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Listening to Historic Urban Infrastructures

Shannon Mattern

Just a few hours ago, as power was restored to nearly a hundred thousand customers in Lower Manhattan, various Tweets reported that entire neighborhoods – Chelsea, the East Village, the Flatiron – erupted in cheers. Four days earlier, as Hurricane Sandy swept across the East Coast, these areas suffered a massive blackout, and with it, for many, came a loss of heat, water, and phone service. Here in Brooklyn the lights stayed on, but the absence of many familiar sounds, like the subways rumbling along underground, indicated that elsewhere on the network things weren’t running as usual. While residents of the affected neighborhoods waited for Con Edison’s phone and Twitter updates about power restoration schedules, they “suddenly learned the names of the various networks beneath the city streets they usually take for granted,” the New York Times reported.1 As I write this, an update appears in my Twitter feed: “#ConEdison’s aim is to restore Fulton network btwn 12am and 8am. Network boundaries: Frankford to Wall St. and South St. to William St.”

Twitter was revealing, bit by bit, a geography that exists silently and, for the most part, invisibly, under these residents’ feet. But when both the electrical grid, and the cell phone networks and Internet connections that made it possible for folks to intercept these Tweets, went on the fritz after the storm, these usually unobtrusive systems suddenly called attention to themselves.2 Residents began to train their vision on new altitudes – on the cables and tunnels far beneath the sidewalks, and on the antennas and wires high up on the rooftops – because it was there, not at eye-level, where skilled laborers were working round-the-clock to bring their lives back to normal. And they began to listen more to their immediate surroundings; amidst the eerily silent streets, residents were particularly attuned to verbal updates from police officers and utility workers, and many locals commented that they rediscovered the art of conversation. While these folks were undoubtedly most focused on the short-term restoration of their heat, electricity, and water, they also began to appreciate how their immediate needs are shaped by layers of history: brand new subway trains rely on tunnels dug and wires laid a century ago; cellular connectivity relies on cables that physically connect to one another in the basements of century-old telecommunication facilities. And they began to appreciate the precarity of those networks of intertwined systems. “We have a new reality when it comes to these weather patterns,” Governor Andrew Cuomo acknowledged. “We have an old infrastructure and we have old systems, and that is not a good combination.”3

Taking up Theoretical Trowels

Interest in infrastructure is of course situationally incited, as is the case during black-outs, snafus, back-ups, wash-outs, and blow-ups. But widespread academic, professional, and popular concern with infrastructures, particularly with the material networks that make our seemingly immaterial systems work, seems to be a part of the zeitgeist. We now have walking tours of cell-phone antenna networks, crowd-sourced maps of bike routes and sewage systems, blue-chip gallery exhibitions featuring photos of data centers and e-waste deposits, interactive maps of transoceanic fiber-optic cables, and hacking and circuit-bending workshops where kids explore the guts of their iPhones. Jussi Parikka regards many of these artistic and design practices as methods for both creatively and critically exploring “subaltern discourses, local knowledges,…[and] the material basis of communication technologies” – particularly the “singularity of…material assemblages.”4 These are among the central concerns of media archaeology.

Yet when we’re looking at urban communication networks, which are my primary concern, we’re never looking solely at media. We’re looking at media networks that are plugged into and dependent upon myriad other infrastructural networks: our telecommunications networks need electricity, the Internet needs plenty of chilled water to cool the machines, our publication networks need trucks and airplanes for distribution, and all depend to some degree on biopower. “In a city” in particular, as Kittler reminds us, “networks overlap upon other networks.”5 Plus, in seeking to learn more about how our urban media work – or don’t work, as is often the case during disasters like Hurricane Sandy – there’s only so much we can discern from disassembling our cell phones, radios, and routers. We might need to “unfocus” our attention on “media artifacts and their representations,” as the editors of this collection advise, and, instead, follow the wires and waves that extend out from those devices, and explore the material spaces of various scales in which the networks’ nodes connect.

What other tools might we use to explore these material assemblages – or, to use a hackneyed phrase, “make visible the invisible” infrastructures that power urban life? What if we took media and network archaeology literally, and borrowed a few tricks from archaeologists of the Indiana Jones, rather than Kittlerian, variety? What if we picked up their trowels and surveying tools? In the introduction to their 2011 anthology, Parikka and Erkki Huhtamo propose that “[m]edia archaeology should not be confused with archaeology as a discipline. When media archaeologists claim that they are ‘excavating’ media-cultural phenomena, the word should be understood in a specific way.”6 Yet there’s much to be gained in a study of media-networked sites, like any city, by considering how archaeologists understand excavation – how they dig both metaphorically and literally into physical terrain – and by productively “confusing” media archaeology and archaeology proper.7

Besides, material infrastructures constitute a layered landscape that lends itself to digging into; they leave material residues that we can dig up. For instance, historical communication networks offer artifacts like pneumatic tubes, telegraph cables, structures for postal delivery, technologies for the production and dissemination of early print forms, palimpsests of writing on city walls. But what of those communication systems composed of few objects you can either hit with a shovel or unearth in an archive? How does one dig into a form of mediation that seemingly has no physical form? Consider the “sonic city” – the city of radio waves and public address and everyday conversation. Its “artifacts” are primarily ephemeral; their echoes have long since faded. Yet the material spaces in which those echoes once reverberated can offer invaluable clues about how cities (re-)sound. We can draw on the work of archaeologists-proper (and, ideally, collaborate with them) to learn about our media networks by excavating their urban contexts. Archaeology and its subfield of archaeoacoustics, along with architectural and urban history and allied fields, can help us to understand the ways in which radio and sound waves have interacted with, and even shaped, the material city – how our urban surfaces, volumes, and voids have functioned as sounding boards, resonance chambers, and transmission media. What we’ll ultimately find is that our media histories are deeply “networked” with our urban and architectural histories, and that, in many cases, these cultural and technological forms are mutually constructed. As we head into a future in which, on the one hand, we face an unpredictably evolving acoustic ecology, and, on the other, we have greater potential to “sound-design” or acoustically engineer our cities, appreciating the entanglement of these histories will help us to move forward in a more critical fashion.

