This was not only a gathering of information about different impressions, but also figuring out how to document, analyze, and express them. Therefore, this study is only describing our first steps in the search for urban sanctuaries. It was mainly conducted for the purpose of gaining a practical understanding of the theories we apply in our blog. The observations made us reflect and theorize about different variables that might influence socio-material processes in public space. However, to complete and elaborate in detail about those theories, a longer time-frame of the study is absolutely necessary.
In the course of two weeks, between 8 and 22 of May 2017, we did sensory interpretation and observed the behavior of persons in different central locations in the city of Malmö that we have marked in the map below. Connecting the two aspects, our main focus happened to be how people interact with the materialities on site.
Some of the locations were chosen on the premise that we perceived the atmosphere to be encouraging relaxation, or that it hosted a group of individuals who seemed to be having a restorative moment. Other locations were interesting from the perspective of intensity, impact or rhythm, as elaborated in the post on atmosphere. They are all located in a central part of town which has a high concentration of public transportation, commerce, offices, cultural institutions, dwellings. The studied places range from parks and streets to the public library and squares. This relates to busyness of urban life being the backdrop to this project. Around these areas a variety of activities takes place, such as shopping, work, leisure and commuting. In the following sections we chose to present our sensory impression and observations from six of these locations (marked green on the map).
The sensory impressions declared here are the ones we could document with a specific instrument. This means that there is a technological limitation to what sensory impressions we can present. They form the short description of the different places. This information will later be interweaved with the concepts of intensity, impact and rhythm. The aim of these descriptions is to capture the atmosphere of the different places.
The soundscapes varied a lot from place to place. They are testimonies of activities that take place on and around the locations and their environmental composition. What became evident was that the tolerance level of a soothing soundscape was different between the two of us. They were recorded with a mobile phone for around one minute each. Paying attention to the soundscapes made us realize how contrasting they are in different parts of the city, even though not necessarily far away from each other. In the following links to our soundscapes one can even see this in the differing soundwaves.
These impressions were captured with a high resolution digital camera. The photos below are thumbnails and can be seen as interactive 360° panoramic pictures as well. Unfortunately, we cannot present them embedded in this blog post, but they can be found on our facebook page Situating Serenity. Each one of the pictures here are linked to its interactive panoramic version on facebook, just click on respective picture to get to them. (Facebook does not require to be signed in to watch the photos, but we recommend it. Otherwise just decline the “sign in” option and press the photo to enlarge it and bring it to the forefront.)
The first place we went to, Gustav Adolfs Torg, is a busy square in the center of Malmö that housed a street food festival in this moment. Food stands were surrounded by a lot of people and played loud music. The density of sources of sound was high, which made it appear filled up with sonic impressions that originated from physically close places. Visually it was also very busy in comparison to the other places. From an architectural point of view, the square is surrounded by building from different times, places of consumption, a park and a cemetery. This gives Gustav Adolfs Torg a feeling of an important part of the city that organically changed over time.
Raoul Wallenbergs Park is located just next to Gustav Adolfs Torg. We actually visited this park before going to Gustav Adolfs Torg and was surprised that there were no signs of the food festival, visually or sonically. One could have expected a lot of people buying food at the festival and enjoying their meal here. In contrast to the crowded Gustav Adolfs Torg, here people sat alone and read a newspaper, suntanned or had conversations in small groups. We saw one man urinating openly next to some bushes, which was unexpected.
In the same, sunny day, we went to a park. Magistratsparken is located between Triangeln (a busy train and bus station in the city) and the opera of Malmö. It is surrounded by busy streets and many persons were spending time in the park, but they were distributed in the vast space. The quite elegant buildings that enclose the park are 5 stories high and act like a “safe wall” on one side of the park. On the side of the opera, the paralleling street was continuously frequented by cars and motorbikes, influencing the soundscape of the place.
