Sounds From the Other City: Anechoic Chamber

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Credit to Mike Hodson for the image above.

So a while ago a friend and I visited the University of Salford’s anechoic chamber. If you don’t know what one of those is the clue is in the name. An-echo literally means ‘without sound’. Such spaces are commonly used to test the sound levels of varying things from washing machines to new speaker systems.

The reason we did so was for an article I wanted to write for the modernist – a magazine dedicated to 20th architecture and design. But words alone wouldn’t really be able to do justice to the anechoic chamber itself, so I roped in my graphic designer, book-binder, master photographer friend Mike Hodson to take some pictures too. The magazine liked the photos he took so much they not only form a double-page spread in the physical publication itself but one also sits pride of place on the landing page of their website too.

You can find the full photo essay in the new issue of the modernist – #16 ‘Experiment’. You can buy it online here, or from these physical stockists both for the princely sum of £5.00. There’s a great array of articles in the new one, all centered on the notion of experimentation, including a wonderful piece on Berthold Lubetkin and another on the Futuro House. The full text is below.

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The anechoic chamber is a distinctly 20th century invention. The world’s oldest with the iconic ‘wedge-based’ interior design, the Murray Hill anechoic chamber, was built in 1940 in New Jersey, USA. As a laboratory for sonic experimentation they are revered by acoustic engineers and musicians alike. As a space, quite literally, ‘without echo’, the anechoic chamber is perhaps one of the most unique of modern architectural creations.

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Unlike many other architectural spaces, the anechoic chamber is defined by an absence. A kind of ‘lack’ that no other space courts. We routinely associate ‘lack’ with a loss, a subtraction, a depression. Yet it is through this lack, this sonic absence, that the anechoic chamber gains its hidden power for experimentation. Its wedge-based interior is one of a thousand tiny Brutalisms with each individual protrusion violently jutting out from a dark abyss that, in turn, hides the four walls of the shell we find ourselves in.

In the anechoic chamber we discover a veritable source of inspiration: not only for the acoustic engineers who call this their home, but for the theorists and dreamers. The chamber is an abstract space that, with a sonic absence, propagates not simply a stark, visceral visual presence, but a visual abundance. A cornucopia of visual abstraction, even. There are depressions. Deep depressions. There are also surfaces. Many, many surfaces. Whilst there is a uniformity and a familiarity to this arrangement, there is also a trickery. It is a space of, and for, the jester. Deep, golden lights cast infinite shadows over the sometime-glowing, sometime-lurking physical forms to create even more powerfully abstract volumes that play with the eyes as well as the ears.

The anechoic chamber is the bastard kernel of Brutalist thought. A trickster of form and a joker of function. And yet this kernel produces an unlikely inversion. Every iconic Brutalist structure – from the South Bank to Chandigarh and beyond – is fawned over from the outside. Do a quick image search for your favourite. How many photographs do you have to scroll through before you actually witness an interior? Modernism indeed has its celebrated interiors, but Brutalism, hardly. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to note a Brutalist interior that didn’t in fact fail to some degree – at least relative to its exterior. Take the Birmingham Central Library. Soon to be sadly demolished. Yet it has taken 45 years of administrative hate to see the outside disappear from the city skyline. Its interior was gone, redesigned beyond recognition, in 20. Madin and his team forgot to realize that developers are also bastards of another kind.

All this time, Brutalism forgot to look inside. It forgot to not only look a little more carefully inside its own designs (“interiors can be Brutalist too you know!”) but also inside itself. Why so monumental? Why so voluminous? Why so preposterous? 17x13ft should be all you need. And what’s more, when inside the anechoic chamber, Brutalism’s most infamous – synonymous – material is nowhere to be seen. Instead, of Béton brut we are hit with four walls of sound insulating foam. Matte, grey and granular perhaps, even rough to the touch, but foam nonetheless. The shell itself is concrete, granted. A suspended mass balanced on shockproof springs. But who’d have thought it? Brutalism’s finest abstract space not only an interior design but also decidedly un-concrete on the inside! What’s more, there’s one hiding in the underbelly of the School of Computing, Science & Engineering at the University of Salford and you might not have even ever known it.