In the following, as we consider the sonic history of the “media city” – first the city of public address and conversation, then the radio city – we’ll also discover that there are more epistemological and historiographic resonances between media and network archaeology, and archaeology-proper, than we might expect. While media archaeology seeks to offer alternatives to canonized historical media narratives and the “idea of inexorable, quasi-natural, technical progress,” the familiar notion of archaeological “stratification” seems to make manifest the very idea of layered epochs of “progress.”8 Yet many archaeologists challenge the stratification model, arguing that it “wraps blocks of linear temporality up into periods placed into neatly stacked boxes,” separated by “arbitrary divisions.”9 Christopher L. Witmore suggests that the metaphor of the palimpsest presents similar conceptual problems: historical layers aren’t simply “written, erased, and rewritten”; instead, there are plenty of “points of connection, proximity and action between various pasts.”10 Drawing inspiration from Bergson, Deleuze, Barad, and other theorists, these archaeologists have embraced the notion of temporal entanglement. Rejecting the notion that there are stratified epochs of “revolution”-based history, with new developments eradicating old systems, means that we need to rethink how the archaeological object – whether an ancient urn or a network of fiber optic cable – is conceived. Seemingly “modern” things, Witmore says, are “really [just] gatherings of achievements from various times and numerous places.”11 Knowing the modern media city thus requires that we trace the technologies, architectures, social practices, etc. that are tangled up in its production.

We find these conceptual models concretized in our urban infrastructural landscapes. In many cases our older infrastructures have lain the foundation for our modern-day systems (as per the principle of “path dependency”), but the “old” systems are also very much alive in, and continuing to shape, the contemporary city. What’s more, these various systems have distinctive temporalities and evolutionary paths; they don’t all “progress” at a standard rate. Through excavation we can assess the lifespans of media networks and ascertain when “old” infrastructures “leak” into new-media landscapes, when media of different epochs are layered palimpsestically, or when new urban media “remediate” their predecessors.12 Richard John, who’s written histories of American telecommunications and the postal system, has found that the infrastructures he’s studied were “complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Telegraphy supplemented mail delivery, and telephony supplemented telegraphy, without rendering either mail delivery or telegraphy obsolete.”13

While the electronic and digital ages have dealt serious blows to both the post and telegraphy, new media need not necessarily obsolesce the old; we’ll likely still listen to the radio and talk to one another in our “sentient cities” of tomorrow. Various networks also provide material support for one another. Geographers Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin write that “[b]ecause of the costs of developing new telecommunications networks,” for instance, “efforts are made to string optic fibers through water, gas, and sewage ducts; [and] between cities, existing railway, road, and waterway routes are often used.”14

While the notion of temporal entanglement has been embraced within media studies and is gaining purchase within archaeology – and while media and network archaeologists have managed to question the notion of “inexorable progress” by excavating our “new” media technologies’ roots in the 19th, or occasionally the 18th, century – most existing media excavation work doesn’t offer a terribly deep historical perspective. Another benefit of infusing media and network archaeology with archaeology-proper is that, once equipped with theoretical trowels, we can dig much deeper. Archaeology-proper, along with architectural and urban history and related fields, provides many tools for media and network archaeologists to engage, through multiple senses, the deep time of urban mediation.15

And as we’ll discover in our exploration of the sonic city, urban mediation indeed has a deep history. Media infrastructures, sonic and otherwise, have been embedded in and informing the morphological evolution of our cities since their coming into being. The rise of print brought with it new infrastructures for publishing and education and dramatically influenced design practices, as Mario Carpo has explained.16 Plus, the emergence of new print forms influenced how people navigated and made sense of their cities. Even to this day, metaphors of the book inform how we “write” and “read” the city. The infrastructures of a chirographic culture – of writing – have also informed, for millennia, how cities took shape. Harold Innis and Lewis Mumford address these relationships, as do archaeologists and art historians like Robert Harrist, who studies Chinese writings in stone, and Brinkley Messick, who examines the history of Islamic architectural inscriptions and their formal parallels in the very “articulation” of urban space.17 What’s more, various anthropologists, archaeologists, and urban historians, like Clifford Geertz, Peter Hall, and Paul Wheatley posit that the birth of cities is rooted not (or not only) in economics, which is a prevailing theory, but in the need for ceremony and communication.18

The city has always been mediated. Mumford, author of two grand histories of urbanity, writes,

Cities are a product of time. They are the molds in which men’s lifetimes have cooled and congealed, giving lasting shape, by way of art, to moments that would otherwise vanish with the living and leave no means of renewal or wider participation behind them. In the city, time becomes visible: buildings and monuments and public ways, more open than the written record, more subject to the gaze of many men than the scattered artifacts of the countryside, leave an imprint upon the minds even of the ignorant or the indifferent.19

We might say that our cities are themselves historical media, or archaeological artifacts embodying their entangled temporalities of evolution. They are more than historical texts to be read or artifacts to be gazed upon; they can also serve as resonance chambers in which we can hear echoes that have long since faded – and even speculate on how we’ll want our future cities to make their entangled temporalities audible.

