Sound Art and Public Engagement in the Built Environment: Reflections from an Architecture Center


Conor McCafferty

Introduction: Architecture centers and sound


Architecture centers have multiplied internationally in the past twenty years, acting as public engagement interfaces for a wide variety of architectural, urban design and planning activities. PLACE is the only such center in Northern Ireland. International examples include the Danish Architecture Center in Copenhagen, the Canadian Center for Architecture (CCA) in Montréal and Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York.[1] Each of these, however, has a distinct approach to public engagement, and not all use the term “architecture center”; they are referenced here as useful indicators of a range of approaches around the world. Indeed, as Lappin and Morrow assert in an international study of architecture centers, “a codified identity of ‘architecture centre’ does not exist. Organizations which define themselves with this nomenclature differ in size, funding structures, personnel” (Lappin and Morrow 2013: 142).

Figure1: PLACE’s multipurpose workspace and public venue on Lower Garfield Street in Belfast. Photo by Joe Magowan, courtesy PLACE

As an institutional model, the architecture center shares some affinities with architecture museums, design galleries, contemporary art galleries, arts centers and civic expo buildings; most have a building or visitor center with gallery space. This is typically coupled with an independent curatorial stance, educational aims and a community-oriented focus. For some architecture centers, programs of architecture tours for the public are a key method of engagement and income generation.[2] Centers often work at the intersection between architecture, planning, development and community engagement and sometimes provide professional services such as design review.[3] In some cases centers are focused on specific issues: Fundamental Architectural Inclusion, for example, was established in London in the years leading up to the 2014 London Olympics. This independent organization advocated for meaningful community engagement with local communities in response to development associated with the Olympics. In some cases centers are closely associated with local architectural professional bodies.[4]

An influential exhibition by another architecture center was Sense of the City, produced by the CCA in 2005.[5] Sense of the City drew from wider academic discussions in geography, sensory studies, and soundscape studies to examine the phenomenological experience of urban environments. The exhibition and accompanying essays emphasized the rich possibilities inherent in a sensory approach to urbanism, going “beyond the regime of the visual” to consider diurnal and seasonal rhythms, sound, surface materiality and the air of the city.[6]

Following Lappin and Morrow (2013), it is possible to observe a variety of organizational formats and curatorial approaches among architecture centers in their respective national, cultural and professional contexts. Each center tends to respond in its programming to emergent issues pertaining to architecture, urban design, “the city” and community planning, as relevant in their locale. For PLACE, the original impetus behind the organization’s programming was, and remains, participatory, educational and generalist: by offering exhibitions and events on themes relating to the built environment to the public in Northern Ireland, the intention is to enable more people to become conversant with relevant contemporary issues in these fields and feel empowered to participate in civic discourse. At the same time, the most pertinent contextual factor in recent years has been the development of new “community planning” measures being adopted by local councils; this new initiative is intended to provide more responsive and appropriate planning protocols for communities.[7] How successful these measures will be in practice remains to be seen. For PLACE, the imperative is to ensure that architecture and planning processes are not beyond the reach of the general public and that citizens and communities feel suitably empowered and well enough informed to participate. PLACE has been able to pilot various approaches to such engagement in collaboration with community groups in locales around Northern Ireland.[8]

The priorities of funding bodies further influence the activities of centers.[9] For example, arts funding bodies (such as Arts Council Northern Ireland, who have provided core funding to PLACE) tend to be most interested in projects of significant artistic merit, while community development bodies might privilege skills development among participants. In the case of PLACE, a number of opportunities arose from different funding bodies, allowing the center to investigate the use of sound and sound art in both curatorial programming and community projects, and this article will detail examples of both. Before introducing the projects specifically, it is important to explore some of the relevant theoretical context that has emerged around sound, architecture and urbanism in recent years.


[1] See also the twelve-member Architecture and Built Environment Centre Network for organizations in the UK and the Association of Architecture Organizations, a similar group internationally. The significance and range of architectural organizations was explored in The Institute Effect, an exhibition curated by Dani Admiss for the 2013 Lisbon Architecture Triennale.

[2] Chicago Architecture Foundation, for instance, runs tours daily.

[3] In design review, architectural designs for a specific site are reviewed by a panel of built environment experts, a process comparable to academic peer review.

[4] PLACE was originally established with the RSUA, the local professional body for architects, as founding partner; the Center for Architecture in New York is run by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

[5] See the exhibition page on the CCA website. The accompanying catalogue (see Zardini 2005) draws together texts including classics of sound studies by Schafer and Thompson to draw attention to alternative approaches to urbanism.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The concept of community planning is intended to ensure that those with responsibility for implementing planning measures for a given area will engage in a meaningful way with those communities who might be affected by those planning measures; see

[8] See

[9] This is particularly relevant in the UK context, where philanthropy is less widespread among arts organisations than in the United States, for example; public funding is thus an important source of support for centres.

What can sound offer in engaging with architecture and the city?


The main aim of PLACE is to engage diverse publics in Northern Ireland in built environment issues.[10] Thus, reflecting upon the organization’s work with sound and sound art to date, some key questions emerge: in what ways can sound afford or enhance public engagement with architectural and urban issues? How can sound afford or enhance engagement with specific community groups? By exploring sonic arts projects programmed by PLACE, including a public art installation, gallery exhibition and workshops, this article will bring into focus a range of potential engagement strategies where sonic arts and architecture meet.

There are inherent difficulties in curating architecture. Coming from the specialist technical and artistic field of architecture education, which entails a lengthy period of training, and carrying the complex social and cultural baggage of architectural history, buildings do not lend themselves to straightforward interpretation without mediation. Not everyone with an interest in architecture will have a strong ability, or desire, to read the technical drawings that are the staple of an architect’s education and the traditional museum, for example. Likewise, understanding conceptual or process-related outputs of architecture and related practices (rather than built objects) demands some prior knowledge of trends and issues in the field.[11] In this architectural-curatorial context, sonic arts practices appeal as alternative mediators, and as mechanisms for critique, of designed space.

Such mediation can operate in a number of ways, as will be shown by the range of projects described in this article. What is common to each of the projects under discussion is a reframing of the built environment through listening: the notion that new insights are afforded to audiences and participants who attend to the aural. In her examination of site in ambient music, soundscape composition and field recordings, the musicologist Joanna Demers uses the term “sound art” as a catch-all for a heterogeneous set of works; while these works are unalike in many ways, “what they do share is a propensity for using sound to refer not to abstract concepts but to specific sites and locations” (Demers 2010: 115). Yet, precisely what this reframing through listening might tell us about specific sites and locations is less clear. As Demers argues, dealing with sound often implies dealing with ambiguity:

Sound […] simultaneously discloses and hides a great deal about its origins. Sound is the perfect sign for artists but a maddeningly imprecise one for logicians; it points without confirming and suggests without asserting. (Demers 2010: 115)

Attentive listening skills are deemed essential in traditions of acoustic ecology,[12] but this tactic is also found in recent interdisciplinary approaches to sound and architecture.[13] The attentive listening referred to in this article draws on what the composer and theorist Michel Chion refers to as the causal and semantic modes of listening.[14] In both cases, sound is relational: in causal listening, sound relates to its source, while in semantic listening, it relates to a set of meanings (stemming from a cultural or social context, for example). In these modes of listening, sound signifies a great deal about its site by conveying both a sense of space and offering a contextual narrative to be interpreted by the listener. Listening thus forms a kind of informal or preliminary analysis; it begins by acknowledging that the built environment is in fact worth listening to, that what we hear might invite us to understand those environments anew.

The notion that acoustics, aurality, the sound environment or soundscape could be sites of creative potential in architecture is taking hold, but it remains a marginal pursuit. Certainly, connections are becoming more deeply theorized, yet they remain firmly outside traditional regimes of architectural practice and education.[15] As mentioned previously, the concern here for PLACE is not to further architectural practice, but rather to explore sound as a means of engaging the general public or specific community groups (people, in other words, without professional expertise).

In addition to responding to current trends in architectural theory and exploring sound as an alternative mediator of architecture and urban issues, PLACE’s work in this area draws on the vibrant community of artists working with sound locally, as detailed below.

[10] Some of the strategies to this end have included the exhibition of film and photography, publishing writing on the built environment, and showcasing more traditional forms of architectural representation in the form of architectural drawings and models. Further, PLACE has acted as a platform for public debate and professional development with its events programme, staging panel discussions, conferences and public talks on topical built environment themes. We have tested conceptions and methodologies of community engagement by working as a mediating conduit in local development projects between communities, local authorities, developers and designers. We consider this latter point to have particular importance in the Northern Irish context where issues of contested space and community development are to the fore of the social and political agenda.

[11] For a wider discussion of contemporary issues in curating architecture, see (Phillips, Renton, Le Feuvre and Schmitz 2008).

[12] The famous “ear-cleaning” exercises proposed by Schafer in the 1970s being a prime example (Schafer 1994).

[13] See the call for architects to “learn how to listen” in Ouzounian and Lappin’s Soundspace Manifesto (2014: 305).

[14] See (Chion 1994). Chion contrasts causal and semantic listening with Pierre Schaeffer’s concept of reduced listening, where sound is not meant to signify anything except itself; in other words, the listener pays attention only to the intrinsic qualities of the sound.

[15] See, for instance, the Summer 2015 edition of Grey Room journal (Alexander et al. 2015). See also (Fowler 2015) for an excellent discussion of the implications for architecture of different conceptions of sound and soundscapes.

The context for sound in Belfast and Northern Ireland

There is a burgeoning sound art scene in Belfast and Northern Ireland.[16] Alongside a well-established art school at Ulster University, Belfast holds a specific attraction for sound artists and researchers in the form of the Sonic Arts Research Center (SARC) at Queen’s University Belfast. A number of public engagement initiatives exploring the sonic environment of the city have emerged from SARC, including the Belfast Sound Map (Rebelo, Chaves, Meireles, McEvoy and Stein: 2012)[17] and Belfast Soundwalks (Rebelo and Bass 2013), for example.

Arts venues and organizations in Belfast – ranging from small-scale galleries, annual festivals and multi-purpose arts centers – have an interest in sonic arts programming. A number of contemporary art venues with a primarily visual arts focus, for instance, have mounted sound art exhibitions and installations in recent years, including Catalyst Arts Gallery, PS2 and Golden Thread Gallery. The annual Sonorities contemporary music festival, based at Queen’s, also hosts sound art projects alongside its concert program. The contemporary art scene in Derry/Londonderry,[18] meanwhile, has also experimented with sound art, perhaps most notably in the collaboration between Void Gallery and London’s Resonance FM (Sheehan 2013) as part of the 2013 City of Culture activities.

The sound art installation works discussed in the following section both deal to some degree with the specific local sound environment of Belfast, albeit in significantly different ways. Thus, it is worth briefly discussing the social and political context of sound in the city. Historically, there is a political backdrop of musicality in public space in Northern Ireland, in the form of the annual parading season. There are often public demonstrations and counter-demonstrations on various political and social issues, community representation and contested space. There are particular sonic signifiers in Northern Ireland (in its urban environments, particularly) associated with the Troubles:[19] bin lids, beaten against the ground en masse, were used as percussive warning signals that security forces were entering an area, effectively captured in the 2014 film ’71 (Demange 2014). There are evocations of silence as an instrument of power in the poetry of Derek Mahon, where the sonic environment plays a fundamental role in the perception of political – in this case, ecclesiastical – authority: “the dank churches, the empty streets, the shipyard silence, the tied-up swings” (Mahon 2000).[20]

Yet, aside from such particular political-historical sonic symbolism, Belfast, the major city, shares the characteristics of many post-industrial UK cities. The physical environment of the city is notably impacted by roads infrastructure, surface-level car parks and associated road traffic congestion.[21] Today the port and shipyards form a regeneration area and tourist destination, part of a city strategy to project an image of cosmopolitanism and promote tourism. The city plays host to a large number of music and arts festivals that bring performing arts practices from around the world to the city, promoting alternative conceptions of identity and modes of practice, from international pop music at Féile an Phobail (the “people’s festival”), to street theatre and performance at Festival of Fools.


[16] As detailed by (Ouzounian 2013) especially. See also (Hilken 2014) for a perspective from the visual arts.

[17] One of the features of the Belfast Sound Map is the output of a soundmapping workshop hosted by PLACE in 2013.

[18] The name of the city has been the subject of contention over many years, with nationalists typically preferring Derry and unionists preferring Londonderry – though Derry is used colloquially by both sides. For a historical perspective, see “First Public Discussion: The Name Of this City? Central Library, February 19, 1995.

[19] “The Troubles” is a term widely used to refer to the conflict and civil unrest in Northern Ireland beginning in the late 1960s and continuing until the emergence of the peace process in the early 1990s.

[20] For a wider discussion of the arts in the context of the Troubles, see (Arts Council of Northern Ireland 2014a).

[21] See for example: (UTV News 2014), (Belfast Telegraph 2014), and (BBC News 2013).

Sound art and the built environment of Belfast

Recognizing the creative potential of multidisciplinary collaboration, PLACE has sought to curate sound art works that operate in different spatial contexts and that engage artists and practitioners with different areas of expertise. Thus, the first project discussed here, Resounding Rivers, drew together a sound artist and an archaeologist in a work of sound-art-as-public-art inspired by Belfast’s historic urban form. The second project under discussion, 48Hz, was a gallery-based sound installation that emerged from a collaboration between two sonic artists – one with a special interest in visual and graphic crossovers with sound, the other with technical expertise in sound design and diffusion – to explore the potential of an everyday found sound in Belfast’s built environment.

