Silence in the City – Urban Emptiness Network & Christos Kakalis – Olga Ioannou

Silence is both immersion and isolation. Most of us love quietness, but silence is not only positive. Urban activity includes both inclusive and exclusive silences. Christos Kakalis, architect, has researched the importance of sound in urban areas. With students he has created intense three-fold lived experiences in various cities that involved a silent walk, automatic hand design or writing and sound recordings which were later transcribed to a commonly shared smartphone application. The workshops were refined and repeated and continued to produce a series of different visions and interpretations about the city. His aim is to determine the material and immaterial qualities as equal components of being in a place. A10 correspondent Olga Ioannou wanted to find out more.

Olga Ioannou (OI): Having worked together with you and your fellow group of researchers for some time now, I’ve come to realize how neglected our aural experience of the city is. Why do you think that is?

Christos Kakalis (CK): When we started working on aurality in 2015, there was already an awareness being raised about the incomplete interpretation of its affect and perception. Scientific approaches to the notion of “atmosphere” (light studies, acoustics, and environmental studies) have conquered the so called “aural studies”, presenting ambiance as something only measurable through different recording techniques (sound recorders and decibel diagrams, sun paths and so forth). Coming from a phenomenological and psychoanalytical background of understanding architecture and urban environment,it was rather challenging to grasp and question this understanding of (urban) atmospheres. So, when putting together this network the aim was to answer the question: “how can we be more aware about the richness and depth of urban atmosphere?”

OI: But architects have never been properly trained to work like this. So what happened?

CK: Indeed! The expectation of a “final result” based on metrics and conventions, and usually seen as a “response” to a “problem”, has definitely influenced our architectural understandings. Through our work we suggest that there is something missing in this perception of architecture; something that has to do with pre-reflective qualities of reality. Thinking of atmosphere is all about seeking to grasp its vagueness. This can never be fully fulfilled, allowing for a liberating openness and liquidity to imbue order and convention – but quite a new area of research for architects!

OI: In the workshops you’ve put together, silence serves as a precondition. Is it the state of silence that makes us more alert to the aural experience of the city?

 CK: I would not say that silence serves as “precondition”, but rather it is one of the aural conditions in which human perception is fully immersed and expressed and that is usually underestimated in favor of other qualities, such as sound or light. What we investigate, is the multiple ways of re-approaching our urban experiences through the lens of silence and aurality. For us silence definitely is not the absence of acoustic sound. It is a condition with spatial and temporal characteristics as well as different kinds or tints: pausing, slowing, stillness, neutrality, interrupting – to mention a few. This is always the case with our actions: not only to use silence, but to find ways of making people aware of their silent condition. Silence is always there as a possibility.

 OI: Do you think that silence is connected to spirituality? Are the high noise levels an indication of the spirituality of our society and culture?

CK: “Spirituality” can be interpreted in different ways depending on the context it is practiced: religious, intellectual, literary, psychological and so forth. What is certain is that different spiritual traditions (religious like Buddhist and Hesychast, agnostic like Shinto and so forth) have discovered the embodied depth of silence through various practices (ascetic, ritual etc), which has also influenced the way they perceive the world; space and time. Urban Emptiness tries not to jump to conclusions. What is noise? Is it another kind of sound? How often do we deliberately stop to listen to noise and transform it into sound? Have we ever realized the architectural qualities of gaps, mistakes, interruptions, disorders? For us posing the question about noise allows for silence to co-emerge with sound. Therefore, we cannot blame noise, as we cannot praise only silence.

 OI: How do you think architects and urban planners and/or other participants can benefit from your research?

CK: The feedback we receive from students is usually something along the lines of: “In the beginning we were really challenged by what we considered to be architecture until then”. So our approach allows for questioning and stirring strategies to be included in it and take the designer out of his/her comfort zone. I would say that Peter Zumthor’s understanding of atmosphere in practicing architecture is close to our approach – an approach that moves back and forth between convention and non-convention seeking not to “change the world” of architectural and urban design, but to stir its certainty.

Bio Christos Kakalis (Newcastle Upon Tyne) is an architect (University of Thessaly, Volos, Greece). He obtained the interdisciplinary MSc ‘Design, Space, Culture’ at the National Technical University of Athens. He holds a PhD in Architecture from the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture and he is a Lecturer in Architecture at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape of Newcastle University. His work focuses on the conditions of embodied experience of the architecture and natural landscape with special emphasis on the role atmosphere. He has extensively worked on sacred topography (Mount Athos, Sinai). He has edited (along with Dr Emily Goetsch) the collection Mountains, Mobilities and Movement (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) and (along with Mark Dorrian) the volume The Place of Silence: Architecture / Media / Philosophy (Bloomsbury, 2019). He is currently working on the book Architecture & Silence (Routledge 2019). 

Urban Emptiness network was established in March 2015 by Geert Vermeire, Stella Mygdali and Christos Kakalis to investigate urban environments through the lens of silence and emptiness. A series of activities have been held since then and outputs have been published. For further information, please see: