans H. Zorn (London, Fontana, 1973), p151.




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