The Sound of Le Corbusier’s Paris
“Architecture is a confrontation with our own senses”
Sounds “carry their spaces with them – they are space bearers”
This sound installation is an outcome of anthropological research on the imbrications of space, the senses and the built environment. The ambient sounds of several Parisian buildings designed by renowned modernist architect Le Corbie are presented through specially designed speakers. Exteriors and, where possible, interior sounds were collected for all of Le Corbusier’s Paris oeuvre. An experiment in acousmatic ethnography, it is hoped that experiencing the sonic environment of these places will encourage consideration the auditory in relation to the other senses when encountering places generally. The project is part of a longstanding interest in space as a personal, social and cultural project. Who we are is where we are would be one way to situate this dynamic.
This installation is also enlivened by the anthropology of the senses through which we can see that broad cultural orientations are sensually specific and that these vary over time and locale. In our visually oriented cultural worlds what do we make of sound? In particular what role does the incidental, ambient, non-specific sound in which we are always immersed have in shaping our understanding of place and ourselves? As I write this it is nearly 11PM and there are increasingly strident construction noises growing from the east side of my hotel room. They emanate from somewhere in this complex of buildings that includes my room. It appears to get louder as the time I would like to sleep comes closer. We habituate to sounds or irritate to them. The visual is different – we close our eyes and it’s gone. Not so with sound. The sounds in this installation are meant to challenge the listener to interrogate their movements through space; to refigure the place of the auditory within the sensory realm of the everyday.
There is nothing to see here, or almost nothing. I shy away from representing the sites opting instead to replay them. What does listening bring us that seeing doesn’t? At the very least it disorients us to place, complicating our ability to know it, and repositions the listener as needing to decode the where-are-we which otherwise flows so easily from vision. Some of the sites feature bird sounds, footfalls of pedestrians, elements of conversations that fade in and out as people walk by. Others are more cacophonous, with traffic, banging and buzzing occupying the aural space. Even in an exclusively acoustic experience we will attempt to “see” the building in the imaginative work that follows the listening. We lack an appropriate language for the aural, substituting one sense for the other. Aural space is in need of en-tuning rather than en-visioning.
A note on the layout of the installation.
Le Corbusier developed a measurement system that he called the Modulor. In two books he describes in some detail the advantages of his measurement system. It is based on the “natural” orientation of the body and the sequences inherent to it. To the greatest extent possible the organization and structure of the sound boxes follows the Modulor system. In introducing his system Corbusier speaks of how satisfying and effective the system of musical notation is and how physical space is poorly served by the ways it is divided. Perhaps Le Corbusier heard his buildings calling out even as he envisioned them.
Le Corbusier. 1980. Modulor I and II. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Libeskind, Daniel (July 2009) TED Talks. Daniel Libeskind’s 17 words of architectural inspiration. Accessed October 27, 2009.
Smalley, Denis 2007. “Space-Form and the Acousmatic Image.” Organized Sound 12 (1): 35-58.
Christopher Fletcher is an ecological and medical anthropologist who has worked in arctic and subarctic indigenous communities in Canada for 15 years. His work covers a number of topics and includes contributions to research on community health and wellness and collaborative media projects grounded in local philosophies. Almost all of his work has been with multidisciplinary teams and his collaborators have ranged at various times from psychiatrists to limnologists to indigenous healers. A life-long photographer he has incorporated film and video into nearly all of his work as both a research tool and a communication modality. Working with video has provided many chances to think through the experiential and practical issues around sound in research and culture generally. This installation is his first attempt to work with sound in an arts space. Fletcher readily acknowledges his debt to indigenous (Dene and Inuit at different times and different ways) philosophies of human and extra-human spatial relations. Through this lens he has recently been exploring ecological subjectivities at the dog walking park in middle class urban neighborhoods, efforts to document and contemporize traditional medicinal practices in the subarctic, and most recently in the discrete sonic environments of Le Corbusier’s buildings in Paris. He teaches visual anthropology and directs the anthropology visualization lab at the University of Alberta.