99% Noise

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.

Comments (5)

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  1. Hey, just found your show and have to say that I’m loving it so much I had to go back to the very first episode!

    My Sound: My wonderful bird singing and chirping. I could be totally engulfed in a movie, and just to hear him chirping away makes it that much better. :)

    My Noise: I have to agree, especially in the summer it’s the constant lawn mowing! I’m watching a tv show or trying to get work done and one of my neighbors (up to a block away) decides to mow their lawn. Or the lawn mowing service starts their route. So by the time one mower gets done there’s 5 minutes of peace until the next starts up.This goes on for literally 3-6 hours depending on the weather!

  2. Cathi

    My Sound: Also bird song; we have 2 cockatiels and one alexandrine parrot in the house, and the “happy song” of each brings me joy.

    My Noise: Sirens – primarily Police, but also Ambulance. Living in the outer suburbs of a city of only 1.6million, it seems they are increasing in frequency all the time, and though I know they can also be saving lives, I cannot help that sense of impending doom and disquiet when they blaringly pass by.

  3. josh

    My Sound is the railroad crossing about a mile and a half away from my house on a quiet, still night. Despite the suburban sprawl between my home and the crossing, on those still, quiet nights I can hear the horn and feel the rumble of the trainloads of aggregate passing in the dark.

    My Noise is the booming base in the car stereos that invade every frequency of my peace and quiet at all hours of the day and night.

  4. My sound – footsteps, on any hard surface. I have always loved this sound and it’s been comforting. Carpet makes me sad.
    My noise – cars. The engines, the horns, the wind noise they cause. Especially trash trucks early in the morning on weekends with the banging of trash collecting. Necessary I know but so, so jarring on an early weekend morning.

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