Västra Hamnen is a northwestern neighborhood of the city and located close to the sea, which makes it quite windy. This was a rather enclosed space, and sonically calm. The buildings surrounding this park, and the park itself, are very new and the area communicates a zoned feeling – dwellings surrounding a park. The buildings have different visual appearances but feel stylistically the same. This repetition of style expressed a kind of homogeneity that caused contrasting feelings: it was soothing and aesthetically pleasing, but felt inanimate at the same time.
Södra Vallgatan is a street along the canal that encloses the old nucleus of Malmö. On one side of the street, there are many seating possibilities on stairs next to the canal which are located on a lower level than the walking street, and the other side mainly houses places of consumption. Along the steps, there are several fountain-like streams whose waterflow produced a loud sound. We could not agree if the sound of these streams is soothing or stressful; on the one hand, it covered the sound of the street, and on the other hand, it was quite loud “white noise” and the covering up of other sounds on such a high volume seemed even aggressive after a while.
Lilla Torg is a consumer-oriented public square in one of the oldest parts of central Malmö. It is surrounded by bars, restaurants and cafés that have terraces that extend onto the square. The visual dominance of those places give an occupied feeling to the square. As it is close to Stortorget (the main square) and a shopping street, it attracts a lot of strolling pedestrians, but very few stay at the open public square and use its seating possibilities. It is mostly transitory, through specific pathways and slow paced, thus very predictable. The soundscape is a mosaic of conversations with background music. The atmosphere make Lilla torg appear as a very social consumer place.
Each one of these locations had a different atmosphere that can be perceived through the senses, and the three concepts; intensity, rhythm and impact help to describe the atmosphere (dense interplay between all our senses and socio-material dynamics), as explained in a previous blog entry.
Intensity, Rhythm, and Impact
Intensity is measured along a continuum between strong and weak impressions. The following paragraph orders the different location along their intensity from strong to weak, elaborating on the three variables intensity, rhythm and impact. The comments on those variables are certainly not absolute, but rather in relation to each other and to the expectations and ideas that we have of places in the city as its dwellers.
The place with the highest intensity was Gustav Adolfs Torg. It had loud music, a lot of visitors, an intense smellscape consisting of different food stands selling candy, grilled meat, stews, coffee and more. Something that contributed to the high intensity was the impact of the warm weather because it changed quickly. We were not prepared for the sun, which made the heat and sunshine appear especially strong. Adding to that, there was no shadowed seating possibilities. The circulation of persons was high, the transactions (buying and selling) were on a constant level in the stands and people moved to and from seating possibilities to eat, and there was a steady influx of new customers and visitors, which made the rhythm of the square fast.
The intensity in Lilla Torg was also high. The dense composition of bars led to a relatively high sound level. The dominant type of sound – chatter, lounge music in the bars – did not have such a high impact as in Gustav Adolfs Torg, though. It merges into a kind of white noise that is still intense, but does not bear the surprising qualities of the food market. Visually and spatially, the bars are the predominant elements of the square. This also led to a high intensity, as a different kind of calm activity felt misplaced in this space and prevented relaxed comfort when sitting on the bench. Despite of the high intensity, the impact and rhythm felt rather low. The homogeneity of Lilla Torg did not bear surprising elements. Also, this can probably be connected to the fact that we live in Malmö and are aware of the fact that Lilla Torg has a similar atmosphere throughout the year. Regarding the rhythm, the flow of persons was not very obvious, and the ones passing through did so in rather slow pace; persons were sitting in the frame of the bars and we did not notice too much of mobility. The rhythm inside of the bars was surely high – however, from the central part of the square, this action feels rather spatially separated.
In Södra Vallgatan, the intensity was intermediate in comparison to the former two described locations. This is due to two reasons: sonically, the sloping fountain covered the sound of the traffic, but happened to be obtrusive. The visual impressions consisted of a flow of people walking on the shopping street and traffic on the other side of the canal. Probably because of the vertical level of the stairs’ seating possibility, these impressions felt not too intrusive, though. This influenced the impact in a twofold and paradoxical way: whilst the sound had a high impact on us when sitting on the steps, the visual impact with potential stressors could be mitigated by the slightly lower positioning. The rhythm on the stairs themselves was rather low; several persons sat there for a while of around 30 minutes. Although the surrounding walking street and the busy traffic on the other side exhibit a quite high rhythm, it felt possible to disconnect from this rhythm. This may happen due to the dominant sound of the flowing water and the quality of easily feeling detached of the surroundings.
Both of the parks, Magistratsparket and Raoul Wallenbers park, had similar intensity and impact, but in relation to the above locations these were quite low. The soundscape consisted of flowing water, distant traffic, kids playing, birds chirping, and wind. Visual impressions were bound to natural elements, people sitting, sun tanning, and distant car traffic. Visually and sonically they are both enclosed by trees, bushes and buildings, but are still very open places. Cyclist and pedestrians were the main metronomes in terms of rhythm. In Magistratsparken, people had the tendency to stay longer than in Raoul Wallenbergs Park, possibly because of the slightly higher rhythm in the latter. Adding to that, Raoul Wallenbergs Park is situated next to Gustav Adolfs Torg, and has lesser dwellings in proximity. Further, it is situated next to Kaptensgatan – a heavily used bicycle path, which adds to the rhythm.
The area that we visited in Västra Hamnen was low in intensity, impact and rhythm. The visual impressions of the place were mainly a lagoon, lawn and seating furniture, surrounded by buildings that act as “walls”. Some people passed by, mainly what seemed to be local residents on dog walks, a couple of joggers and roller skaters, but overall a slow paced rhythm. While we were there, a man was cleaning the windows of an apartment, which added to the already clean and overly managed impression. This visual metaphor expresses a feeling that we consider very present in the whole area: the dominance of a clean atmosphere that make it appear “too designed” – almost artificial.
We conducted this research with the premise that we will just see what happens – we would go to different places, spend time in them and try to observe ourselves when observing our surroundings. This is how we could unravel mechanisms of perceiving atmospheres in ourselves.
Applying the theory of atmosphere along the variables of sensory impressions and intensity, impact and rhythm in practice, we noticed that those measurements capture atmospheres in an effective way, but are always measured in relation to the expectations that we have towards space. For example, the high intensity that we perceived at Gustav Adolfs Torg represented our expectations towards the city. We are used to central Malmö being calm, thus when entering the food festival the sensory impact was high in relation to our expectations, but certainly not in an objective manner. For someone used to bigger and denser cities, the food market would have probably not felt intense.
These expectations are connected to the sentiment expressed in the quote of Pallasmaa, in our post about Being Alone Together. Briefly put, it is a reflection of how our expectations (ergo social imaginations) are constructed. This implies that our expectations also relate to preconceived ideas.
We also noticed how important it is to observe places in their entirety and not only focused onto minor points – this is why we took panoramic pictures. The atmosphere is compounded of everything that we can perceive from our point of observation. By the entirety of the place we mean on the one hand, that it is not only the immediate surrounding that affects our perception of the atmosphere. As an example, when sitting in Magistratsparken, it became evident that not only the lawn and park furniture itself, but also the more distant surrounding buildings and streets influenced how we felt. On the other hand, by the entirety of the place we refer to its composition. Gustav Adolfs Torg and Västra Hamnen are good contrasting examples for this. Gustav Adolfs Torg assembles architecture from different centuries and therefore is a representation of Malmö’s organic evolution over time. As a contrast, Västra Hamnen’s homogeneous appearance probably was interpreted as an artificial and alienating place by us, because a connection to imaginary elements of time in form of historicity was missing.
What this fieldwork has contributed to us is that atmosphere is perceived in relation to our imaginations and expectations. This leads us to think that the Urban Sanctuary is not a specific physical place. It is time and space bound, but signified by subjective performativity. It relates to the atmosphere of being alone together, which is evoked in subjective ways.
Text by Ezana Mussie and Fernanda Jaraba