Writing by Hildegard Westerkamp

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Soundscapes of Cities

By Hildegard Westerkamp

Originally presented at the Symposium From Bauhaus to Soundscape, Goethe Institut Tokyo, October 1994, slightly revised June 2014.

A Spanish language version of this article is available here: http://www.bifurcaciones.cl/20...

Una versión en español de este artículo está disponible aquí : http://www.bifurcaciones.cl/20...
[Reading Time: 23 minutes; 4626 words]


Originally this text was presented at the Symposium From Bauhaus to Soundscape, hosted by the Goethe Institute Tokyo, Oct. 6, 1994. I compared the soundscapes of two cities, Brasilia, Capital of Brazil, and New Delhi, Capital of India. After I had conducted extensive soundscape workshops in both cities between 1992 and 1994, I was struck by the enormous contrasts between them. Both are government cities of very different dimensions and age. I discussed them from the perspective of the visitor, the travelling outsider and focused my talk on a few sonic aspects of each city, comparing these with each other.

It is now June 2014 and after re-reading the original text, I decided to leave it more or less unchanged for today’s readers. Since I have not returned to either city since the late nineties, I cannot competently update my observations to today’s state of affairs. Much has changed in both cities, most of all population size and traffic density. However, the fundamental issues that I am highlighting in this article will not have changed significantly, they may in fact need more urgent attention. Where necessary and possible I will of course adjust and update the text accordingly.

The first sound a visitor usually hears in any new city from the hotel window is the sound of traffic. The next sounds usually are those that stand out from city ambiences, such as signals and soundmarks. And lastly the visitor, if staying long enough, will gradually become sensitive to the soundscapes of the city’s inhabitants. I will discuss the two cities’ soundscapes approximately in this order.


Let me begin with a short historical and geographical sketch of Brasilia. The idea of transferring Brazil’s capital away from the coast has existed since the second half of the eighteenth century, as a way to populate, develop and secure Brazil's vast interior.1 In the mid-fifties during the presidential campaign of Juscelino Kubitschek it was finally proposed as a concrete project and was realized shortly after.

Fig. 1: Government Buildings 1959). [Photographer not known.]
Fig. 2: Satellite Photo. [Photographer not known.]

Brasilia is only 34 years old and has circa one million inhabitants. The part that looks like a bird on the satellite photo or rather like an airplane, is the so-called Plano Piloto, pilot plan (fig. 2). You can see the artificial lake surrounding much of the planned city. The master plan for Plano Piloto was designed by Lucio Costa, whose initial sketches reveal the shape of the airplane.

Architect Oscar Niemeyer designed most buildings and Burle Marx was the landscape architect. In 1988 UNESCO declared Plano Piloto a heritage site and any changes to it have to go through a rigorous review process. I will limit my discussion to this part of the city today with the consciousness that Brasilia stretches beyond these boundaries and that the satellite cities that have sprouted around its peripheries over the years, are a direct result of the master plan. Generally speaking one can say that anyone or anything that does not fit into the master plan concept is accommodated in these cities.2

Fig. 3: Lucio Costa sketches [Photographer not known.]
Fig. 4: Monumental Axis. [Photo: H. Westerkamp]

The body of the airplane is made up of the Monumental Axis, as you can see in figure 4, along which we find from east to west most government institutions, the cathedral, the hospital, commercial, hotel and bank sectors, the TV tower, the Kubitschek mausoleum, the military sector and the overland bus and train station. (See figures 5 through 9.)

Fig. 5: cathedral. [Photo: H. Westerkamp]
Fig. 6: Hospital [Photo: Andreas Gursky]
Fig. 7: Hotel Sector [Photo: H. Westerkamp]
Fig. 8: Roundabout [Photo: H. Westerkamp]
Fig. 9: TV Tower [Photo: H. Westerkamp]

The wings of the airplane, called the Asa Sul and Asa Norte, are made up of the residential Highway Axis, which moves from North to South. This is where most people live in the so-called Superquadras (fig. 10),in three to six storey apartment buildings, which - by the way - look strikingly similar to the original Bauhaus buildings from 1926 in Dessau, Germany (fig. 11). Where the two axes meet is the rodoviaria, the central bus station. This is the centre of Plano Piloto, not a market square as in old city centres, but a noisy bus depot where the work force from the satellite cities arrives and departs every day.

Fig. 10: Superquadras [Photographer not known.]
Fig. 11: Bauhaus, Dessau 1926 [Photographer not known.]

The crossing of two paths along the basic north-south and east-west directions, (insert Photo 12: Intersection) initially just a cross drawn in the earth, has grown into two huge traffic arteries with six lanes in all four directions.

Fig. 12 Intersection [Photographer not known.]

Compare the sound of the stick drawing this cross in the earth, and all the natural sounds accompanying this act, to the traffic sounds that now occupies the centre axes through this city. This contrast is I believe the basic contrast today in the soundscape of Brasilia and surroundings.

Fig. 13: The Noise [Photo: H. Westerkamp]
Fig. 14: Brasilia from a distance [Photo: H. Westerkamp]

On the one hand, it is very hard to get away from traffic noise within Plano Piloto (fig. 13). But on the other hand, one does not have to drive far to leave this behind and enter a very quiet, natural soundscape (fig. 14). Visitors to the city, however, hear nothing but this from the hotel room:

Fig. 15: Streets from above [Photo: Andreas Gursky]

All hotels are located in the two hotel sectors, which are surrounded by large traffic arteries as well as smaller streets. As far as I could find out there is not one hotel room in the whole city that is free of this noise. Later at night when the traffic subsides a little, another layer of sound emerges: the exhaust of every hotel's air conditioning system.

Traffic and air-conditioning function like sound walls, creating a barrier to hearing distance and quietness. Four weeks of this from my hotel room has undoubtedly taken its toll and influenced my perception of Brasilia. The overall traffic artery layout has been designed around the smooth flow of traffic, but very little seems to have been done to shield inhabitants from its noise. The obvious question then is: was any thought given to acoustic design in the grand design scheme of Plano Piloto?

As much as the Monumental and Residential Axis may connect people between sectors and between home and work, acoustically speaking they form two enormous sound walls that divide the city. The dimensions of the acoustic space occupied by traffic on these arteries are much more extensive than the roadways’ geographical dimensions. The traffic noise travels right across the expansive green spaces into hotel rooms, offices, churches, even schools and many of the living areas. The eyes can see far but the ear cannot hear beyond the acoustic immediacy of the car motors. The Monumental Axis may offer many photo opportunities, but recordings made in the same place will offer little variation from the incessant traffic noise. Similarly inside the car, the driver is cut off from the outside soundscape. In fact, the windshield functions like a movie screen and the motor car and radio like the accompanying soundtrack. Visually one gets the illusion of space but acoustically one is closed in.

So my point is clear. This city has exactly what other, not so consciously designed cities have - a lot of traffic noise. Meanwhile at the nearby lake it sounds like this.

Fig. 16, 17, 18, 19: Bamboo bush [Photo: H. Westerkamp]

It is obvious by now that Brasilia is a place of sharply contrasting soundscapes: traffic noise and natural sounds. There is very little in between. Human social contexts, like cafes or restaurants, appear in small isolated clusters, dotted all over the city, connectable only by car. That which defines a community acoustically is mostly lacking: the regular street, the small alleys, little squares, shady old trees, market places, neighbourhood cafes, those hidden corners that develop over time as a city becomes older.3 It is those more intimate places where community develops, where culture first occurs, where people in their social interactions are protected from the larger noise of a city and can create small islands of undisturbed communication, a type of inner voice or village voice of urban culture and social life.

Some Superquadras (residential apartment blocks) seem to function a little bit like small communities with their own acoustic characteristics. This is what I heard when I visited a Superquadra one evening in November.

Traffic is at a healthy distance here and the foreground sound of people's voices, birds, crickets, cicadas are pleasant and varied. I was told, although I have not seen a written reference to this, that the height of the apartment buildings of six storeys was determined partially for acoustic reasons: communication between parent and children is possible as far as the sixth floor but not further. So, ideally, if the parent is not listening to radio or television, or running a vacuum cleaner, the child can be heard calling from outside up to the sixth floor and vice versa.

Another type of sound that acoustically defines a community is largely missing in Brasilia: every community tends to have its own signals and soundmarks that give voice to a community's belief systems, activities and activity patterns and that give inhabitants, often unconsciously a sense of place. Visually the urban landscape of Brasilia is full of architectural landmarks, giving monumental shape to the master plan, but the soundscape is not defined by any significant soundmarks. In fact, the city does not signal anything but car alarms to the newcomer and therefore does not make travellers’ ears curious about its community life. I am told that the cathedral and some smaller churches have bells, but these are not prominent in the soundscape nor do they seem to be in people's consciousness.

