polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

What is a City Without Sound?

by Min Li Chan

The city is often associated with the noisy, clamorous, cacophonous, and loud. And yet the notion of a city is almost instantly recognizable by its iconic soundscape - the breathy roar of a passing subway under your feet, the layered honks of taxis stuck in rush-hour traffic, the collective chatter and feet on sidewalks. Which brings us to a briefly indulgent thought experiment - what's a city without sound?

Perhaps sheer visual delight. An online community has congregated around "Cities in Minutes", a project which captures and showcases cities in minutes, using time-lapse photography with filmmakers, video enthusiasts around the globe. Here's a taste of one of the contributions, an ode to Tokyo:

My Tokyo from schnobe on Vimeo.

In a similar vein, the story in "Round About Five", a film short by the Guard Brothers, unfolds almost entirely without the soundscape associated with its visual narrative through London. A man, who nearly forgets to pick up his beau from the Eurostar station, rushes through what you could conceive as a crowded, cacophonous, congested rush hour in Londontown in the auditory imagination (even in the absence of actual sound). He's first despondent on foot, then elated on the back of a bicycle. We see London whizzing by, soundless but not without feeling a similar exultant joy.

But even in these examples, the visual delight is not entirely mute. A soundtrack fills the void in place of the city's native sounds. When we think about urban placemaking, we often talk about the physicality of space and our role in it. And as much as our perception of space is arguably visual, perhaps it pays to ponder how we want our world to be in sound.

Credits: Video of "My Tokyo" from "Cities in Seconds" on Vimeo, "Round About Five" on YouTube.