Resounding Rivers (2010)

Resounding Rivers, a multi-site installation by sound artist Matt Green (2010), was curated by PLACE with funding from Belfast City Council.[22] The project ran from May-June 2010, with six sound installations at sites around Belfast city center, accompanied by a video installation hosted in PLACE and a printed map.[23] Green collaborated with the archaeologist Ruairí Ó Baoill to develop a new sonic reading of a now-hidden city: the sound presented at each installation site was an approximation of the sound of natural watercourses and built structures, such as a fountain and a beetling mill, previously situated there. To achieve the effect, Green visited and recorded “locations in Northern Ireland with similar water features to those previously found in Belfast” (Green 2010).

Map of sound installations for Matt Green’s Resounding Rivers. Each location was chosen to mark the historic presence of waterways in Belfast, such as a culverted river that used to flow through the city center. Graphic design by Ryan O’Reilly. Image courtesy of PLACE

Resounding Rivers drew inspiration from the historical maritime geography of Belfast, a city whose industrial and mercantile growth and prosperity – indeed, its very livelihood for many years – was based on the sea, waterways and the attendant activities of shipbuilding, rope-making, linen manufacture and associated trades. This is a historical urban narrative stretching as far back as the founding of the city, with the granting of a royal charter in 1613, through Victorian prosperity, lasting until the mid-twentieth century.[24] Spatially, the installations were distributed around a relatively small, symbolically potent area. Although the historic core of the city (the present-day commercial core) is close to the river and marked by street names bearing this heritage, Green’s work also emphasized the very lack of water features, either natural or built, in the roughly square kilometer area of the city core. By sonifying elements of the cityscape long absent, and arguably missing, from contemporary Belfast, Green’s work made a case for transformative sonic design interventions in urban space.

Unlike many European cities, meanwhile, the central core of Belfast has remained largely uninhabited in the past 50 years, as a result of its being kept as a protected neutral zone during the Troubles, combined with planned resettlements to the suburbs and surrounding towns. There is significant, ongoing urban blight and vacancy in spite of several years of speculative development before the recent economic recession (Hackett, Hill, Keaveney, Mackel and Sterrett 2009). The sound installations thus offer a second observation of the contemporary city, by presenting a sonic rupture in the contemporary urban form. The work recalls everyday atmospheres across three centuries of a quickly expanding, but small-scale, fine-grained urban development, unmarked by the disruptive forces of twentieth-century conflict, planning (or lack thereof) and speculative development.

The six Resounding Rivers installations were subtly placed on site: each was announced visually with only a small gesture in the form of a sticker providing some brief contextual information. The audio equipment (loudspeakers, amplifiers and audio players) used to transmit the sound at each site was, as far as possible, hidden from view. In the case of installations in buildings with windows, vibration speakers were used to allow the sound to resonate through the glass; in other cases, loudspeakers were placed under eaves, on ledges, or behind doors left ajar. The effect of this audio-only installation strategy was twofold: firstly it drew attention to the altered sound environment, thereby prioritizing aural attention to urban space; secondly, it allowed an uncanny, fragmented acoustic atmosphere to manifest itself, without visual aids, in the present everyday sound environment. Thus, each installation played with the awareness of the public, quietly inviting people to redirect their attention, to listen with curiosity and more care. Perhaps, to many passers-by, the sounds being played back constituted just another layer of unimportant background noise. Yet, through persistent playback, the work could emerge into the foreground, offering itself to those who wished to engage with it.

Though sound installation art is gaining a foothold in Northern Ireland, public art commissioning is dominated by large-scale sculptural work[25] on the one hand and by “re-imaging” of sectarian murals on the other (this latter type of work is intended to “challenge both sectarian and racist attitudes and support community cohesion” [Arts Council of Northern Ireland 2014b]). At the same time, while most public artworks in Northern Ireland are installed as permanent sculptural fixtures in public space, Green’s work was in place for only one month. The temporary nature of the work articulated a possible alternative basis for public art procurement and curation.

Presenting itself for contemplation of historical narratives, Resounding Rivers was perhaps comparable to the public statuary common to so many urban spaces. The emphasis, however, was not on the great deeds of important men; instead, it drew quiet yet insistent attention towards atmospheres of the past, in the same site, but out of time. In its subtle, ambiguous soundings, the work commemorated an everyday past, enfolded into the everyday present.