So Brasilia is neither a city of prominent signals nor of small intimate community places. Which acoustic qualities then give this city its character and its inhabitants a sense of place? What is its acoustic identity? The sounds that have kept my ears curious and exercised in Brasilia have been the cricket and cicada sounds which cut right through the density of traffic noise even in the hotel sector. There seems to be an endless variety of rhythms and resonances in these sounds.

Perhaps it is precisely the contrast between the anonymous international city sound of traffic and the cricket and cicada sounds specific to this place that characterizes acoustically what Brasilia still is: a pioneer venture, a master plan, modernist urban architecture with its claim for internationalism, cut into the Brazilian cerrado (bush land). It has in a sense "emigrated" into foreign, undeveloped territory, to start a new life, to transform social order and to negate and overcome underdevelopment in the rest of the country. The buildings are there to attest to this ideal. But the soundscape reveals that the human psyche has not yet emigrated at the same speed. The international character of the city is only audible in the sameness of traffic noise and air conditioning, the worst aspect of internationalism.

I was told again and again by people who live in Brasilia that they really like the city. Apparently, in comparison to the conditions in other parts of the country, the conveniences and practical advantages outweigh the feelings of cultural estrangements and loss of community life. There is a certain freedom in a place of cultural anonymity. It reminds me of my own emigration from Germany to Canada: to be freed from those traditions that are experienced as being restrictive means to have more freedom to move, both physically and psychically. One is free to invent a new life and to hear inner voices not tied to the voices of tradition. There is liberation in that. But deep down the longing for those small nooks and crannies, those intimate places, those village and city squares with their fountains and old oak trees, those bells that tell the time and make music, that longing stays. The memory of these places with their acoustic expressions define inner culture, emotion and imagination, they define one's sense of community. They are the bases from which one hears a city like Brasilia.

Old cities have the advantage of street and building structures, belief systems, and traditions already in place, with their characteristic sounds or soundscapes. Noise has less of a chance to invade. There simply is no room for motorized vehicles in many of the narrow alleyways and streets. And if they do enter, like they did in European City centres, the noise and air pollution damage to old buildings have given cause to ban all traffic from many of these centres. As well, certain sounds or soundscapes that are sacred or significant in other ways cannot be disturbed or eliminated.

But if we plan a brand new city and drive into a natural environment with our noisy motors and all that that entails and do not spend the time to listen to this new place, then traffic noise and construction are there first, before our ears have had time to adjust to nature's quiet and to listen to all that it entails. Silence then is not given a chance "as an enabling condition, that opens up the possibility of unprogrammed, unplanned and unprogrammable happenings."4 It is in those creative silences where that which defines a place and a culture is given a chance to be born.


In contrast to Brasilia, Delhi is an ancient city. The name of the city or a similar version of it, first appeared in the first century BC, around 2000 years ago. Popular belief has it that it is actually made up of seven cities, all of which were built during different periods under different rulers. Now Delhi is, like Brasilia, the seat of the national government and has been since 1912, when the British Raj moved it from Calcutta to New Delhi. Interestingly enough in some of its newer areas, it has been designed in a similarly wide-open, large-scale way as Brasilia, with large roadways, roundabouts, open grassy areas, double rows of trees, monumental buildings, etc. Many of these areas were designed during the British Raj by architects Sir Edwin Lutyens, and Sir Herbert Baker.

Fig. 20: Map of New Delhi [Photo: H. Westerkamp]

Where in Brasilia we have a contrast between the designed Plano Piloto and the satellite cities (representing the real Brazil), New Delhi contains this contrast within its boundaries: between representational large scale design and labyrinthine, old city spaces. New Delhi is a huge city of 10 million inhabitants5 and spreads far. Wilderness is far away, yet within its city boundaries one can find small places that are almost village like and are astonishingly quiet. (SLIDE: Green Delhi) Seen from above, New Delhi is almost hidden under trees and looks like a very green city. When in the middle of the city's bustle and pollution this greenery is not so apparent.