One final note before we continue: While we’ll focus here on the sounding city, it’s important to recall, as we’re listening, that cities are simultaneously aural, graphic, textual, electroacoustic, digital, and haptic. Any one of these registers might offer us clues to the how the city sounds, just as echoes or textures might help us better understand how a city looks. The mix of methods addressed in our sonic case studies below – conducting archaeological fieldwork and excavation, analyzing images (and perhaps extrapolating from those images to speculate on acoustics), listening to field recordings, etc. – applies not only to examining the sonic city, but to exploring any variety of “media city.” Thus I call our approach not “sonic archaeology,” as might be expected, but “urban media archaeology,” which also happens to be a name of one of my graduate studios, where we’ve employed these methods for the past four years. I certainly don’t intend to exacerbate the “proliferation of ‘archaeologies’” we’ve witnessed in recent years – the past decade has brought books offering archaeologies of materiality, memory, colonialism, vision, trade, conflict, attachment, and the future, among other sites and concepts – but I do want to differentiate my approach from existing media archaeological approaches, nearly all of which regard archaeology metaphorically or methodologically and exclude insights from archaeologists of the trowel-wielding variety, and few of which examine – through sight, sound, touch, etc. – the material spaces in which our networks entangle themselves.20

Excavating for Sound

Now we turn our ears to the sonic city. How does one dig into a form of mediation that seemingly has no physical form? How, by examining the volumes and voids and surfaces of our modern and ancient cities, might we imagine how voices and radio waves resounded within them?

Old-School Public Address. We’ll start by considering a medium – the voice – that might stretch our understanding of the term medium, but which indeed was the primary means of communication in pre-literate cultures, and is still a vital part of our communication repertoires today. It would seem that the only “infrastructure” we’d need for oral communication is all packaged within our bodies, but it’s important to consider that all vocalizations happen in a setting, a space, either physical or virtual. How might the city itself function as a sounding board, resonance chamber, or transmission medium for public address and interpersonal communication? Such considerations have, wittingly or not, informed the design, construction, and inhabitation of cities for millennia.

Cities and speech have long been linked. Architectural historian Anthony Vidler argues that Plato’s ideal city – of which we find six versions throughout his oeuvre – is primarily “a city of discourse,” which “exists first and foremost for the dialogues themselves.”21 For the Romans, too, cities were predicated on rhetoric: “Never in my opinion,” Quintilian writes, “would the founders of cities have induced their unsettled multitudes to form communities had they not moved them by the magic of their eloquence.”22 Aristotle prescribed a city that would contain no more people than could hear a herald’s voice, and Vitruvius tells us of ancient architects who sought to cultivate acoustics that maximized the “clearness and sweetness” of orators’ voices.23

Lewis Mumford reminds us that

…the city, as it develops, becomes the center of a network of communications: the gossip of the well or the town pump, the talk at the pub or the washboard, the proclamations of messenger and heralds, the confidences of friends, the rumors of the exchange and the market, the guarded intercourse of scholars… – all these are central activities of the city. In this respect the permissive size of the city partly varies with the velocity and the effective range of communication.24

That velocity and effective range depend in part on the material environment in which communication happens. In recent years, archaeologists have begun to pay more attention to acoustics – from the sounds produced in ancient sites by historical musical instruments or tools, to the acoustic properties of various locations, and how they informed drama, everyday speech, or a variety of other performative and communicative activities. Archaeologists working in the field of archaeoacoustics have studied the sonic architectures of various ancient sites, from Stonehenge to Peruvian temples to American petroglyph sites, wondering how acoustics might have informed ritual performance and oration, as well as inhabitants’ experiences. Of course there’s much conjecture involved in piecing together ancient multisensory experiences and ancient builders’ intentionality, and the speculative nature of such archaeoacoustics research has generated debate.25

Classicist Christopher Johnstone has drawn on some of this archaeological research to explore how the architecture of Athens’ agora, and, later, civic buildings like the stoa, law courts, and various auditoria, shaped both an orator’s delivery and his audience’s engagement – and even limited the size of the audience, which might be governing body or a jury (and it’s important to note that juries usually numbered 200 or more).26 The physical setting also had rhetorical significance in terms of cultivating pathos and ethos. Classical rhetorician James Fredal notes that, from the “Pnyx hill that once hosted the Athenian assembly,

… one could look toward the Acropolis and see the Nike Temple nestled neatly inside the larger Parthenon behind it, as though the arrangement of these two temples was deliberately designed for the speaker (from among an all-male assembly) with this orientation in mind: winged victory nested within the temple of the city’s patron goddess, declaring hegemony held by her citizens…. The ancients understood the importance of the view offered by the assembly place.”27

Fig. 1: Adlocutio relief of the Anaglypha (Plutei Traiani), showing events in the imperial Forum Romanum with the buildings on the southwest side as backdrop; late 2nd century. Currently located in the Curia of the Forum Romanum, Rome. Courtesy of Diane Favro; originally appeared in Favro and Johanson 2010: 21.

Fig. 2: Schematic view of the Forum (image by Christopher Johanson, and courtesy of the Regents of the University of California, Christopher Johanson, and the Experiential Technologies Center, UCLA; originally appeared in Favro and Johanson 2010: 21.

In 1872 archaeologists found in the Roman Forum two marble reliefs representing an emperor, either Trajan or Hadrian, standing on the Forum’s Rostra Augusti (speaker’s platform), delivering a public address (see Figure 1). Inspired by such finds, architectural historian Diane Favro and classicist Christopher Johanson are creating digital models of the Forum (see Figure 2) to understand how the space accommodated funeral processions. With further research, they’re attempting to model and understand how the Forum functioned acoustically as a space for speech: “How did accompanying sounds reinforce the activities?… Where did spectators stand?… What route to the forum was taken by participants?”28 In part, they want to understand how the material urban landscape functioned as an “infrastructure” for the sights and sounds of these public events.

Fig. 3: Proposed Plan Improvements of Union Park; by Charles Spangenberg. From New York City Parks Department Annual Report (New York, 1871); Mid-Manhattan Library Picture Collection, New York Public Library.

Now let’s jump forward a few thousand years, to an age when print was widely available – in fact, as David Henkin writes in City Reading, it was plastered all over the city – and the mechanically reproduced image was gaining in popularity.29 Even then, in the mid-19th century, the city was a place of public address. Architectural historian Joanna Merwood-Salisbury examines how the design of New York’s Union Square has been modified repeatedly to either accommodate or contain voices of protest. Samuel Ruggles, one of the Square’s developers, claimed in 1864 that the square was “deliberately designed to support participatory democracy. The triangular parcels of land left over by the imposition of the ellipse on the grid were expressly made for ‘the assemblage of large masses of our citizens in public meetings.’”30 “The recent use of the square for huge rallies in support of the Union” showed the Square to be “a theater adequate to the utterance of the national voice.” Through its continual renovation, planners aimed to use the square as an infrastructure to create “active and informed citizens as well as foster social harmony,” yet it remained, and remains, a site for radical meetings and rallies (including many that integrate a variety of media: locative technologies, text messages, cloth banners, and, still, the bull-horned or naked human voice).31

Parks were usually intended to be acoustic spaces of exception within the urban din. If we consider what it must’ve sounded like to have a conversation within the chaos of the 19th-century urban street, we need to consider the city’s material properties as an acoustic environment. The voice is interacting, or competing, with a host of sounds – traffic, whose clatter was tuned by the materials of road construction (pavement, shells, stones, wood); the noises made by a great mass of people; and “reverberations off the steep canyons of dense urban avenues.”32 What’s more, Hillel Schwartz says in Making Noise, is that the 19th-century city was “a heat sink, its large brick or stone buildings and pavement retaining heat, raising the local temperature and speeding sound along.”33 But there were also buildings within that grid that were dedicated to public address: as Mumford reminds us, “In every… [early 19th-c. industrial] center the political auditorium became the chief civic institution: Exeter Hall, Albert Hall, Madison Square Garden, the endless Mechanics’ Halls.”34 Like their ancestors, the orators in these venues had to be attuned to their acoustics. Again, Schwartz:

Schooled or unschooled, people were veteran auditors of hours-long sermons, stump speeches, wedding toasts, union exhortations, lyceum lectures, revival harangues. Connoisseurs of such holdings forth, they appreciated delivery and style and listening for sound as well as soundness of argument.35

Not much different from the Athens that Johnston describes. But unlike Athens, the early-20th century metropolis met a new public sound technology – the loudspeaker – that changed how the voice reverberated off of those brick and stone surfaces. “[B]y the 1930s,” Schwartz writes, “loudspeakers were touted as capable of commanding audiences of half a million” – far larger than any Athenian stoa could accommodate.36

Radio City. And thus Schwartz brings us into a new era of sound technology, and a new phase of the sonic city. We might imagine future archaeologists conducting fieldwork in our urban centers in order to understand how our 20th– and 21st-century cities provided infrastructures for the transmission of modern sonic communications. In their work on archaeological approaches to the contemporary past, Rodney Harrison and John Schofield remind us that “excavating” modern sites will most likely not require “digging,” but, rather, surveying the surface-level landscape – and sometimes even looking up.37

The first radio broadcast centers were in cities – which, ironically, presented many material barriers to a radio signal. Speaking in 1935 of the New York Police Department’s early adoption of a radio communication system, Chief Engineer Thomas Rochester explained how the city’s mass of tall buildings functioned both as an infrastructure for and an impediment to transmission:

A single 500-watt transmitter station would be hopelessly inadequate for New York because of the absorbing effects of the many tall, steel-framed buildings, elevated railways and bridges, and because of the area to be served. The interference caused by electrical systems and devices adds to the difficulty.38

Because signal strength and the location of stations’ transmitters maximized their broadcasting range, allowing them to either penetrate or circumvent tall buildings, many early broadcasts were transmitted from their cities’ highest points, on the top floors of their tallest buildings, which were occasionally hotel rooms. In 1922 WMAQ began broadcasting in Chicago from the La Salle Hotel, then the tallest downtown building, and WGN started up in the Wrigley Building.39 Meanwhile, radio stations in New York were broadcasting from the Metropolitan Life Building and making use of the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings’ antenna spires.

New telecommunications technologies gave rise to new infrastructural elements – electricity poles, cables, antennas, transmission towers – that transformed both urban and rural landscapes.40 Urban historians and historians of technology who focus on the telephone in particular seem to have come to the conclusion that it had both centripetal and centrifugal influences on urbanization. It allowed businesses to concentrate their offices downtown, while relocating their factories, warehouses, and shipping facilities outside the city, and it freed city residents to move out to the end of the streetcar lines with reassurance that the news and activity of the city was only a phone call away.41

Architectural historian Carlotta Daro argues that those wires profoundly informed how designers shaped the landscape: “professional practice of telecommunications engineering was absorbed by modernist architects and urban planners and synthesized as a new kind of technological vision of both town and country.” Lewis Mumford represented one such group of planners: the Regional Planning Association of America. In 1937, he wrote in Architectural Record: “The area of potential urban settlement has been vastly increased by the motor car and the airplane; but, the necessity for solid contiguous growth, for the purposes of the intercourse, has in turn been lessened by the telephone and the radio.”42 These new, liberating technologies – what he called neotechnics – have afforded planners an opportunity to consider alternatives to increasing urban concentration. And he, and the RPAA, of which he was a co-founder and spokesperson, advocated instead for planned decentralization.

Communications scholars James Hay and Eric Gordon examine how the “logic” or “rationality” of radio effected a new shape of urban space – a radiant city, or a “networked” city of multiple, distributed centers with empty space in-between.43 Sam Jacob, architect and critic, likewise argues that the new topography of radio, one oscillating “between the physical and invisible, between media and architecture,” is reflected in the “open plan and the glazed curtain wall…, [c]onnecting spaces that were once separate, dissolving physical boundaries… in ways that echo the electronic dissolution of space.”44 Yet what supposedly distinguishes “radio space” – its multiple connected centers, open plans, and ample vistas – does, in some cases, precede radio, and is equally representative of other media or cultural logics and aesthetics. Sea travel and the construction of road and rail networks in the 18th and 19th centuries made possible the connection of urban centers, and new steel and glass construction made possible the opening up of interior spaces. And even our ancient cities had designed vistas.

Perhaps what distinguishes our radio cities is not so much their macro-scale form as their sound, and how that sound is shaped by the city as a material resonance chamber and transmission medium. Sound is, paradoxically, one urban dimension that’s neglected in the aforementioned studies, in which radio logic manifests primarily as visual form. But what about radio as a sounding medium, and the city as its instrument? Certainly we can hear radio’s influence in the urban landscape.

Anthropologist Brian Larkin writes about the sonic consequences of radio’s arrival in Nigeria in the 40s:

In 1944, engineers in Kano began to erect loudspeakers on the walls outside the emirate council office, the public library, the post office, and other prominent public places. The words and music coming from these speakers were radio broadcasts, mainly from England, which were captured by a central receiver and amplifier, relayed by wire to individual households and public loudspeakers, and then discharged into urban space for any in earshot to hear. Radio [thus]…began its life in Nigeria as a public technology.45

Urban streets and houses were filled with new, foreign sounds – typically propagandistic messages, uttered in funny accents, intended to win Nigerians over to the “power and promise of modern life” offered by their colonizers.46 “Loudspeakers thus formed part of the tactile, everyday world of colonial urban life and created channels of radio waves, cables, receiving sets, and sound waves that connected that world to a larger network.”47 Eventually the arrival of wireless moved radio indoors, but then, in the 1960s, the availability of cheap transistor radios – and, equally significantly, batteries – brought it back outdoors again, in portable form.

Radio and public broadcast continue to reverberate within the material surfaces of cities in other parts of the world. Recorded Islamic sermons and the call to prayer resound in cities of Islamic societies, mixing with the urban din, providing a means of spiritual orientation for the faithful and, particularly in spiritually diverse cultures, inciting debates over spatial and sound politics.48 In the favelas of Rio, warring strains of world music and evangelical music bleed through the thin walls of precariously stacked apartments and wind down narrow alleyways, sonically signaling clashing cultural identities; and in Durban, South Africa, “swanking taxis” blast kwaito music to stake a claim on urban space as they pass through white, black, and Indian neighborhoods.49

Many new sonic techniques and technologies that arrived alongside radio during the early 20th century also informed the sonic shaping of urban space. Acoustic zoning has a long history that we can trace back to the separation of the “hammering trades from the learned professions” and attempts to muffle “the din of traffic in the proximity of the sick.”50 And when it became possible to measure sound, cities began to define acoustic zones by maximum noise levels. That noise could be created by traffic, airplanes – or even, in the early 20th century, pianos, gramophones, and radios. A 1930 survey initiated by the New York Noise Abatement Commission identified the radio as the third most frequently cited annoyance.51 (Interestingly, the Commission also asked the city’s radio stations – a part of the problem – to become part of the solution: to aid in a “campaign to educate radio listeners in noise etiquette” by broadcasting, at 10:30 each night, a reminder to listeners to turn down their loudspeakers “as an act of good sportsmanship.”52 ) Mayor Fiorello La Guardia declared a “war on noise” in the mid-1930s, which led to the city’s first noise ordinance; and in the 60s and 70s, Mayor John Lindsey helped to pass the city’s first comprehensive noise code.53 “Rarely were zoning laws accompanied by revisions of building codes toward the better insulation of floors, ceilings, and walls.”54

Just as architects seemed to “bracket out” noise by expecting civic officials to banish it to other parts of the city, a surprising number of scholars who study the city in the age of radio seem to ignore the sonic dimensions of the medium, as well as a growing body of literature that that could help attune them to acoustic considerations. I’m thinking specifically of historian Emily Thompson’s book, The Soundscape of Modernity.55 Thompson speaks at length about the design of New York’s Rockefeller Center, which is also one of Gordon’s central case studies, but she addresses it as both a spectatorial and, primarily, given her focus, a sounding space. Her book sets the stage for Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall by addressing various shifts and developments that helped to shape the “soundscape” of the modern city: developments including the emergence of new sound recording and broadcast technologies, of acoustical engineering, and of new acoustical architectural materials; the cultivation of new techniques and tastes in the “culture of listening,” including new definitions of what constituted noise; and, as a result of these other shifts, “the reformulation of the relationship between sound and space.”56 Steen Eiler Rasmussen, in his classic Experiencing Architecture of 1959, also explained that radio impacted the design of space at the architectural and interior scale, too: “Radio transmission created new interest in acoustic problems. Architects began to study acoustical laws and learned how a room’s resonance could be changed – especially how to absorb sound and shorten the period of reverberation.”57 Products like Akoustolith, Acousti-Celotex, Acoustone, Sanacoustic Tile, Sabinite, and Sprayo-Flake created architectural spaces characterized by a lack of reverberation. Rooms no longer had a signature sound based on their dimensions and materials; these new architectural materials signaled “the power of human ingenuity over the physical environment.”58 Radio and record producers could then engineer back in the simulated sounds of particular performance spaces.

Imagine a future archaeoacoustician trying to make sense of such layerings of physical and virtual sonic spaces. Yet that’s precisely what I hope we’ve begun to do here. My hope is that by excavating these sonic urban histories, we’re now more tuned into the networks of material and immaterial, architectural and media artifacts and practices that constitute our “sounding cities” – and we’re better prepared for the design challenges that lie ahead.

Listening Forward

As we listen toward the future, there’s potential for engineering in and out particular sounds on the urban scale – designing soundscapes for entire cities. Arup, a global firm of “designers, planners, engineers, consultants and technical specialists” focusing on the built environment, has a team that focuses specifically on acoustics. Arup Acoustics has created a laboratory called the SoundLab, where engineers can listen to the sounds of simulated buildings, or recreate the acoustic conditions of buildings past. Arup is even occasionally asked to sound-design entire cities, as they were with Dongtan, China (an eco-city project that eventually fell through). Dongtan’s automotive fleet was to be entirely electric, which created space within the soundscape for city-dwellers to hear sounds – birds, voices, wind in trees – that would’ve otherwise been masked by combustion engines.59 Arup’s Neill Woodger says, “People haven’t really known that they can change the sounds of a city – they can change the road surface, for example, and that has a huge effect.”

Sound can also increase the efficiency and safety of transit systems. In 1987, 31 people died in a fire at Kings Cross, a major interchange of the London Underground, in part because they couldn’t hear evacuation instructions. Today, many metropolitan transit systems are prioritizing acoustics – including New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, with whom Arup is working on the new 2nd Avenue subway. They’re focusing on using sound-absorbing finishes, minimizing the noise of mechanical systems, and improving the whole infrastructure behind the public address system: from the speaker’s booth to the microphone, cabling, and loudspeakers.

In various projects around the world, sound has been a major consideration in the design of public places, at least in part so that these spaces can better facilitate socialization and interpersonal communication. But as Anne Kockelkorn and Doris Kleilein wonder,Is this approach just about acoustical cosmetics,” about “sonic branding,” “or does it mark the beginning of a broader understanding of planning?”60 The political aims of sonic branding are many. An ugly cousin of sonic branding is sonic warfare, which Steve Goodman, musician, DJ, and producer, defines as “the use of force, both seductive and violent, abstract and physical, via a range of acoustic machines (biotechnical, social, cultural, artistic, conceptual), to modulate the physical, affective, and libidinal dynamics of populations, of bodies, of crowds.”61 How can some of the seemingly mundane technologies we’ve already examined, along with new technologies under military development – and other sound media we’ve haven’t even conceived of yet – interact with the surfaces and volumes of our cities to function in urban law enforcement and warfare?

And how might we deploy “old media” or DIY technologies to counter this sonic hegemony? Media artist and scholar Matthew Fuller describes how pirate radio constitutes a new “media ecology” – and, I would add, urban ecology – with its “broke-up combination of parts”: “transmitter(s), microwave link, antennae, transmission and studio sites;…turntables, mixers, amplifiers, headphones; microphones; mobile phones, SMS, voice; reception technologies, reception locations, DJ tapes; drugs; clubs, parties; flyers, stickers, posters,” along with the “forest(s) of (apartment) towers.”62 Quite an assemblage. Let’s hope we’re prepared to “pirate” our own networks, if necessary, to ensure that our urban soundscapes aren’t engineered into homogeneity or hegemony.

What will future archaeologists excavate in our sonic cities of today and tomorrow? How will its infrastructures become entangled with those of the “city of speech”? What new sonic media are to come, and how will they embed themselves in our urban landscapes – and integrate with all the sound-making communication technologies that have preceded them? How will evolving noise codes – including New York’s most recent aims to regulate the sounds of nightclubs, ice cream truck jingles, and iPod earbuds – shape zoning practices, which will in turn dictate urban form? How will new acoustic engineering strategies, like Arup’s, allow us to “sound design” entire cities? Will we need to make space for new infrastructures of sonic warfare? And how will these spaces and networks entwine with those that have been around for a while: the spatial networks of formal and informal radio broadcast, of religious calls to prayer, of the human voice? The city itself is an infrastructure that supports this entanglement of media, old and new. And digging into these material supports for urban communication – picking up spades and digging in the dirt, or climbing to the top of apartment towers and inventorying wires, dishes, and pirate radio antennae – helps us better understand how these networks emerge, evolve, and integrate, and, in the process, shape how our cities function as communicative spaces.

  1. Robert Mackey, “Lights Go On, and New Yorkers Learn a Geography of Power,” Storm Aftermath: Live Updates blog, The New York Times, November 2, 2012 (8:55pm), urricane-sandy.html#sha=f508bc1c2. 

