Thursday, May 16, 2013

White noise and the built environment.

Last summer I took my BAC students for a walk around my neighborhood in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Students were in town for a one week intensive, part of their work for a Masters degree in sustainability. As a botanist I like to guide people through the natural landscape of the city. Every year I try to find a new and innovative approach that will capture the students' imagination and keep me interested. So our walk last summer took us through the dynamic area around M I T called Kendall Square.

In and of itself Kendall Square is fascinating. Very busy with people and businesses and offices, a place that was planned but in my opinion, a place that works. It's layered, nuanced, and very alive. I like to start at Kendall Square because students can take the subway and we can begin by observing many kinds of transportation that converge there. There's also a subtle natural component that is interesting but not obtrusive. The short walkway lined with trees and benches behind the subway station take you out of the city, through a magic corridor, and into the space that comprises MIT.

From Kendall Square we walked a few steps to a large courtyard that is bordered in part by the Stata Center designed by Frank Geahry and Associates. We came to a neat row of pin oaks on either side of the line of picnic tables. I set the students to work right there asking them to take 10 minutes to do some writing. Since this was the first day of the intensive I wanted them to write about what sustainability means to them.

These are serious students, and as they warmed to the task a deep silence fell over all of them. As their pens scratched the paper I began to hear background noises. The courtyard has been designed to block traffic noises pretty effectively. The sounds of humans were also absent because the courtyard is large and can't hear people talking. But a horrible noise reverberates from every building around the otherwise beautifully designed courtyard. Noise from the gigantic heating and ventilation systems on top of all the buildings dominate the aural landscape. Strange that such a carefully designed space, a meticulously designed space, an expensive space full of artwork and nature and surrounded by premier architecture, should have such a nasty sound profile.

Strange as well that when I asked my students about it they told me they didn't hear anything. A moment of listening and they were well tuned in to the noise. Another teachable moment learning about design.

I came back to the space this afternoon to take some photos for this post. Amazingly, the reverberating horror sounds as bad as it ever did, creating a nightmarish atmosphere where science and creativity are supposed to flourish. We think a lot about the visual reality of our built environments but as planners we must consider many more aspects of the landscape.

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