Waking up in Delhi on the first morning I hear nothing but car horns. (Insert Photos 23: Horn Please) I laugh in disbelief. Why are they honking their horns so much? When I try to cross the street later I think I understand: the traffic is in a state of complete chaos. Everyone seems to move in all directions at the same time, no one stays in lanes, no one ever stops or waits, everyone keeps moving, finding the empty spaces wherever they happen to be, moving around each other, around cows, horse carts, bicycles, pedestrians. And everyone honks. HORN PLEASE! It says on many trucks and auto rickshaws. (Insert Photo 24: Chandni Chowk, traffic)

Fig 22: Nizamuddin [Photo: H. Westerkamp]
Fig. 23: Horn Please [Photo: H. Westerkamp]

Waking up in Delhi on the first morning I hear nothing but car horns. I laugh in disbelief. Why are they honking their horns so much? When I try to cross the street later I think I understand: the traffic is in a state of complete chaos. Everyone seems to move in all directions at the same time, no one stays in lanes, no one ever stops or waits, everyone keeps moving, finding the empty spaces wherever they happen to be, moving around each other, around cows, horse carts, bicycles, pedestrians. And everyone honks. HORN PLEASE! It says on many trucks and auto rickshaws.

I realize quickly that car horns "speak" differently here. They rarely shout get-out- of-the-way. They talk. Hallo - watch out - I am beside you - leave me some space - I want to move over to your side - don't bump into me - hallo - I want to pass. What seemed like chaos initially starts to feel like an organic flow, like water. "There is an undercurrent of rules", says my friend Veena.

Fig. 24: Chandni Chowk, traffic [Photo: H. Westerkamp]

An old bent-over man crosses the street. No one stops for him. Everyone continues to honk their way through the crowded street. The old man keeps on walking, slowly, without looking left or right, as if in a protective bubble. The honking traffic curves its way around his silent body. I - lost in the loud current - watch in amazement on this first day as he moves across safely.

Traffic expresses here as much as in Brasilia the social make-up of the city: here it tells about its human crowds and its dense social environment. In Brasilia one hears nothing but the uninterrupted traffic noise of relatively smooth and fast moving modern vehicles with the occasional car horn or car alarm but very little sign of human presence. In New Delhi we literally hear a kind of traffic "talk", people encountering each other in a huge variety of vehicles of various age and state of decrepitness. There is a type of sonic expressiveness in the streets that I have heard nowhere else before. The car motor has not managed to silence the human voice or people's capacity for soundmaking and most people are too poor to hide in air- conditioned cars with radios booming.6 The intense openness to each other and curiosity, the intense desire to communicate is completely audible in the signalling sounds of Delhi traffic - anything from most resonant bicycle bells to raspy scooter horns, car horns to bus and truck horns.

Just as there is an enormous liveliness in the daily traffic soundscape, filled with communicational signals, the listener can also hear it in many other parts of daily life. Below you will be able to listen to examples of the type of signals and soundmarks that one can hear throughout a day in Delhi, and it is striking to what extent Brasilia's soundscape differs in that respect. Every day one can hear the train horn moving through Delhi with its repeated wailing sound. It is often not audible from inside the noise of the city. But this recording was made from an elevated point of the Baha’i Temple - a rare perspective in Delhi as there are very few elevations and hardly any high rises. One can hear the train move through the city - not dissimilar to how we experience the trains’ movements in Vancouver - giving a sense of the many train crossings throughout the city.

Also in contrast to Brasilia, every neighbourhood has its own signals and soundmarks, where temple bells or the call of the muezzin signal times of worship. Here is the call of one muezzin calling for prayer in the Muslim area of Nizamuddin.

From my German perspective I was rather surprised about the function of these bells, especially in connection with Hindu temple bells and what their sound had to "say" about the relationship between worshippers, sacred places and their gods and goddesses.

With my North German Protestant background I imagined temple bells to be very large and to ring from up high. I imagined them to ring at certain times of the day, announcing the beginning of a service, a wedding, a festival, a funeral, etc. I imagined them to be the dominant "voice" in the neighbourhood or community. I couldn't understand why I never got a clear answer from workshop participants when I asked, "When in the day do the temple bells ring?"

As soon as I visited the first Hindu temple I realized that I had asked an incomprehensible question. Temple bells can be heard throughout the whole day. They are not the sound of huge bells ringing from the church steeple at predictable times, but the sound of one or two medium-sized bells, rung by each person when entering the temple for worship. People use the bells to announce their arrival at the temple, to say hello, to wake up the god or goddess who is to be worshipped. The temple bell is one sound among many others: people talking to each other, temple music, someone sweeping the ground, people selling foods, children playing, people whispering their prayers, etc. It is the voice of human beings announcing their readiness to worship their gods, not the voice of God summoning his sheep for daily worship.

Another soundmark that is particularly wonderful as it is also made by the human voice is the regular call of vendors in neighbourhoods.