Documentation of a sound installation at BBC Broadcasting House, Belfast, part of Resounding Rivers by Matt Green. The video approximates the experience of one of Green’s installations for a pedestrian passing it in the street. This particular installation, at BBC Broadcasting House on Ormeau Avenue, recreated the sounds of a dam and paper mill. Video courtesy of Matt Green. Published on Vimeo by Matt Green, 2011

48Hz (2014)

Using a markedly different approach and setting, the gallery-based sound installation 48Hz (Negrão 2014) was the fruit of a collaboration between sound artists Miguel Negrão and Matilde Meireles (Meireles 2012) as part of Meireles’ sound mapping project, X Marks the Spot (2012-ongoing). Meireles’ work was conceived as a kind of alternative wayfinding project, mapping the drones emitted by telecommunications boxes found on public footpaths in Belfast. Negrão’s response was to work with these drones as compositional source material for a new gallery installation. The work emerged from Meireles’ interest in opening her project to collaborators and, thus, “to processes I hadn’t envisioned initially”.[26] In 48Hz, the unintended sonic by-product of communications networks becomes the object of intensive attention.

48Hz by Miguel Negrão. Installation view. The large gallery space at Platform on Queen Street in Belfast was darkened with boards over the windows and was empty aside from a small ring of eight loudspeakers and a rug with cushions in the center of the room. Image courtesy of Matilde Meireles

PLACE presented an installation of 48Hz in March 2014 in partnership with a contemporary art studio and gallery space, Platform, with additional support from the Sonic Arts Research Center and the Recomposing the City research group. Platform’s gallery in central Belfast, a former warehouse space with a distinctive reverberant acoustic, thanks to its hard surfaces and open plan, was used as the venue. The collaboration, says Meireles, “allowed the project to be disseminated to a wider audience that probably wouldn’t otherwise get to know the project”,[27] noting the “critical platform to reflect on urban space” afforded by sound art.[28]

48Hz by Miguel Negrão. Visitors to the installation were invited to lie down inside the speaker arrangement. Image courtesy of Matilde Meireles

The installation was another example of sound art encouraging playful encounters with the everyday urban environment. Taking Meireles’ recording and physical tagging of electricity boxes in the public realm[29] into a contemporary art gallery, Negrão’s work was installed as a multi-channel loudspeaker array, forming a small circle around the listener. This sonic “sculpture” played with notions of urban listening and the spatiality of sound. The ring of loudspeakers delineated, within the larger gallery space, an intimate, immersive “room” and the visitor was implicitly invited to cross the threshold and lie down, a ritualized act optimizing their attention to the unfolding of the work.


In parallel, Negrão’s compositional strategy in 48Hz musically framed an otherwise unremarkable aspect of the urban environment – the “inner world hidden in the drone of the telecommunication boxes” (Negrão 2014). Isolating the key frequencies from Meireles’ original recordings, and removing the ambient environmental noise, the “pure” drone was foregrounded as material for manipulation. The listener’s attention was drawn to a particular variety of “sonic detritus,” to borrow Gandy’s term (2014: 37), persisting in the contemporary city. Yet, in 48Hz, the original urban context is effaced, and the source material becomes subject to new compositional rules; the drones are analyzed, manipulated and transformed, and new sonic and spatial possibilities are explored.

48Hz by Miguel Negrão. In situ recording at Platform gallery space, Belfast, March 2014. Recording by Matilde Meireles

In each of the works described above, sound is employed to explore very different facets of the built environment. Resounding Rivers displayed a creative engagement with site, using sound to explore a lost element of the urban fabric; Green’s strategy here was both a reanimation and a re-examination of the everyday urban past. X Marks the Spot tests sound as an alternative wayfinding device in the present-day city, and 48Hz built on this base material, appropriating individual sounding elements as objects for compositional treatment. Each artistic motive points to the potency of sonic arts methods in architectural and urban studies: Green’s historic enquiry, Meireles’ attention to what is normally ignored, and Negrão’s manipulation of source materials each have a place in developing new aural understandings and transformations of space, place and site.


[22] The funding program in this case, “Mapping the City”, offered an open call to organizations who wanted to address artistic approaches to mapping. Based on his previous sound art installation work and his interest in urban sound, Green was commissioned to deliver a new project through this program.

[23] The video installation and map were produced by graphic designer Ryan O’Reilly.

[24] For more on the historical development of Belfast from 1613 onwards, see (Connolly 2012) and (Ó Baoill 2011).

[25] See, for example, the Public Art Handbook for Northern Ireland (Harron 2005).

[26] Meireles, Matilde (personal communication with the author, February 23, 2015).

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] See for a trailer explaining the original project.

