Sounds of the City

Reading the image of a city with Kevin A. Lynch (part 3 of 4)

Music to play while reading (okay this is the actual one)

Sound is a major part of our experience with the environment. It is just as important—or even slightly more important—than the visual aspect of environment.

In Japan, the personal world is more internal. Phone calls are seen as too private and personal for public display and are prohibited in many environments. Calls disrupt and displace the environmental mood. Advertisements are set in an environment that exists outside of the personal world. The narrative is more abstract and absurd.

In Korea, the personal world is externalized, in some cases even publicized. It’s more acceptable to see phone calls on the train. Commodities are advertised as being the only thing you need to fix personal, lifestyle, and even family problems.

…the commodity in its abundance can no longer supply by virtue of its use. Value is now sought in an acknowledgment of its value [as] commodity. A use of the commodity arises that is sufficient unto itself; what this means for the consumer is an outpouring of religious zeal in honor of the commodity’s sovereign freedom. Waves of enthusiasm for particular products, fueled and boosted by the communications media, are propagated with lightning speed. A film sparks a fashion craze, or a magazine launches a chain of clubs that in turn spins off a line of products.

Guy Debord

Advertisement in Japan very rarely breaks into the auditory realm. This is a good thing and it mirrors the culture. Japan is a very quiet country. On the night of my arrival to Osaka I noticed how there were about 30 people sitting at the small station that I was at. But it was 10 minutes of silence while we waited for the train. You could hear the faint background noises of the city. It was a surreal but calming experience. Japan is good for that. The whole environment is constructed to reduce discomfort.

Korea is similar, but it is not Japan. On the light-rail from the airport to the subway station I noticed that instead of only descriptions about the status of the train, the Korean light-rail also played advertisements via the same speaker as the train announcements in a similar voice—a notable difference.

In Japan, stations have many more automated accessibility sounds. Many of them are very distinct and unique. I’d love to know the history of this one. This video sums it up pretty well so I’ll just put it here instead of re-writing everything.

In Japan, the subway is a temple. Travel can be stressful for people and so they've designed away as much stress as possible by making wayfinding extremely clear and obvious. At almost all stations the information displays are many and important announcements are spoken in many languages. Japanese, English, Mandarin, Korean. Usually in that order. The sounds you hear are only informational. The temple experience is a cultural product. The silence creates a shield around the whole experience which demands internal contemplation.

In Korea, the subway experience is a little bit different. As I journeyed from Sasang to Haeundae there were multiple people yelling into their phones, and even one person boarded the train and yelled at everybody—perhaps a religious fanatic. The cultural-landscape changes by gradual and repeated shifts in the soundscape.

  • edit 2019/05/04: That observation was abnormal. The many times I was on the subway after that first experience was much more quiet and meditative. Though there is a significant difference. It is normalized that people talk (and talk on the phone) on the subway in Busan. There seems to be a little less restraint in beggers or people half-busking half-selling aprons that won’t tear (I’m not really sure why that is a selling point but I guess it is a common problem /s). In Japan, you would probably never see this because there is more restraint and shame on being homeless. Obviously though, Korea is much more similar to Japan than to the United States. There is still tremendous restraint on displaying poverty on the street. This doesn’t influence how safe I feel riding the subway in Korea only because there is only one or two homeless or buskers on the subway and there are lots of other ‘normal’ people.

  • With this same logic, I too probably create this feeling in some nationalist Koreans. If there were many foreigners on a train they might feel unsafe. But because there are only a few foreigners then it probably doesn’t bother most of the nationalist Korean people.

My goal isn’t to complain about my experience or anything like that. I am just trying to analyze how culture shapes environment and how environment shapes culture. In reality, the difference between Japan and Korean transportation culture is likely much more subtle than I have explained.

A few vocal people can change the whole environment. Most people in Korea are not very loud. Most don’t yell or even talk on the train. But there seems to be a subtle difference and that small difference impacts the environment for society as a whole.

Ecological differences should not be discounted such as the species and thus the sounds that birds make.

People like knowing the ends of the path they travel. They like knowing where a road starts and where it ends. It provides a sense of security and assurance about the path they chose to travel.

Kevin Lynch wants to find a way to mesh together the whole city. I don't think this endeavor is a good one, however. The separation of the subway and the highway help to make spaces feel more distinct and meaningful.

One saving grace of bad urban design is that as perceivers we impose regularity on our surroundings. It takes a lot for us to notice changes in our environment.

Are strong edges necessary for strong culture? Strong barriers don't have to be impenetrable. Even barriers which don't exist physically can have a strong impact. For example, Harajuku street is a very popular tourist destination. There is no physical barrier separating the area around the street yet those side-streets see much less people.

Does the average tourist reach a level of immersion which causes critical environmental analysis? I’m not sure. If we give tourists the right tools it should be possible under time and training constraints.

Destination tourism creates funnels of tourists, favoring specific places but not others. The control of populations in this way can be beneficial because it fulfills the superficial needs of the tourist as well as the needs of the locals to not be hindered by tourists who alter or potentially inhibit the economic and cultural activities. My point is that this structure quarantines the modification of villages.

Different villages are different in more than one way. specific features of the environment cause people to imagine and construct related features differently. for example, how wide or narrow the streets are will be a factor in the design process of the trees, plants, or shrubs that would be placed along the street.

Villages are created by purposeful and accidental thematic creation of the following elements:

  • texture

  • space

  • form

  • sound emitting objects

  • inhabitants

  • special characteristics of animals/plants species

  • detail

  • symbol

  • building type

  • use

  • activity

  • maintainability

  • topography

  • geology

  • façade — arrangement of windows and doors

  • material

  • ornament

  • color

  • skyline

  • legibility / confusion

  • historical background

Many of these elements are shared within neighboring villages, the city as a whole, a region, or even a whole nation. Features easily become homogeneous as they are mass produced on different scales of manufacturing. For example, the bricks used to create the façade of historical Boston. Or the grid arrangement of streets in Little Tokyo—making the area feel more like Los Angeles then most Japanese streets.

Such likenesses tend to blur the city image.

A certain reinforcement of clues is needed to produce a strong image. All too often, there are a few distinctive signs, but not enough for a full thematic unit. Then the region may be recognizable to someone familiar with the city, but it lacks any visual strength or impact.

Kevin Lynch

In Korea the streets are filled with sounds. Many of them are advertisements like this one which is for a baseball themed restaurant. The sounds of a baseball game plays upon the memories and emotions of sports fans. It further reinforces the identity and authority for the restaurant as a sports restaurant. The sound of a ball hitting a bat brings a sense of authenticity (even though it is faked) that cannot be created other than to have a real baseball game being played in front of the restaurant. The costs of this would be enormous and yet the advert would be less effective. People would focus on the game itself rather than go in the restaurant. The sound of the ball hitting the bat is a serotonin release to sports fans. The restaurant must truly be connected spatially to the baseball field because the sounds of the game are heard. But the conscious part of the brain knows that there is no actual game inside the restaurant, yet the subconscious can’t help but respond with positive and feelings of familiarity with the restaurant.

There are also street musicians. But I’m not sure how to analyze this part yet.