Ku Leuven Masterstudio 18

SEM 01

Campus Sint-Lucas, Brussels

By Drs. Caroline Claus and Prof. Dr. Burak Pak


The undeveloped open space along the Western ring railway L28 has long been marginalized in Brussels planning processes. Thanks to its natural, historical and ecological richness the urban edge area is an excellent research object for sonic urbanism. Within the context of public park/place development along the Brussels railway line L28, sonic vibrations are dominantly discussed as a nuisance to suppress. Urban studies increasingly recognize sonic vibrations as a medium for community building and political action. Recent research in urban sound studies focuses on how collective listening practices help to develop a critical ear for urban space, thus contributing to productive reflection on future spatial plans. The search for alternative strategies for engagement, critical and spatial design is supported and inspired by the work of artists and musicians making new aesthetic experiences and new ways of (physical) mobilization developments possible. Understanding an urban area in transition as a negotiable atmosphere of sonic and vibrational possibilities, encourages a revision of the role and position of sound and vibration in the design of transitory processes for public railway park/places. Based on (pro-) active involvement in design and participatory processes for transitional public railway park/places in Brussels, our research project questions pre- established thought patterns on (sonic) vibrations and urban development. Through hyper-contextual urban sound design, we will explore methods and tools for working with (sonic) vibrations in the design of future railway park/places.

No Soundscape Project

The concept of soundscape is frequently used when talking positively about sound in a context of urbanism and architecture. Although it stimulates a creative sonic approach to urban transition, the use of the concept of soundscape creates some discomfort in a context of public space development on old industrial railway land. The introduction of the concept came with a warning for industrial, mechanical sounds: technological “noise”. What if the methods based on the concept of soundscape are ineffective in establishing a positive relation between sound and old industrial urban form? This research project looks to the origin and content of concepts challenging the concept of soundscape, the way these concepts have been used to open up the debate on sound and urban space, providing alternative methods and tools for a public railway space/park development.

Since the industrial period, the sensory and social environments of trains became an important commonly identified sonic feature of urban landscapes. Wolfgang Schivelbusch (1977) understands the introduction of the train as a formative project of modern subjectivity. The train made social life calculable: it ran by a timetable and separated travelers into compartments, “annihilating” space and time in a decontextualized and blurred “panorama.” Its sensory environment mediated the public experience of urban modernity on a global scale (Novak, 2014). In his Futurist manifest The Art of Noise, Luigi Russolo (1913) argues that the human ear has become accustomed to the speed, energy, and noise of the urban industrial soundscape. He writes that “every noise has a tone, and sometimes also a harmony that predominates over the body of its irregular vibration.” His manifesto was written as an invitation to young musicians to conduct a sustained observation of all noises, in order to understand the various rhythms of which they are composed, their principal and secondary tones. “By comparing the various tones of noises with those of sounds, they will be convinced of the extent to which the former exceed the latter. This will afford not only an understanding, but also a taste and passion for noises.” Russolo imagined a future of industrial cities that were consciously attuned, with every factory transformed into an intoxicating orchestra of noises. Ten years after Russolo Walter Benjamin (1925-26, 1985) describes the sounds of mechanized transport as “the signature tunes of modern cities”—“ The diesel stammer of London Taxis, the weezes of its buses. The clatter of the Melbourne tram. The two-stroke sputter of Rome .. the many sirens of different cities”—these different machine sounds “remind us the city is a sort of machine” replicated in industrial societies around the world.

In post-war experimental music railway sounds are recurrent source material. A famous example is Pierre Schaeffer’s noise collage Études aux Chemins de Fer (1948). After being triggered by the sound of Tokyo’s subway in the 1940’s, Japanese Composer Takemitsu begins with mixing “random noise” into his work. His social awareness of the affective qualities of ambient mechanical noise, made him become aware that composing is giving meaning to that stream of sounds that penetrates the world we live in (Novak, 2014, p31). Takemitsu’s story of sensory immersion in the interior of the train anchors his fascination with the musical value of noise in the feelings of humans contained in a technological environment. The train emits a shared, unbroken stream of sound as a felt vibration, in which noise is a natural part of the inhabited “peopled” experience of the Japanese urban soundscape. The story illustrates how the sounds of train can be experienced as homey, warm, and profound. Although this perspective still relies partly on the concept of a soundscape, it supports a possible radical attention to technological noise.

For his ecological theory on sonic warfare, philosopher, musician and label owner, Steve Goodman (2009) points to the importance of understanding the agency of vibrational matter and the shortcoming of anthropocentric concepts such as the soundscape and sonic effect. Accounts of the sonic in terms of conscious hearing or listening are troubled by Goodman in favor of an unconscious, affective account of sound as material impact, hereby opening up to the inaudible frequencies. Much of Goodman’s work on sonic warfare is given over to determining a politics of frequency through describing experimental practices that intensify vibration, thereby unfolding the body onto a vibrational discontinuum that differentially traverses the media of the earth, built environment, analog and digital sound technologies, industrial oscillators, and the human body. Goodman (10:p.79) describes the vibrational nexus as each actual occasion of experience that populates the discontinuum, drawing in an array of elements into its collective shiver. The conception of a differential ecology of vibrational effects leads him towards a non- anthropocentric ontology of ubiquitous media, a topology in which every resonant surface is potentially a host for contagious concepts, percepts, and affects Different than Goodman, Bryant uses the perspective of alien phenomenology developed by Bogost (2012) to examine how non – human entities experience the world. Alien phenomenology he understands as a type of phenomenology which goes beyond anthropocentrism. Where traditional phenomenology investigates our lived experience of the world, alien phenomenology seeks to investigate how other entities such as mosquitoes, trees, rocks, computer games and institutions encounter the world about them. Here Bryant refers to Nikolas Luhman who called this “second – order” observations.

