Sensuality & Proportion

A primer in sound for architects.

Water. A city is always being washed by water, in its various forms: rain, sleet, hail, snow, streams, rivers, through fountains, baths, taps, sprinklers, gutters, gargoyles, spouts, hoppers, pipes, chains, channels, and drains.

The human body has the same density and salinity as sea water. If you breathe in you remain at the surface, if you breathe out you can sink a few feet - not far, without weights - a couple of kicks and you're back up again in the froth and spume of the breaking wave. We come as a species from the sea. We need salt, which has always been a basic tradeable commodity and necessity. We have a lot in common with dolphins, and seals. We do not belong to the sea, [1] we have climbed up onto land and stood upright . Yet our sense of the horizontal and vertical has developed to a high degree of sensitivity before birth, in a fluid filled environment; and the labyrinth of the ear - another fluid filled environment - gives each dimension (height, width, depth) an equality - each loop is the same size. Once in air and upright the vertical dimension plays quite differently from width and depth. Perhaps our dreams of flying are dreams of water.

Fresh water [2] distilled from rainfall is slightly lighter than the sea. Pure water weighs by definition a tonne per cubic metre, it's at the heart of our measuring system. It speaks to us to the extent that it entraps air. An example of this is in the urban use of fountains. Water only has a voice when it has air: the sound of water is caused by the bubbles created in the eddies and jets its surface, a violent and dynamic complication of its surface, the boundary between the two elements. The babbling brook speaks because boulders and pebbles create cavities of air. The fountain's trickle or roar is a result of a collision of jets or droplets with a body of relatively still water, creating innumerable short lived cavities - considerable heat is created locally as well as sound.

Photo MB April 2002

Some examples of architectural use of water include:

  • rainwater disposal - spout, shoe, and drop stone
  • hydropower, wheels mills and turbines
  • fountain: jet, basin, cascade, sprinklers
  • water organ
  • drinking fountains, drinking
  • bathing
  • swimming
  • rowing and boating
  • weir and embankments
  • sprinklers

The sound of water is at once fascinating and chaotic: predictable en masse but unpredictable in detail: [4] It speaks to us of its dirsturbance, movement, moment to the point of utterance. Water drips, drops, murmurs, mutters, pitter-patters, spits, trickles, babbles, burbles, fizzes, foams, froths, glugs, gurgles, pops, sloshes, spatters, splashes, sploshes, spurts, whines, ripples, cascades, crashes, crumps, crunches, pelts, roars, rushes, slushes, swishes, thunders: not only by itself but because of its enclosure and our enclosure as listeners.

Enclosed by our way of understanding things our culture, our mythology: because we have chosen to belong not to a group of buildings but to a living city [5]

Cities are voracious drinkers.

Take London, with 7 million inhabitants - its body corporate consumes about 200million gallons of water a day 30 gallons of water per citizen.




[1] The sea gives back its human dead, as the body rots and releases gases - we are surface creatures
[2] , river water, well water, rainwater In the same way the ears can be considered as 'equisitely sensitive tributaries of the body of air'.
[3] There are bones and gristle and finely evolved cavities, and all sorts of resonating frequencies in strange parts of your back. It means we can swim in the sea quite well
[4] tides but not waves can be predicted, but people watch waves.
[5] The Villhaume test.




©Marcus Beale