Roman Mars (RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
Denni Paoletti (DP): Here at the San Francisco main library.
RM: And that is Dennis Paoletti.
DP: If you walk into the library, there’s a five story atrium.
RM: He’s an acoustic designer
DP: And it also is very hard and reflective with all the plaster, concrete, reflective materials.
RM: Companies hire him to make their buildings and board rooms and cathedrals and public spaces sound better.
DP: In an early scheme, the architect had the main information desk right in the middle of that floorplan in the center of that five-story atrium. The commotion that would go on, it would be disaterous for the people who had to work there. To try to hear the visitors coming in, asking for things and to try to communicate.
DP: One of the things we recommend was to just tuck that information desk off the atrium and just tuck it under some of the mezzanines. Pretty simple, pretty minor, but to me, it just made such an improvement, I always liked that solution.
RM: That smart and simple choice to tuck the information desk over to the left side so patrons and librarians could actually hear each other created a wide open circular entrance way. And no one really knows how to walk across it without bumping into someone else. So this beautiful, 140 million dollar building has an added feature that certainly was not on the architect’s plans. It’s a hack: A jankity retractable movie thereater style velvet rope partition that helps create the proper traffic flow. And there, fifteen feet apart from one another, is a minor triumph and a minor failure of design.
RM: In the epic of Gilgamesh, the gods get so infuriated wih the noisiness of their human neighbors, that they send a flood to wipe us all out. And when you walk around the city, it’s pretty easy to side with the gods in that scenario.
RM: What is noise?
DP: Noise, very simply, is unwanted sound. It used to be called environmental noise, but in recent years, people have been looking at a city’s environment as something unique to that city. In San Francisco, the cable cars are always an interesting point of discussion. Is that sound or is that noise? Well, for tourism business in San Francsico, that’s sound. That’s good. Thats money. But believe it or not, we’ve been called in by people who are annoyed by the sound of those clanking bells or the cables that run under the street.
RM: The job of an acoustic design is not just ot make things quiter. Sometime the best way to design a space to have less noise is to add more sound.
DP:The reading room in a library.
DP: Quiet quiet quiet!
DP: It is so quiet that anybody flipping a page in a book turns out to distract everyone else. The problem acousitcally? The background noise level! It’s literally too quiet. We often come to spaces like that and add background noise.
RM: That’s why small parks in cities have fountains. And if they don’t, they need one. They may be visually pleasing, but the sound might even matter more.
DP: Fountains give you this comfort level of acousical privacy. Masking unwanted noise.
RM: Whats your noise?
DP: You wanna know what annoys me? When I’m home, and that’s my place to relax, the neighbors always start mowing the lawn.
RM: Your action item of the day is to listen. Not to people, people are annoying. Listen to the city. And let me know, what’s your favorite sound. And what’s your noise? And how is it enhanced or drowned out by design of the city you live in or the building you spend most of your time. Leave your comments at 99% Invisible.org. 99% Invisible is produced by me, Roman Mars, with support from Lunar Design. It’s a project of KALW, the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco, and the Center for Architecture and Design.