Sound and community engagement in Northern Ireland


The collaborative practices with artists and institutions detailed above are an important part of the public-facing work of PLACE, but the organization also intervenes more directly in specific locales. In recent years, for example, PLACE has helped develop area planning documents through community engagement. One strategic focus of such community engagement in recent years has been to develop programs for young people with two broad aims: to build, from a young age, an appreciation and awareness of architecture and the built environment and to explore opportunities for engaged citizenship through built environment issues.[30] In a number of projects, a focus on the urban sound environment offered a useful means of engagement, affording a pedagogical theme to explore through skills development, though the emphasis in each case was different.

Know Your Place: Belfast and Killough (2014)

In Know Your Place Belfast (2014), PLACE combined youth engagement in built environment issues with skills development in digital media. This series of workshops was funded by Belfast City Council to engage young people living in different neighborhoods in North, South, East and West Belfast.[31] Our response to the brief was to invite participants, aged 14–19, to explore buildings of significant architectural interest that had lain empty, in some cases for years, in their neighborhoods. Their work – produced separately in film, photography and sound – would be drawn together at the end in a short film.

The buildings were a former school of music, dating from 1936, on Donegall Pass in South Belfast, a 1960s block of flats in West Belfast, a Methodist church in North Belfast dating from 1875, and a Victorian bathhouse in East Belfast. Workshops were led by the filmmaker Michael MacBroom, photographer Tanya Kirk and the sound recordists Aonghus McEvoy and Barry Cullen. The sounds of each building’s interior and surroundings were captured during guided walks and freeform exploration of the buildings through the use of handheld recorders. Participants also interviewed former residents and users of each building, exploring the memories and meanings attached to the buildings. Each medium presented different stylistic and narrative opportunities; combining the participants’ sound recordings, photography and video in the final short film, MacBroom drew out complex portraits of the four buildings. Sounds range from ephemeral urban ambience and environmental conditions to acoustic reverberations within each space – the long reverb of the empty swimming pool and church, for example – mingling with fragments of oral history. Musically, simple rhythmic and melodic gestures were added to the soundtrack to underline the pace and reflective atmosphere inspired by each setting.

Recordings in film, sound and photography by the participants in Know Your Place Belfast workshops were collected in this video by Michael MacBroom. Video courtesy PLACE. Published on YouTube by PLACE, 16 May 2014

A new village plan being prepared by PLACE on behalf of a community group in the small seaside village of Killough, County Down, provided an opportunity for an iteration of Know Your Place in a different context.[32] Know Your Place Killough (2014) featured as a strand within a wider community engagement process involving residents of all ages in the village during 2014.[33] Using the same organizing focus of media skills development – with workshops led by filmmaker Jennifer Atcheson, photographer Tanya Kirk and sound recordist Aonghus McEvoy – we invited a group of sixteen young people aged 11–16 to “be the Directors” and seek out those aspects of the built environment in the village that were important for them. With technical and creative guidance from the workshop leaders, the young people captured elements of the natural and built environment in film, photography and sound, and conducted unstructured interviews among their own cohort and other residents of the village, gauging opinion on various aspects of village life. The resulting short film produced by PLACE brought together these disparate media artefacts to showcase a miscellany of the moments of everyday life for the young residents and documenting the various features of the environment they encounter in their daily lives.

Young people in Killough are instructed in photography by Tanya Kirk as part of Know Your Place Killough, 2014. Workshop participants were recruited through a summer scheme taking place in the village. Image courtesy of PLACE

Photograph by a participant in Know Your Place Killough. The participants were encouraged to capture everyday, ordinary moments of their lives in the village. Image courtesy of PLACE

This approach to engaging young people developed alongside more traditional urban research and engagement strategies that targeted all members of the community, through such activities as resource mapping, interviews and surveys with residents and an evaluation of the built heritage of the area. In the Village Plan project as a whole, PLACE sought to develop methods of empowering people to examine their built environment in ways that are meaningful for them. Thus, the intention in Know Your Place Killough was to elicit from the group their own perception of everyday life in the village and encourage them to consider what they valued, or didn’t, about their surroundings. The light-touch facilitation of Know Your Place Killough, whereby the workshop leaders provided mainly technical support, enabled participants to devise their own routes through the village. On their journeys, their own interests and impressions of their surroundings were captured individually and in dynamic group formations. In addition to skills development, therefore, the project informed discussions between facilitators and participants and among participants themselves.


The young people’s understanding of the project brief developed as the day went on and their comfort with the technical equipment increased. In almost all cases these workshops marked the participants’ first encounter with professional sound recording equipment and with field recording as a practice more broadly. The co-creative approach – with technical skills guidance and a strategic theme to frame the work – gave participants a way of making sense of their everyday surroundings; in particular, the sound recording element fostered a heightened awareness of the presence and role of sound in the urban environment.