Fig. 25: Januk Puri, vendor [Photo: H. Westerkamp]

And here are some vendors in an outdoor market in Delhi where the same people call out in the same basic fashion every day.

Fig. 26: Jama Masjid mosque [Photo: H. Westerkamp]

In contrast to Brasilia, New Delhi is a humanly very expressive soundscape. Where residential areas were placed in predesigned residential sectors in Brasilia, neighbourhoods in Delhi developed over long stretches of time, and can differ significantly from each other. One can find anything from well-to-do residential areas with night watchmen blowing their whistles, to refugee slums put up over night; from village-like neighbourhoods with many animals, to middle class orderly, self- contained neighbourhoods. Even though there are large stretches of neighbourhoods with relatively new and modern houses and apartments, as you saw and heard in the first vendor example, I want to talk about two places I visited. They show the extremes of a city that has changed over many centuries and continues to be in constant flux.

Nizamuddin is a world of its own, Muslim, haven for refugees from Bengladesh. When entering its gates, one is leaving the big city behind it seems and one enters small alleyways, full of people, but without traffic. A basic quiet ambience exists on top of which one hears human voices, footsteps, the occasional radio, singing. Motorized sounds are extremely rare.

In another part of Delhi a few blocks away from a more middle class neighbourhood one finds the place where the vendors live. It looks and sounds like a little village. Traffic sounds are far away, almost inaudible.

India in general is not a technologically modern society like Brazil is striving to be and in many respects already is. India is largely a village culture and the basic sonic ambience of such a culture is without technological sound. A good example is the hotel in which I stayed at one point: five star hotel, carpeted, clean and yet never a sound of vacuum cleaners. Carpets were swept by hand7, construction outside of the hotel never meant jackhammers, but only hammering, hand sawing, etc. In India many, many things are handmade and therefore not connected with machine noise.

Fig. 27: Ornaments [Photo: H. Westerkamp]

Although traffic noise is a big problem, because of its sheer density and because many of the vehicles have broken mufflers or none at all, there are still many areas of life that are much quieter than in so-called modern society. The individual Indian simply does not have the sound power at his or her disposal as we do here or in Europe or North America. For us a visit to India is therefore so amazing, as our ears are exposed to soundscapes filled with human liveliness and communication. The city of Delhi is like an enormous acoustic quilt of intricately woven patterns, not dissimilar to the ornaments one can find everywhere, in fabric, architecture, pottery, etc. It is the opposite of Bauhaus and therefore of Brasilia. Delhi expresses through its soundscape all aspects of India's cultural, social and political history and its present situation and is therefore connected to the rest of the country and to its past. As we have seen with Brasilia, its soundscape expresses its isolation from Brazil and its real social, cultural conditions. It exemplifies a top-down attitude, which believes that architectural and landscape design can influence the social structure of a place. New Delhi mostly tells us the opposite through its soundscape: that human life and activity shape the fabric of a place with all its contradictions and obstacles.

1 Holston, James. The Modernist City: An Anthropological Critique of Brasilia, University of Chicago Press, 1989, p. 17

2 On the date of revision and translation of this article Brasilia is 54 years old and is cited in Wikipedia in 2013 as having had a population of 2,789,761. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B...

3 Brasilia is 20 years older since this article was first written and it could very well be that such community defining spaces may indeed have developed to some extent by now.

4 Franklin, Ursula. “Silence and the Notion of the Commons”. In: Soundscape – The Journal of Acoustic Ecology, Vol.1, Number 2, p. 15.

5 Population of Delhi in 2014: 17,838,842. Source: http://www.indiaonlinepages.com/population/delhi- population.html

6 Many more members of the Indian urban middle class can afford their own car now. This has increased the traffic density and will have introduced a larger variety of modern car models, well insulated with air-conditioning and radios. Reportedly though, this has not reduced the car honking communication significantly!

7 This definitely will have changed by now as well as some aspects of the construction and traffic noises mentioned in this paragraph. But although India’s economic growth has been substantial since 1994, “the elasticity of poverty reduction with respect to economic growth is lower in India than in many Asian countries, essentially because of the structure of economic growth. This implies that inequality (both personal as well as spatial) has increased, particularly of incomes ...” (source: http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2011/04/28/india-s-economy-growing-rapidly-and-unequally/). In other words, in many parts of the country, especially in the rural areas, and among poorer segments of India’s society, these aspects of the soundscape will not yet have changed.