Hospital Interiors / Dolby Suburbs

[Image: “Mix House” by Joel Sanders Architect, Karen Van Lengen/KVL, and Ben Rubin/Ear Studio].

Between cross-country moves, book projects, wild changes in the online media landscape over the past few years, and needless self-competition through social media, my laptop has accumulated hundreds and hundreds, arguably thousands, of bookmarks for things I wanted to write about and never did. Going back through them all feels like staring into a gravesite at the end of a life I didn’t realize was mortal.

For example, the fact that the scent of one of Saturn’s moons was created in a NASA lab in Maryland—speculative offworld perfumery—and that, who knows, it could even someday be trademarked. Or that mountain-front suburban homes in Colorado were unwittingly constructed over mines designed to collapse—and that of the mines have already begun to do so, taking surface roads along with them. Or the sand mines of central Wisconsin. Or the rise of robot-plant hybrids. Or the British home built around a preserved railway carriage “because bizarre planning regulations meant the train could not be moved”—a vehicle frozen into place through architecture.

In any case, another link I wanted to write about many eons ago explained that legendary producer and ambient musician Brian Eno had been hired to design new acoustics for London’s Chelsea and Westminster hospital, part of an overall rethinking of their patient-wellness plan. Healing through sound. “The aim,” the Evening Standard explained, “is to replicate techniques in use in the hospital’s paediatric burns unit, where ‘distraction therapy’ such as projecting moving images on to walls can avoid the need to administer drugs such as morphine.”

This is already interesting—if perhaps also a bit alarming, in that staring at images projected onto blank walls can apparently have the same effect as taking morphine. Or perhaps that’s beautiful, a chemical testament to the mind-altering potential of art amplified by modern electrical technology.

Either way, Eno was brought on board to “refine” the hospital’s acoustics, much as one would do for the interior of a luxury vehicle, and even to “provide soothing music” for the building’s patients, i.e. to write a soundtrack for architecture.

We are already in an era where the interiors of luxury cars are designed with the help of high-end acoustic consultants, where luxury apartments are built using products such as “acoustic plaster,” and where critical governmental facilities are constructed with acoustic security in mind—a silence impenetrable to eavesdroppers—but I remain convinced that middle-budget home developers all over the world are sleeping on an opportunity for distinguishing themselves. That is, why not bring Brian Eno in to design soothing acoustics for an entire village or residential tower?

Imagine a whole new neighborhood in Los Angeles designed in partnership with Dolby Laboratories or Bang & Olufsen, down to the use of acoustic-deflection walls and carefully chosen, sound-absorbing plants, or an apartment complex near London’s Royal Academy of Music with interiors acoustically shaped by Charcoalblue. SilentHomes™ constructed near freeways in New York City—or, for that matter, in the middle of nowhere, for sonically sensitive clients. Demonstration suburbs for unusual acoustic phenomena—like Joel Sanders et al.’s “Mix House” scaled up to suit modern real-estate marketers.

At the very least, consider it a design challenge. It’s 2020. KB Home has teamed up with Dolby Labs to construct a new housing complex covering three city blocks near a freeway in Los Angeles. What does it look—and, more to the point, what does it sound—like?

Drift Deck

[Image: From the Drift Deck by Julian Bleecker and Dawn Lozzi].

The Drift Deck, produced in 2008 by Julian Bleecker and Dawn Lozzi, is “an algorithmic puzzle game used to navigate city streets,” offering “instructions that guide you as you drift about the city.”

Each card contains an object or situation, followed by a simple action. For example, a situation might be—you see a fire hydrant, or you come across a pigeon lady. The action is meant to be performed when the object is seen, or when you come across the described situation. For example—take a photograph, or make the next right turn.

The deck has a tendency to sound a bit like a human behavior manual for urban residents suffering from Asperger Syndrome—”Uh Oh…” one card reads, “An awkward moment. Pause and take a photograph,” as if talking to Rain Man, or “Ugliness,” another card says, “Avoid it noticeably, gesturing and registering disgust,” as if the city would be more interesting if only we could be as flamboyant as RuPaul—rather than serving as a genuinely diagonal guide to the city.

But I love the Drift Deck‘s premise, combining as it does the Oblique Strategies of Brian Eno with the chance operations of John Cage, by way of Situationism and perhaps even the “let the dice decide” tactics of Luke Rhinehart.

[Image: From the Drift Deck by Julian Bleecker and Dawn Lozzi].

A non-sentimental Drift Deck, intended not as a way to emotionally enrich the urban experience but simply to densify the number of personal actions taken during a given span of time, would be an interesting thing to develop and explore. Basic, analog instructions (turn left, enter that shop, buy something, slow down) would, in the end, I’d suggest, generate at least as many random encounters.

This could also quite easily be turned into a mobile app: tap the screen at every intersection (or every hour on the hour) and random navigational options are generated. Combine this with Foursquare (“the mayor of turning-left at 44th Street”), Twitter, etc., and you could leave automatically generated traces of unique drifted paths for others to see. Repeatable experiments of random acts through the city.

There’s still the key question, though, of how to realize this without falling back onto a kind of Instabuddhism™, exhorting participants to appreciate their everyday lives with greater intensity. After all, the results could just as easily be disorienting and sharply alien—deliberately so—not instilled with a New Age sense of rejuvenated authenticity. Perhaps petty crimes could even be thrown in for good measure…