Given a longer period of engagement, and with a more in-depth understanding of technical equipment and techniques, the group might not only collect material but also develop skills to exercise editorial control over it. The other important benefit of a longer-term engagement, of course, is that group dynamics are allowed to develop and a stronger sense of involvement in the relevant issues can grow. Longitudinal and attitudinal studies of similar cases in the future could chart the development of skills and changes in attitude to surroundings.


Such creative interventions present a uniquely useful role in community engagement and planning processes. They open up new territories of engagement for young people not typically encountered in any aspect of the planning system, through the pedagogical frame of digital media skills development. Firstly, the workshops encouraged a younger (potentially harder to reach) group of citizens to participate in built environment issues using novel means. Secondly, it offered skills acquisition and nurtured a creative attitude to everyday surroundings. And thirdly, perhaps most importantly, it engaged with participants on their own terms and avoided telling them what was important, or not, about their surroundings, seeking instead to enable critical reflection among the participants themselves. The participants were introduced to the concept of community participation in a flexible manner, appropriate to their skills and interests.


Listening to their surroundings and making recordings to be presented to the wider community, participants engaged in a new kind of thinking about their everyday environment; they found, indeed, that there were aspects of that environment that are valuable to them and to the life of the village as a whole.

The work of participants in Know Your Place Killough was brought together in this short video, combining film, photography, and sound recording by participants. Courtesy of PLACE. Published on YouTube by PLACE, 12 September 2014

Urban Pioneers (2014)

In March and April 2014, PLACE partnered with The Architecture Foundation (AF),[34] to bring a project called Urban Pioneers to Derry/Londonderry.[35] The AF and PLACE were keen to collaborate on a project for young people, given the organizations’ shared interest in this area of public engagement. The project had never run outside London before this edition: Derry was selected for its historic connections to London (where the AF is based) and to capitalize on the UK City of Culture celebrations held there during 2013. Seven local young people aged 16–19 investigated the city’s built environment in a series of creative workshops across eight weekends.

Urban Pioneers participants in Derry~Londonderry, April 2014. This series of workshops introduced concepts of urbanism to young people. Image courtesy of The AF/PLACE

Workshop with Tom Keeley (at front, wearing blue hat) as part of Urban Pioneers in Derry. Following directions from Keeley, participants made detailed written recordings of ephemeral encounters with the city. Image courtesy of The AF/PLACE

The program gave primacy to ephemeral urban experience, exemplified in a workshop by London-based author and publisher Tom Keeley. Following Keeley’s directions – “…walk out of the Guildhall, cross the square. Climb the stairs on to the city walls by the Tower Museum. Follow the wall along Magazine Street, until you reach the back of the Verbal Arts Center. Stop at the parapet. Look across to your right over to the Bogside […]” – the participants conducted an “inventory of spaces” in the city, capturing a detailed written record of sights, sounds and smells.[36] The resulting inventory, based on one morning’s observation, gathered collections of street furniture, flora and fauna, fragments of conversations and transcriptions of graffiti, for example.[37]

With Voice workshop, with Jo Anne Butler of Culturstruction, part of Urban Pioneers in Derry. Participants used sound recording as a means of capturing both their urban experience and “citizen expertise.” Image courtesy of The AF/PLACE

The approach in Urban Pioneers was to emphasize the notion of grassroots leadership in urbanism and the role of citizenship in built environment issues. A workshop by Culturstruction, an architecture and art practice based in Dublin, explored the notion of “giving voice” to “citizen experts” as a way to frame an investigation of civic engagement among the young participants. As Joanne Butler of Culturstruction explains, “If anyone knows about a city, it is the people who live there. It is their area of expertise. In the workshop we discussed what the group loved about the city and how they could be part of making it an even better place to live […] We tried to look beyond the visual and to listen to the city.”[38]


This listening described by Butler consisted partly of soundscape recordings and attention to the experiential atmosphere of the city, but, equally, participants were encouraged to “find their voice” and engage in urban discourse. A day spent unpacking alternative ideas of design and enumerating the city’s assets culminated in an “audio postcard from Derry”, which the group created to verbalize their ideas for how the city should develop in years to come (see Architecture Foundation and PLACE 2014c). Here, sound recording worked on multiple levels. It provided participants a means of engaging with the atmospheric ambient conditions of spaces in the city, as expressed in its sonic environment, and also acted as the framing mechanism by which the participants could make their voices heard. This qualitative, subjective and personal mediation through sound offers meaningful potential for community engagement, perhaps most pertinently as a critical and reflective complement to statistical and quantitative approaches to sound and noise analysis.