Sonic Agency

(Sonic) vibrations understood as agents, cannot be studied nor designed with standard approaches, method and tools. A decentering of the human sense and perspective seems to have implication for urban design it constrains. This type of problems has confounded sound artists like Mark Bain to create transversal projects.  For Sonar+D  2017 he designed a sound installation for the Mies van der Rohe Pavillion using sound as a reflecting agent to define the materials and elements of structures and spaces. It’s a specialized sound system that will sense the building with seismological sensors, picking up all the micro-vibrations travelling throughout the structure. He created an echo chamber in the basement of the house, which processed the sound and feed upstairs into a large speaker system. He used a self-listening filter bank to control the system live and automatically and out of his control. He presented it as an architectural auto-composer, a living entity contained in the walls and circuits and materials of the total system (Mireia Pascal, 2017).

Studio_L28 research project: Urban Sonic Research embedded in the design studio:

Studio_L28 is a research project that aims to rethink the position and role of sonic vibrations in public space development on old industrial railway land with the objective of activating processes for a critical engagement with urban transition. Through this research we want to tackle two things: the quantitative sonic approach that dominates urban planning and design processes and the problem soundscape-studies have with urban sounds. On the one hand, We try to expose how in a context of urban transformation vibrational agency emerges as the effect of ad hoc configurations of human and nonhuman forces. On the other hand we try to prove that the search for sonic approaches to urban transition can be quite powerful and pedagogic in offering methods and tools that can function in planning and design processes for urban transition. The project is intended to connect to urban (sound) researchers, architectural students and sound artists working in different metropolitan contexts who are interested in sharing and investigate the potential of sonic vibrations for future public space. Through network practice the project brings together actors who are passionate about urban sound and who are striving to visualize sonic futures by testing theoretical design pathways and examining architectural-artistic routes that can turn them into reality. The studio is oriented to students summoned to perceive the multiple (sonic) vibrations in the city to exploit and contrast these vibrational forces, transforming them to into actions and opportunities; they may assume a contradictory role compared to the widespread noise control practices and they can reformulate environments, perimeters and relations of urban facts and may enter into active relations with vibrational dynamics that already exist on the territory. Students are invited to demonstrate their ability to activate sonic processes, to put in motion, to offer ideas that interpret a potentially visionary role for sonic vibrations with energetic enthusiasm for a critical sonic approach to urban transition. Studio_L28 will therefore be open training ground for sonic design experimentation joined  by short design lectures and performances: the results will be presented in an exhibition organized with the addition of material over the whole studio / process.  Public space transformation in the Brussels metropolitan railway area of the line L28 forms the urban backdrop of the studio.

Program: timing and organization (Draft):

The studio is composed of the following parts:

  • Soundwalks during which the experience of (sonic) vibrations will be explored
  • Class sessions during which the planning context and techniques and tools for urban sonic research will be presented
  • Field sessions with individual fieldwork on site.
  • Public talks + workshops during which topics related to sound, architecture and urbanism, and the area will be debated

Time Line

  • w1 26/09 Announcement of frameworks by academic promotors
  • 30/09 1st Sound walk + talk by Caroline Claus + Peter Cusack
  • w2 03/10 class intro planning context followed by in situ research
  • w3 10/10+ w4 17/10 Individual field sessions + intro technique field recording & sonic cartography by Caroline Claus and Burak Pak
  • w5 24/10 Presentations by each student of initial outcomes: results relevant case studies, literature review, data mining, context analysis, concept and thematically approach and first proposal for architectural intervention
  • w6 31/10 2nd (Public) Sound Walk + Talk + workshop by Johann Diedrick, and Claus Caroline in collaboration with Giulia Vismara (IUAV)
  • w7 Workshop Week with Seminar Brussels Environment + Visit Klankenbos, Musica, Neerpelt
  • w8 14/11 + w9 21/11 development urban strategy and linked architectural intervention
  • w10 28/11 + w11 05/12 + w12 12/12 development of architectural intervention + performative soundwalk + Conversation as Feedback at ARBA
  • w13 19/12 1st presentation + preparation exhibition + Guest Lecture Stijn Dickel (Aifoon)
  • w14 09/01 2019 final presentation + exhibition + 3rd Sonic Talk with students + jury (extern)

Study material:

A heterogeneous collection of articles, books and websites, recordings and music to draw attention towards the socio-spatial architecture of (sonic) vibrations in a position to activate independent processes of territorial renewal:

Benjamin, W. and Jephcott, E. (2006). One-way street and other writings. London [u.a.]: Verso. P82.

Bogost, I. (2012). Alien phenomenology, or, What it’s like to be a thing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Bryant, L. (2014). Onto-cartography. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Claus, C. (2015). Urban sound design process. Warszawa: Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej Zamek Ujazdowski.

Goodman, S. (2009). Sonic warfare. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Novak, D. (2014). A beautiful noise emerging from the apparatus of an obstacle: Trains and the sounds of the japanese city. In M. Gandy & B. Nilsen, The Acoustic City (1st ed., pp. 27-32). Berlin: JOVIS.

The Otolith Group. (2012). The Radiant. London: The Otolith Group.

Pascual, M. (2017). Mark Bain – Listen to the Wall. Metal Magazine. Retrieved from

Russolo,L. (1913). “The Art of Noises (English translation)”. Archived from the original on 2018-03-30. Retrieved 2018-03-30.

Sartre, J., Elkaïm-Sartre, A., & Hoare, Q. (2004). Critique of dialectical reason. London: Verso.

Schivelbusch, W. (2014). The Railway Journey. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Warburton, N., & David Edmonds, D. (2018). Social Science Bites. Saskia Sassen on Before Method. Retrieved 15 April 2018, from