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Architecture

Turning the corner

“…a turn in the drive; and suddenly a new and secret landscape opened before us.” This is Evelyn Waugh’s account of arrival at the Brideshead estate in Brideshead Revisited. I recall something similar when I once approached Blenheim Palace from the narrow streets in the village of Woodstock. Turning the corner from the Market Square and Park Street you look through a gate at a landscape of an altogether different scale. It’s a magic moment.

I like the description CS Lewis provides of something similar in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, as Lucy finds herself secreted in a wardrobe full of fur coats. As she ventures deeper into the wardrobe the fur coats become fir trees, the white mothballs become snow, and she’s in Narnia.

Travel through less extraordinary landscapes also involves transitions from one condition to another — changes in mood marked by openings and turnings around so many corners. Pedestrians pass over the thresholds of doorways, cross over from the footpath to the road, from inside a building to the street, from one precinct to another, from an orientation at right angles to one parallel to the street — encountering changes in spatial configuration, geometry, surfaces, materials, and levels.

Camer rested on yellow parking restriction line Stone steps, camer resting on the top stepCamera resting on stone sets and facing the gate postBlank

Invisible lines

Not all threshold encounters are visible as lines, corners or marks in space, though travelers may detect their effects. There are zones of microclimatic variation, areas of light and dark, transitions into and out of the shadows.

The architectural historian and theorist Colin Rowe described urban spaces in terms of transparent overlays, in plan, elevation or section, that overlap and distort one another in the manner of the patches of colour and grain in a cubist painting, creating areas of ambiguity and richly textured meaning.

Not all such transitions are marked out in the fabric of the environment. Think of a town with buildings, streets, and public squares. In some parts of the town you will get clear vistas over to the town hall. At the same spot, if you turn to the right you will experience a clear view into the town square. Behind you will get a view to the forecourt of the library. If you move 200 meters to the left you might find yourself facing a small side street, that provides a much smaller area of view, that is, the extent of your view is reduced.

So the thresholds between areas of high and low visibility don’t necessarily correspond to doorways, entries, or changes in materials, but lines that cut across spaces. Such thresholds also move around, as doors are opened and closed, new structures erected, with changes in vegetation, and as the viewer stands or sits to adjust her height.

Digital thresholds

I’m interested in how mobile technologies further distort such configurations of views. Digital cameras can be held at arms length, high above your head to expand the range of view, as if a periscope. They also contract space. From my kitchen window I thought I saw a hawk perched on a neighbour’s wall. I photographed the blurry object with my digital camera on full zoom, and inspected it in detail on the camera’s flat screen viewfinder. (It turned out to be a pigeon puffed up in the cold.)

Sonic thresholds

Urban overlays involve sound too. As I’ve reported previously, acoustic thresholds are characterized by an even greater dynamism than the visual. In an essay on sounds in the city, Jean-Paul Thibaud calls on people to think of public spaces in terms of sonic “thresholds, knots and configurations” (332).

In their study of everyday sounds in the environment, Augoyard and Torgue explain sonic thresholds in terms of the cut, which: “is a sudden drop in intensity associated with an abrupt change in the spectral envelope of a sound or a modification of reverberation (moving from reverberant to dull spaces, for instance). This effect is an important process of articulation between spaces and locations; it punctuates movement from one ambience to another” (29).

Leaky boundaries

The correspondences between visual and acoustic spaces are only loosely formed, and characterised as so many leakages across each other’s thresholds. In a journey along a street the walker experiences the sound of someone revving a car engine in a side lane. The sound increases in intensity as she moves towards the side street and recedes as she continues on her journey. The sound is cut by buildings lining the streets in ways that views are not. Sounds dissipate, reflect, and leak. They also operate obliquely. You don’t need to face the side street to experience the sound. As with vision, the sound transitions can be abrupt, but unpredictable, and of unidentified source. Sounds can travel over and around corners.

Limits to mapping

Sonic thresholds further highlight an important aspect of travel: the overlay of zones, spaces, fields, and thresholds. If such encounters can be mapped then they are maps overlaid one on the other, fading in and out of prominence, moving in and out of focus, and prone to interference effects between maps.

Occasionally the traveler reaches a “calibration point,” where fields correspond, or there is visual corroboration or verification. We see the source of the sound, identify the tower of a mobile phone base station, hear the street vendor, and tune in to a location.

Travellers make thresholds

The traveller can be thought of as a disturbance in various fields, and a mobile creator of these fields. In this case the traveler is a catalyst, irritant, parasite, disturbance in the fields, a portal or permeable moment within a field: the creator, distributor, and perpetuator of thresholds. Of course it’s never the traveller alone, but a mobile army of movement. Think of “waves of fans” descending on a stadium, sometimes made obvious by costumes and coloured banners, as if fluid fields of disturbance, disgorged from busses and trains. Even independent travelers congregate. They arrive and leave, and follow the seasons: the ebb and flow of uniform seas punctuated by small differences.