  2. See Stephen Graham, Disrupted Cities: When Infrastructure Fails (New York: Routledge, 2010). 

  3. Quoted in Michael Gormley, “Cuomo: First Responders Saved Hundreds of Lives in NYC Area,” Buffalo News, October 30, 2012,; see also Shannon Mattern, “Jury-Rig It: Shadow Infrastructures,” Words In Space (blog), November 1, 2012, 

  4. Jussi Parikka and Garnet Hertz, “Archaeologies of Media Art,” CTheory (April 2010), 

  5. Friedrich A. Kittler, “The City Is a Medium,” New Literary History 27, no. 4 (1996): 719. 

  6. Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, “Introduction: An Archaeology of Media Archaeology,” in eds., Huhtamo and Parikka, Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011), 3. 

  7. John Durham Peters elucidates the values of considering parallels between media studies and geology, whose methodologies bear some resemblance to archaeology-proper. The methodological concerns he addresses – e.g., that geological “texts cannot be interpreted apart from an interpretation of the processes that produced them”; that geologists “study not only content [of those texts], but signal and channel properties as well”; that geologists face the “problem of belated reception, interpreting messages that come posthumously”; that geologists must “draw inferences from an incomplete record of deep time” – are concerns that shovel-wielding media archaeologists must face as well. Peters, “Space, Time and Communication Theory,” Canadian Journal of Communication 28, no. 4 (2003), 

  8. Siegfried Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 3. 

  9. Christopher L. Witmore, “Symmetrical Archaeology: Excerpts of a Manifesto,” World Archaeology 39, no. 4 (2007): 555-6. 

  10. Whitmore, “Symmetrical Archaeology,” 556. 

  11. Whitmore, “Symmetrical Archaeology,” 558. 

  12. Our work thus responds to Alan Liu’s call, in his keynote at the “Network Archaeology” conference from which this volume emerged, for a “media-archaeological method…for capturing such networks of combined past and present – oral, written, print, analog, and/or digital” (“Remembering Networks: Agrippa, RoSE, and Network Archaeology,” Network Archaeology Conference, Miami University, Oxford OH, April 21, 2012). 

  13. Richard R. John, “Recasting the Information Infrastructure for the Industrial Age,” in eds., Alfred D. Chandler, Jr. and James W. Cortada, A Nation Transformed: How Information Has Shaped the United States from Colonial Times to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 56. 

  14. Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin, Telecommunications and the City: Electronic Spaces, Urban Places (New York: Routledge, 1996), 329. 

  15. See Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media

  16. Mario Carpo, Architecture in the Age of Printing: Orality, Writing, Typography, and Printed Images in the History of Architectural Theory (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001). See also Diane Favro, “Meaning and Experience: Urban History from Antiquity to the Early Modern Period,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 58, no. 3 (1999): 364-73; Rose Marie San Juan, Rome: A City Out of Print (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001); Bronwen Wilson, The World in Venice: Print, the City, and Early Modern Identity (Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2005). 

  17. Robert E. Harrist, Jr. The Landscape of Words: Stone Inscriptions from Early and Medieval China (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008); Harold Innis, The Bias of Communication (Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1951); Brinkley Messick, The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993); Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1938 [1966]). 

  18. Clifford Geertz, Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980); Peter Hall, Cities in Civilization (New York: Pantheon, 1998); Paul Wheatley, The Pivot of the Four Quarters: A Preliminary Enquiry Into the Origins and Character of the Ancient Chinese City (Chicago: Aldine, 1971). 

  19. Mumford, The Culture of Cities, 4. 

  20. Bjørnar Olsen, Michael Shanks, Timothy Webmoor & Christopher Witmore, Prospectus, Archaeology: The Discipline of Things, Stanford Humanities Lab, accessed April 17, 2013,; see also Bjørnar Olsen, Michael Shanks, Timothy Webmoor & Christopher Witmore, Archaeology: The Discipline of Things (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012). 

  21. Anthony Vidler, “How to Invent Utopia: The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Plato’s Polis” (presentation, Mellon Lecture, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal, Canada, May 17, 2005). 

  22. Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria (ca. 95CE), 2.16.9,; See also Indra Kagis McEwen, “Hadrian’s Rhetoric I: The Parthenon,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 24 (1993), 55-66. 

  23. Aristotle, “Politics,” in Complete Works of Aristotle, Revised Oxford Translation, ed. Jonathan Barnes (New York: Princeton University Press, 1998), 1326b5-7; Vitruvius, The Ten Books on Architecture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1914), 139. 

  24. Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961), 63. 

  25. Nadia Drake, “Archaeoacoustics: Tantalizing, but Fantastical” Science News, February 17, 2012, description/Archaeoacoustics_Tantalizing_but_fantastical; See also Chris Scarre and Graeme Lawson, eds., Archaeoacoustics (Cambridge, UK: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2006). Sensory history has addressed similar epistemological and methodological concerns; see Mark M. Smith, “Producing Sense, Consuming Sense, Making Sense: Perils and Prospects for Sensory History,” Journal of Social History 40, no. 4 (2007): 841-858. 

  26. Christopher Lyle Johnstone, “Communicating in Classical Contexts: The Centrality of Delivery,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 87, no. 2 (2001): 121-43. 

  27. James Fredal, Rhetorical Action in Ancient Athens: Persuasive Artistry from Solon to Demosthenes (Southern Illinois University Press, 2006), 4. 

  28. Diane Favro and Christopher Johanson, “Death in Motion: Funeral Processions in the Roman Forum,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 69, no. 1 (2010): 15. 

  29. David Henkin, City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998). 

  30. Joanna Merwood-Salisbury, “Patriotism and Protest: Union Square as Public Space, 1832-1932,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 68, no. 4 (2009), 543. 

