Building acoustics

Sound structure I

Cairo is a remarkably concrete city — a single view from the window whilst circling over Cairo International will attest to the fact that there’s no escaping it. Perhaps the root cause of my disliking the skyline once the Nile is out of sight and all that’s truly worth seeing has faded into the distance, the concrete buildings that comprise most apartment blocks in surrounding residential areas are abundant to the extent of a visual monotony that still irks me after twenty-three years. Coated in dusty hues and often dilapidated after a few years of construction, many past summer of mine has been spent residing in such buildings, the sort my late grandfather designed in the great modernist fashion of the 70s and 80s. But even those with distinct architectural merit yield to the unrelenting hydrocarbon and lack of upkeep in the second most populous city on the continent next to Lagos.

What of the romantic legacy of historic relics remaining after French and British rule in the downtown and Garden City areas? Sadly, edifices other than embassies claiming climatic immunity (via cheap local labour whitewashing walls) have started to blend in with the rest. I must however admit that the picture is not all as run-down as I make it out to be, as such dour qualities of Cairo do tend to be exaggerated in my point of view when I speak of particular areas. It is unfair to overlook the glitz of countless five-star hotels scattered about in various constellations throughout the Greater Cairo area, lighting up the night and attracting Cairenes and tourists for some truly world-class sights. All the while, much expansion is ongoing in the surrounding region, drastically transforming the shape of the city in face of the heavy population burden and an increasing albeit limited demand for higher, more refined living standards.

At a glance, it would seem the next chapter of urban development has some positive potential rather than the routine negative if Cairo’s city planners and construction companies do a thorough job of it. Perhaps a prime example of things to come can be seen in the newly constructed Al Azhar Park, spread upon 74 acres in the Al Darassa desert area by the Citadel. For years, the lack of green space equivalent to Hyde Park or similar has been the brunt of many a joke and complaint in Egyptian conversation. Yet this answer to the hopeful populace landed a few years ago in the most unlikely of places: a 500-year-old rubbish dump. And thanks to the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, a team of Egyptian, American, French and Italian architects, engineers and landscape and horticultural specialists (along with a sizable $30 million), the end-result of the transformation today sees thousands of visitors eagerly seeking refuge in the midst of tree-filled courtyards and pavilions overlooking water.

But so far we’ve only covered hotels, fancy homes, a single park and urban sprawl funded by the prospect of new money paid by the country’s new economic middle class. Indeed much to the misfortune of the average Egyptian, the ‘democracy’ of such access to structural rejuvenation of the local built environment falls short when only the few residents who can afford it flock to developments in nearby 6th October City and the Muqattam hills, seeking a habitat far removed from the smog and noise congestion that infiltrate the everyday city life that I myself am used to. Progress, yes, but irrelevant when really we’re talking about an anorexically thin top-tier of society. To ignore the old and focus solely on the new — or disregard the many poor in favour of the few rich — is too foolish in a city where already its very foundations are being tested by the pressure mounting from unwisely chosen construction destinations and profit-hungry commercial and residential engineering.

For long there have been old wives’ tales about the area surrounding the pyramids encroaching upon the Giza plateau and threatening its stability. Bearing true to situational reality, the growth of new settlements at its base such as Nazlet Al Summan and Kafret Al Gabal are all impeding upon what was once deemed to be very stable bedrock (nummulite limestone from the so-called Muqattam formation) by the ancient ancestors. These housing areas are for the nation’s poor, driven to the edges of Giza by unaffordable housing elsewhere. Coupled with traffic, pollution, sewage overflow and the general populace density in many an area not suited for additional physical and environmental exacerbation, many see in it a catastrophe waiting to happen. As if there had ever been any doubt, the tragic and all too common landslide in Muqattam on 6th September led to the breaking off of a portion of the cliff overlooking a shantytown in the Duwayqa district, causing devastation and killing over a hundred residents in Manshayet Nasser down below.

Those who survived — some of the nation’s most poor and alienated — continue to live there beneath the volatile rocky terrain with little aid from the government and even less hope of a future worth living. This case illustrates a scenario that is in no way isolated: landslides in this area are common and believed to be caused by sewage flooding out from those elite luxury developments being built on Muqattam. According to Egyptian geologist Fakhri Labib, ‘[those in government] don’t care about poor people. They are left to build their houses in unsafe areas, and their death is cheap. The government has reached an unprecedented level of corruption. It openly protects the rich, and neglects the poor.’  And despite there being in recent years an effort to revive the old façades that make the Egyptian capitol one of the most architecturally varied in the world, I fear that many sites will be forgotten and left to ruin — along with the very people who live there.

So on the one hand, development continues in so-called ‘New Cairo’,  where one expects nothing short of homogenization in what may have potentially been a renaissance in non-commercial architecture but has fallen prey to quick money and uninspired wholesale design subject to inflation. Meanwhile, the shantytowns continue to pile up, the disparity between the rich and poor becoming evermore evident in a way that the brutal metaphor illustrates: rich fortresses on mountains looming over poor makeshift dwellings prone to instant demolition with no more prior notice than the sheer element of living in constant fear. With that in mind, I return to the most dirty and banal of buildings downtown and the ubiquitous concrete monoliths I so greatly despise in Nasr City and Heliopolis, and I realize that they are actually much better in comparison. They have character in their worn, dusty states of neglect, and the residents with exorbitant amounts of wealth are forced to show off their golden ornaments only inside their homes behind closed doors (or else, on streets in their flashy cars).

That said, as the government does make an extremely slow though gradual effort to clean up the streets, I hope that they also take the opportunity to infuse new life into the older areas, focusing more on the refurbishment of property (hopefully minimizing electrical faults) rather than spreading far and wide in order to build unsustainable, potentially destructive housing that a small fraction of the population can afford. Maybe only then can they realistically tackle that monumental task of finally finding feasible living accommodation solutions in the once-beautiful city where rapid population growth and shortage of affordable housing today is a ticking time-bomb waiting to explode in a nationwide oblivion that will leave neither rich nor poor unscathed.

Habitat 67 is an apartment complex built as part of the housing theme of Montreal’s Expo 67. A design based on the architect’s master’s thesis at McGill University, Moshe Safdie aimed to demonstrate the amalgamation of diversity and variation in residential living, whilst in exploration of built concrete in space. An affordable economic solution to housing with the necessary provisions plus garden, it was expected to set the trend for the modern urban landscape in which an increasing population would call for more architectural creativity. In all irony, however, units in Habitat 67 today are expensive as a result of the very design that pioneered them (owned by tenants in limited partnership, purchasing the development from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation in 1985).

Sound structure II

Back in July, I attended the BFI’s Noise of Art presents: Booka Shade over at the Southbank’s National Film Institute. A combination of sound and video installation in a single night’s performance, I found it thoroughly enjoyable, only I was left half-impressed overall by the coming together of Booka Shade’s latest fantastic work with slightly mediocre visuals (it could have been better, to say the least). What did have a lasting impact, though, was the use of a sequence involving a concrete block of residential buildings mirroring one another in high-contrast green monochrome, skewing and merging in rhythm as the Berlin hallmark minimal electro and glitch resonated throughout the dark theatre. And it made me reflect a while about the impact sound has on the perception of structure, e.g. buildings, and if such structures could impact the way sound actually sounds. Oddly enough in addition, it seemed it was those bland concrete buildings in particular that lent themselves rather well to various musical styles.

Uniform and unremarkable apartment blocks (the Cairo-esque type as mentioned above) used in tangent with music is not exclusive to Booka Shade: take, for example, the audiovisual collaboration between Jan Jelinek & Visiomat Inc. in Modell Stadt Berlin. Or, as I recall now, the German video that most sticks out in mind for an optimally put-together selection of samples from Amon Tobin, featuring ‘Plattenbauten’ (buildings made with pre-cast concrete slabs) amongst the short film’s leading characters. Indeed I’m very much inclined to Tobin; after the tediousness of hearing Radiohead’s ‘Idioteque’ every time my phone rang, my replacement of choice was ‘At the End of the Day’. Now, months later, I have yet to grow tired of the track with which I fell in love on the album Foley Room. And I reckon that this is because Tobin’s music somehow effortlessly serves as a supporting background to various surrounding environments — regardless of where I am or what I’m doing, it always seems to sound right.

It appears I’m not the only one who thinks so, as one takes a look at Tobin’s discography re-manifested in dozens of videos and film shorts produced by avid listeners who appreciate his cinematic musical flare. An ‘audiovisual environment’ populated with sounds sampled from his field recording sessions is enough to transplant you into a foreign world, and the 36 year-old Montreal-based Brazilian musician and producer seems to achieve this in both beautiful and seamless fashion. Impressive, really, to have started out mixing and recording on a twin-cassette deck and now be fully exercising sampling’s potential digitally whilst still maintaining the sense of organic texturization on the channel spectrum. Characterized by ambiences blended with layers of sound pinched from a vast array of musical miscellany, his resonances and reverbs coupled with distorting effects help feed the metamorphosis of his musical composition in a form that’s entirely Tobin’s own.

It comes as no surprise that so many cinematographers should use Tobin’s music as the underlying backdrop to visuals in motion, catapulting his rise as a creator for music featured in films and adverts. Such work is as diverse as his music and much without restriction to a single screenplay niche or product, playing on the uniqueness and complexity of his creative use of sampling that inherently leads to a multi-faceted cross-genre effect. Consider everything from The Italian Job and éS Footwear’s Menikmati to Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory video game and the most recent release of Hungarian film Taxidermia in which Tobin’s entire score was featured. It all comes together in a single superior entity enhanced by old recordings of sounds heard on the average day-to-day, recycled for perception-altering consumption covering everything from motorcycles (Foley Room) to most notably the acoustics of buildings themselves (Out From Out Where).

It was wise of Dessau-based digital artist Jan Schoenwiesner to cut samples of Amon Tobin into the background of his brilliant Plattenbauten short — the one I viewed a while back and still refer to today (shown below).  The music video/graduation film is the product of his master’s thesis, built upon the transportation of abstract animation from the likes of Oskar Fischinger and Norman McLaren into the pseudo-reality of a man trapped in a dream shaped by concrete buildings that gradually fall apart. The computer graphics elements were modeled, mapped and animated in Cinema 4D, and were governed by the way in which Tobin’s samples equaled units of the buildings in order to propel the clip’s pace. Verily on the technicality of synchrony, it is most definitely spot-on at a level of calibre I’ve seen with few motion graphics designers other than the United Visual Artists.

Like Tobin, Schoenwiesner’s beginnings in his specialized field were quite modest: using a Commodore C64, he wrote code for the start of any given program with each time he turned the machine on. His techniques of story development, storyboarding, and design/build of a 35mm adapter to enable use of SLR lenses on a Sony HD camera in order to avoid the ‘dreaded video look’ go further to show how hands-on Schoenwiesner is. And the outcome is one with an unmistakably human aesthetic, yet again more proof of how imagery can really infuse life into the soundscape and vice-versa whilst translating motion caused by sound into ordinary objects such as the Plattenbauten. Structure and space are tricky things for both video and audio to achieve in the process of trying to maintain a true depth of field; but the marriage of Scheonwiesner and Tobin is a suitable fit.

With Scheonwiesner’s own design cachet of ‘visual music’ in multiple scenes and landscapes melding into Tobin’s own polyrhythms and soundscapes in his quintessential audiovisual environment, bland concrete architecture has never looked — or indeed sounded — better.

Sarah Badr © MMVIII

Click to view at higher resolution (Quicktime)

See also: 12 Frames – Motion

Amon Tobin, Field Recording Excursion

‘Egypt’s TV couples compete for a home’ (Video, BBC News)

The Expanding Metropolis – Coping with the Urban Growth of Cairo


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