Museum Asks Visitors To Listen To New York's Buildings

Museum Asks Visitors To Listen To New York's Buildings

7:16pm Mar 10, 2015
Karen Van Lengen and James Welty created a multimedia installation to encourage visitors to experience buildings like Grand Central Terminal not only through their eyes, but also their ears.
Karen Van Lengen and James Welty created a multimedia installation to encourage visitors to experience buildings like Grand Central Terminal not only through their eyes, but also their ears.
Hansi Lo Wang / NPR

When you're walking around New York City, you probably won't find people looking up. Even the majestic main concourse of Grand Central Terminal can rarely stop a native New Yorker in her tracks.

But, tourists like Lidize Mora from Las Vegas are a different story.

"I love it! It feels like a palace. I can imagine people having a wedding here," she exclaims, gazing at the marble staircases under a cerulean-blue ceiling of the Beaux Arts-style building.

But a new multimedia exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York is encouraging visitors to experience architecture not only with their eyes, but also with their ears.

Karen Van Lengen, who created the installation with her husband, James Welty, says to really soak in a building, you need to listen to it.

"If you close your eyes, what you're going to hear are things that you can't hear with your eyes open," says Van Lengen, an architecture professor at the University of Virginia.

She recorded sounds in iconic New York buildings for Soundscape New York to capture sonic details like the tinkling of forks and knives from Grand Central's balcony restaurants. She says she hopes the installation will push people to stop, shut out visual distractions and think about the building they're standing in.

"It's not just about the image of buildings, or what the buildings look like," Van Lengen says. "It's what the buildings actually are, what kinds of life can go on in those spaces."

Other sounds from New York spaces featured in her installation include the sliding of oak chairs on the terracotta floors of the New York Public Library's main branch and the churning of the escalator in the lobby of the International Building at Rockefeller Center.

Van Lengen says she hopes to get permission to do the U.S. Capitol dome and record sounds at the Lincoln Memorial next.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

If you've visited New York City, or even if you live there, chances are you can remember the moment you first saw its iconic skyline. And now a new multimedia exhibit is encouraging people to take a moment to experience that architecture with their ears as well. As NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports, the exhibit opened today at the Museum of the City of New York.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: When you're walking around New York City, even when you're in Grand Central Terminal - one of the most beautiful train stations in the world - you probably won't find people looking up, unless of course they're tourists, like Lideze Mora from Las Vegas.

LIDEZE MORA: Oh, my gosh, I love it. It feels like a palace. Like, I can imagine people having, like, a wedding here in, like, a ballroom. It's crazy.

WANG: I found Mora gazing at the marble staircases of the Beaux Arts-style building, under a cerulean-blue ceiling dotted with gold stars. But Karen Van Lengen, who teaches architecture at the University of Virginia, says to really soak in a building what you need to do is listen to it. Here is the main concourse of Grand Central Terminal.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRAND CENTRAL TERMINAL AMBIENCE)

KAREN VAN LENGEN: If you close your eyes, what you're going to hear are things that you can't hear with your eyes open.

WANG: Like the tinkling of forks and knives from the balcony restaurants over what Van Lengen says sounds like the lull of an ocean.

VAN LENGEN: Everything slows down in a way. You feel like you're moving in a sea of people coming together, passing through, but it's a calming effect.

WANG: Van Lengen hopes her exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York will push people to stop, shut out all of the visual distractions and think about the building they're standing in.

VAN LENGEN: And it's not just about the image of buildings or what the buildings look like. It's what the buildings actually are, what kinds of life can go on in those spaces.

WANG: Other New York spaces featured in her installation include some unexpected landmarks.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAIRS MOVING)

VAN LENGEN: This is the New York Public Library.

WANG: Yes, there are sounds in the library.

VAN LENGEN: It's the oak chairs coming in and out of those long oak tables when you sit down to do your work. So they slide across the terracotta floor and they have that sound.

WANG: And an old set of escalators at Rockefeller Center's International Building make this sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKEFELLER CENTER ESCALATORS)

VAN LENGEN: When I really listened hard, I thought these are the sounds of the industrial revolution that made the Rockefeller fortune that made this building.

WANG: Van Lengen hopes to get permission to do the U.S. Capitol dome next and wants to record the sounds that can be found at the Lincoln Memorial. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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