  31. Merwood-Salisbury, “Patriotism and Protest,” 551. 

  32. Hillel Schwartz, Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond (New York: Zone Books, 2011), 309. 

  33. Schwartz, Making Noise, 274. 

  34. Mumford, The Culture of Cities, 182. 

  35. Schwartz, Making Noise, 288. 

  36. Schwartz, Making Noise, 629. 

  37. Rodney Harrison & John Schofield, After Modernity: Archaeological Approaches to the Contemporary Past (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 69-70. 

  38. Quoted in Seymour N. Siegel, “Cities on Air,” Air Law Review 8 (1937), 301. 

  39. James Hay, “The Birth of the ‘Neoliberal’ City and Its Media,” in Communications Matters: Materiality Approaches to Media, Mobility and Networks, eds. Jeremy Packer & Stephen B. Crofts Wiley (NY Routledge, 2012), 121-40. 

  40. Carlotta Daro, “Networked Cities: Infrastructures of Telecommunication and Modern Urban Theories” (presentation, Canadian Communication Association Conference, Media History Symposium, June 2010). See Schwartz on the visual and sonic impact of the proliferation of overhead wires (333, 428). Thoreau has also famously opined on the “celestial” sounds produced by these infrastructural aeolian harps. 

  41. Jean Gottman, “Megalopolis and Antipolis: The Telephone and the Structure of the City,” in The Social Impact of the Telephone, ed. Ithiel de Sola Pool (Cambridge, MIT Press, 1977), 303-17; Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin, eds., Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition (New York: Routledge, 2001), 50-1. Architectural historian Emily Bills also tells a fascinating story about the central role played by multiple, unconnected independent phone companies in agricultural production in late 19th/early 20th-c. Los Angeles. She argues that “the telephone should be recognized as the first form of infrastructure to efficiently and effectively bind the greater Los Angeles area into a comprehensive, multinucleated whole” (Emily Bills, “Connecting Lines: L.A.’s Telephone History and the Binding of the Region,” Southern California Quarterly (Spring 2009): 27-67). 

  42. Lewis Mumford, “What Is a City?” Architectural Record, November 1937. 

  43. James Hay, “The Birth of the ‘Neoliberal’ City and Its Media,” in Communications Matters, eds., Jeremy Packer & Stephen B. Crofts Wiley (New York: Routledge, 2012), 121-40; Eric Gordon, The Urban Spectator: American Concept-Cities from Kodak to Google (Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2010). 

  44. Sam Jacob, “Dot Dot Dot.” Perspecta 44 (2011), 136-144. 

  45. Brian Larkin, Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 48. 

  46. Larkin, Signal and Noise, 50. 

  47. Larkin, Signal and Noise, 49. 

  48. Olivia Remie Constable, “Regulating Religious Noise: The Council of Vienne, the Mosque Call and Muslim Pilgrimage in the Late Medieval Mediterranean World,” Medieval Encounters 16, no. 11 (2010), 64-95; Charles Hirschkind, The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (NY: Columbia University Press, 2006); Tong Soon Lee, “Technology and the Production of Islamic Space: The Call to Prayer in Singapore,” Ethnomusicology 43, no. 1 (1999): 86-100. 

  49. Martjin Oosterban, “Spiritual Attunement: Pentecostal Radio in the Soundscape of a Favela in Rio de Janeiro” Social Text 2, no. 3 (2008), 123-145; Thomas Blom Hansen, “Sounds of Freedom: Music, Taxis, and Racial Imagination in Urban South Africa,” Public Culture 18, no. 1 (2006), 185-208. 

  50. Karin Bijsterveld, Mechanical Sound: Technology, Culture, and Public Problems of Noise in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 2008), 68. 

  51. Cited in Bijsterveld, Mechanical Sound, 115. 

  52. Cited in Bijsterveld, Mechanical Sound, 162. 

  53. Lilian Radovac, “‘The War on Noise’: Sound and Space in La Guardia’s New York,” American Quarterly 63, no. 3 (2011): 733-760. 

  54. Schwartz, Making Noise, 671. 

  55. Emily Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933 (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2002). 

  56. Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity, 2. 

  57. Steen Eiler Rasmussen, “Hearing Architecture,” in Experiencing Architecture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1962), 235. 

  58. Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity, 171. 

  59. “Audio Architecture,” Dwell, June 2008), 62. 

  60. Doris Kleilein & Anne Kockelkorn, “Disconnection,” in Tuned City: Between Sound and Space Speculation, eds., Doris Kleilein, Anne Kockelkorn, Gesine Pagels & Carsten Stabenow (Idstein: Kookbooks, 2008), 105. 

  61. Steve Goodman, Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010), 10. 

  62. Matthew Fuller, Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 15-16. 

Acknowledgments: I’d like to thanks the Canadian Centre for Architecture, where I was a Visiting Scholar in 2012, for affording me a wonderful opportunity to explore their extensive collection and share some preliminary ideas in a public presentation, where Jonathan Sterne, Carrie Rentschler, Alexis Sornin, Indra McEwen, and my fellow Visiting Scholars offered helpful advice. I also owe a great debt of gratitude to the special issue’s editors, Nicole Starosielski, Braxton Soderman, and cris cheek, and to the two anonymous reviewers who offered cogent critiques of this essay. Thanks, too, to Julia Foulkes, Lisa Servon, Deirdre Boyle, Nitin Sawhney, John Roach, and other colleagues at The New School who provided feedback on an early version of this work.

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Image: "Introduction: Paragraph 24”
From: "Drawings from A Thousand Plateaus"
Original Artist: Marc Ngui
Copyright: Marc Ngui