EEG thresholds

It seems that most lab-based research with EEG focusses on events: the changes in brain wave patterns that occur when there’s a change in the stimulus: e.g. a change in a musical tone, a slip in the rhythm, adjustment in key, etc. Such changes register as peaks in a person’s arousal, or other brain states. Perhaps something similar occurs in a traveller’s transition through the environment. It’s the “aha” moment, the shock, the discovery, or other blip in emotional key, the shift in environmental stimulus, and the threshold crossing — as the aware pedestrian turns a corner, and registers as a significant change in mood. From then on it’s the recollection of that peak in arousal, and other lingering effects, that constitute a memorable, edifying, “salutogenic” or unpleasant spatial experience. That’s something to test at least: the importance of thresholds and the lingering memories of such encounters in the formation of the mood of a place.

Geometrical stone arch of the entrance from an oblique angle The entrance front on, showing a stone gate and closed wooden door beyondBlank

Bibliography

  • Augoyard, Jean-François, and Henry Torgue. 2005. Sonic Experience: A Guide to Everyday Sounds. Trans. A. McCartney, and D. Paquette. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press
  • Cernea, D, A Kerren, and A Ebert. 2011. Detecting insight and emotion in visualization applications with a commercial EEG headset. Proc. SIGRAD Linköping Electronic Conference. Stockholm, Sweden.
  • Rowe, Colin, and Robert Slutzky. 1997. Transparency. Basel, Switzerland: Birkhäuser Verlag
  • Thibaud, Jean-Paul. 2003. The sonic composition of the city. In M. Bull, and L. Back (eds.), The Auditory Culture Reader: 329-341. Oxford: Berg.
  • Turner, Alasdair, Maria Doxa, David O’Sullivan, and Alan Penn. 2001. From isovists to visibility graphs: a methodology for the analysis of architectural space. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, (28)103-121.

Notes

On a bear branch

About Richard Coyne

The cultural, social and spatial implications of computers and pervasive digital media spark my interest ... enjoy architecture, writing, designing, philosophy, coding and media mashups.

Discussion

8 thoughts on “Turning the corner

  1. Interesting article, especially as I’m currently re-reading ‘The Tuning of Place’. A few observations I’ve made fairly recently regarding sound and environment spring to mind:
    A few weeks ago I was walking from Nicholson Square towards my home near The Meadows, listening to the sound my portable recorder was picking up on headphones – as I was trying to obtain a field recording of my everyday route. As I had the microphone sensitivity turned up quite far, I found myself able to eavesdrop on conversations taking place among people walking significantly ahead of me. I could hear voices from the other side of the street as if they were close to me. I heard cars approaching from what seemed to be just a few yards away, but couldn’t see anything – it turned out they were coming through a side street, hidden from my view, and actually quite far away. When thinking about thresholds, in this case I was lowering my hearing threshold by means of amplifying the surrounding sound. The effect was rather profound, to the extent that I found it quite difficult to adjust to my altered perception of my environment. It seemed like the sonic impression was out of sync with the visual ‘reality’, as if sight and sound did not really match. Consequently I found myself in a slightly nervous state of mind for quite a while, unsure about distances and my position in the surrounding space. May this be a case of ‘distorted’ thresholds, I wonder?
    Further, it always strikes me how daytime, or even weather conditions affect the ‘soundscape’ of any given place. Approaching the playground at the south east corner of The Meadows during daytime, coming from Buccleuch St. we are greeted with the sound of dozens of children playing, laughing, shouting. Taking the same route in the wee hours, we are greeted by silence – the place has remained unchanged, its sound has changed dramatically. By the same token, during nights with fog or dense drizzle I’ve noticed The Meadows to be much quieter than usual, possibly due to the fact that sound travels slower through water than it does through air. Effectively, we constantly need to re-calibrate, our ‘calibration points’ being in a state of flux even if we might think of them as being static at first glance.

    Posted by Wolfgang Thomas | February 20, 2014, 1:14 pm
    • Some nice insights there, Wolf, and further evidence that attending to sound in the environment reflects back on our visual sensations — and viceversa. I’ll keep thinking about this. By the way, check out Sophia Lycouris’ Edinburgh dance piece. Apparently the dancers couldn’t hear the music. To me the performance looks very different when the accompaniment is harmonic chords from a harp — compared with sounds by Michael Edwards and Martin Parker. http://www.recalesce.net/Thu-15.php

      Posted by Richard Coyne | February 20, 2014, 10:33 pm

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