[30] Creatively and critically exploring such civic engagement is especially pertinent in Northern Ireland, given the community planning responsibilities that local councils will inherit in 2015: see Department of the Environment 2015.

[31] Each of these areas is large and heterogeneous, but each has a distinct, localized majority community, often sub-segregated along religious and socio-economic lines. In physical terms, those parts of each area affected by poverty also share many of the same built environment issues relating to urban blight, dereliction and vacancy.

[32] Village plans in the Northern Ireland planning context operate as strategic guiding documents for villages, suggesting design interventions over a number of years in the pursuit of shared community aims.

[33] Other methods of engagement aimed at different age groups in the community included structured and semi-structured interviews, focus groups, mapping exercises and guided walks: see PLACE 2014.

[34] The Architecture Foundation is an organization based in London that engages with the public and professionals on architecture and design with a wide-ranging program.

[35] See (White, Corr and McCafferty 2014) for details of Urban Pioneers.

[36] See (Architecture Foundation and PLACE 2014b).

[37] The inventory can be read on the project blog: see (Architecture Foundation and PLACE 2014b). It was later published by the AF and PLACE as documentation of the project – see (Architecture Foundation and PLACE 2014a).

[38] Butler, JoAnne (personal communication, September 2014).

Conclusion: Directions for future work in this area


In curating sound installation art and community engagement projects that used sound, PLACE worked with the assumption that such approaches can provide means of discourse outside the traditional graphic representational narratives of the built environment professions. From this curatorial standpoint, sound installation art practices offer an alternative or complementary device by which to experience and examine the built environment. Meanwhile, participatory sound recording and listening practices can engage participants in reconsidering their knowledge of urban space, developing acoustic readings of cities that could be archived, altered, enhanced, or otherwise interacted with and that could complement other forms of urban knowledge.


The position of sound art in architectural curation could be further developed, by PLACE or others, by continuing to program sound art installations in urban space that probe the boundaries between the creative arts, design and analytical fields of practice. Attention should be given to curatorial and funding models, with the aim of strengthening the platform for sound art creation and dissemination. It is equally important to involve sound artists and theorists – alongside planners, acousticians, architects and the wider public – in conversations about the urban sound environment. While robust quantitative and statistical analyses are essential foundations for understanding sound in urban space, artistic manipulation of sound and listening can reveal unexpected reconfigurations of that space, as in the examples described above. Public events and publishing can further bolster debate on questions of sound and sound art, providing an interface for the public to access the work of artists and academics and to engage with civic issues relating to sound. PLACE’s continuing interest in sound-art-as-public-art – particularly in terms of its temporality, materiality and spatial perception – points towards practices of acoustic urban design, combining a sonic arts and architectural focus. Such an approach will likely see much further development in the near future as architects and sound artists in practice and academia continue to collaborate.[39]


Meanwhile, in broader terms, the need remains in many places to develop capacity and skill in dealing with urban design and planning issues from a local, grassroots level. While community-centered and grassroots approaches to planning have developed significantly in urban settings around the world, continuous iteration is required for application to new situations. PLACE stresses the need for a co-creative approach where community expertise is recognized as an equal, essential part of the urban development and design process alongside professional design expertise. With this in mind, the work with younger audiences could be developed for a wide range of groups. The pilot projects involving sound described here may lend themselves to codification as part of a community engagement methodology, for example. Further iterations of such work would lead to useful strategies and methodologies in a wide range of urban planning, architectural and urban pedagogical settings. By empowering people to participate, these kinds of engagement through sound could provide a rich complement to other, more recognizable ways of encountering and understanding the built environment. Bringing sonic arts approaches to bear on contemporary civic and urban issues, the experience of artists and academics in sonic arts and built environment fields can be activated, and the citizen expertise in local communities can be unlocked.


[39] See (Anderson 2014), (Ripley 2007), and the Invisible Places - Sounding Cities: Sound, Urbanism and Sense of Place conference held at Viseu, Portugal, 18–20 July 2014, as well as ongoing work by many researchers at SARC, CRESSON, and CRiSAP, for example.



This article began as a short presentation and went through several changes before completion. The author would like to thank all those artists and participants whose work is featured in the article. My colleagues at PLACE and Queen’s University were extremely helpful with their critique and encouragement in the early stages of writing. I am also grateful for the helpful input from the JSS editors and peer reviewers. Finally, I am especially grateful to Dr. Sarah Lappin and Dr. Gascia Ouzounian for the invaluable advice and criticism they provided throughout the writing process.



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