With thanks to Danny McCaul and Joshua Meggitt for access.

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‘Political affects in public space’

Reading through Clive Barnett’s ‘Political affects in public space: normative blind-spots in non-representational ontologies’ paper from Transactions (2008 – freely available here), and came across a quotable snippet of criticism for notions of affect in non-representational geography. Here it is:

The ontologisation of affect as a layer of preconscious ‘priming to act’ reduces embodied action simply to the dimension of being attuned to and coping with the world. This elides the aspect of embodied knowing that involves the capacity to take part in ‘games of giving and asking for reasons’. While the ontologisation of theory in human geography has been accompanied by claims to transform and reconfigure understandings of what counts as ‘the political’, this project has been articulated in a register which eschews the conventions of justification, that is, the giving and asking for reasons. This is particularly evident when it comes to accounting for why the contemporary deployment of affective energy in the public realm is bad for democracy. (189-190)

What Barnett is saying firstly is that by roping off the dimension of ‘affect’ as being pre-conscious, unthought, or of lacking reason (as background attunement), we mistakenly also deny a form of  individual political action in the process. That specifically, people are dupes to the political manipulation undertaken by those with access to affectual infrastructures, in ‘the half-second delay between action and cognition’ (Thrift 2007: 245 as quoted by Barnes: 191). In other words, that people are susceptible to sub-conscious manipulation by the powers that be!

But then in turn, he says that Nigel Thrift’s non-rep vision (Barnett quotes his 2007 book Non-representational Theory) hides from justifying it’s own normative views on what politics should be (and specifically, what form democratic politics should take). As Barnett (p.190) then suggests, this ‘closes down the inconclusive conversations upon which democratic cultural politics depends (Rorty 2006)’.

I’m still reading through it now but shall provide some more thoughts in another post. Although what I will say is that I too think that Thrift has somewhat under-theorized what this momentary ‘half-second delay’ consists of, and how exactly  this space is filled by other actors (the media etc.). It certainly does come across as a little scaremonger-y and maybe lacks the empirics to back up these claims. Barnett’s right to prise this space back open and question what lies within.

‘Dark Nazi Geographies’

I’m reading through Trevor Barnes’ and Claudio Minca’s new paper in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers on Carl Schmitt and Walter Christaller at the moment (available – only through subscription – here). Carl Schmitt’s received a lot of attention from political geographers over the last few years mainly due to Giorgio Agamben. Christaller on the other hand has mainly escaped popular attention. That is unless you’ve considered his ‘central place theory’ of human settlement recently. He also happened to be a member of the Nazi Party and served in Konrad Meyer’s Planning and Soil Department. Both formed, say Barnes and Minca, either side of a darkly geographical coin. Schmitt central in ‘deterritorializing’ German invaded lands (Poland, Czechoslovakia etc.) and removing peoples of ‘impure’ origin; and Christaller in ‘reterritorializing’ these lands with ‘legitimate’ German peoples.

What makes this paper a little darker for myself was that I was taught Christaller’s Central Place Theory in A Level Geography, and I don’t recall us being given a lowdown on his murky connections. In fact, I even loosely based my final coursework on his work, albeit in the rather anodyne context (declining service provision in rural North Yorkshire).

This might give me an incentive to re-read a little Agamben, or, more to the point, address the state of the A Level Geography curricula!

Blade Runner

A magazine article by the BBC on the technologies of Blade Runner and Minority Report; 20 and 10 years old today. Available here. Sam Kinsley – a research fellow at DCRC – speaks on ‘anticipatory futures’ here too. Both talk of Spielberg’s use of ‘futurologists’ to integrate possible future technologies into the film.