Environment, milieu, soundscape (re)definitions

by Pascal Amphoux + Théa Manola

Three manners to activate our listening of the city in ordinary situation of co-presence or walk­ will be expressed : The environmental listening, the médiale listening and the landscaped listening.

The technique of the reactivated listening will briefly be recited: meaning sample, principle of recurrence, domains of relevance (passage of the analysis to the project).

The tower of the sound effects and the sound quality of the courtyard

Translation :

A little different from the rest. Sort of interview.

Q: Who are you? I would like to know who I am. I am an architect and geographer. I did a little of architecture at the end of my studies. Researcher, not really either in architecture nor in geography – more like social sciences. Two laboratories: CRESSON (one of the founders) + one in Lausanne (evolution of living spaces).

Around 15 years ago, I became a professor, at the Architecture School of Nantes. Around public space and urban project. When I was nominated, I put research aside for a moment. I needed a bit of practice, and he works on public projects in Lausanne & urban studies. Territorial projects, etc.

He accompanied the evolution of projects (urban projects – one of the first ones). Carriers of the transition from urban project to territorial project.

Q: When you arrived, what were your interests around the sound?

Switzerland was very closed up, I worked on human ecology. That’s how I met Jean-François (Augoyard). Analysis to imagination, important passage to understand phenomena. Nowadays, we don’t talk about sustainability, but now it’s ecological transition. Meeting with other researchers on ecology. For 35 years, no one really paid attention. J.F. was interested in that, and I liked his work on sound. I like people who are a little marginal (and JF. Was working on a “marginal” subject on his thesis).

Q: Pascal is known for the Environnement – Milieu – Paysage method. What is it? Why? When?

A: Very quickly. EMP is a way to summarise the only thesis I ever did in my life. Theory that can resonate in many fields, in a universal way. Stemming for works on sound (methods mentioned by JF earlier). Work in three different cities in Switzerland (multilingual country) – test to analyse the sound quality of environments (three cultures that are very different from one another). Despite that fact, and the difference of experience of public space, I realized that people react in similar ways to very different situations. Empirical work.

Distinguish three ways of listening: Environmental, medial and landscape listening activities (3). In some cases, people distance themselves to analyse. They step away from the sound environment. In that same fragment, the same people do not hear the vent of the video projector (which you didn’t notice before I pointed it out). Now, you’re listening to the environment. Before that, it was the sonic milieu.

Ensemble of objective, measurable and controllable facts (Sound environment)

Fusional, natural and living relationships (Sound milieu)

Sensory, aesthetic and differing phenomena (Soundscape)

Almost passive way of listening. It allows us to erase what we hear, to focus on something else.

Environment: outside

Milieu: within

Soundscape: both – perceptual and sensory relationships, through aesthetic experiences. “What affects/touches me”

Earlier, JF mentioned the Chinese concept of Sharawadji – tension between environmental listening (unbearable) and the milieu, then the soundscape (beautiful).

Hypothesis: this is universal and independent of the cultures. Regardless of our culture, we work with these three areas/fields/concepts.

Distinctions between Listen (écouter), Hear (ouïr) and Perceive (entendre). The semantic dimension becomes fundamental to the research.

It allows to make distinctions. What about noise? Acoustic pollution (environment)/sonic pollution (milieu)/phonic pollution (landscape) – three different things.

Three different types of sounds. Behind it, three different actions. Big distinctions thanks to the semantic dimension.

More precise criteria – sonic signatures, that sign the identity of a place. If you hear Big Ben, you know it’s London. Those are extremely pregnant and important. Sonic pollution: we don’t pay attention to acoustics as such anymore, but to ordinary sounds. This can lead to conflict with neighbours, etc. Different forms of sounds, and the consequences are completely different.

Model of sound urbanism: not the same to protect the environment (defensive attitude, technicians, control and design of norms), to consolidate a milieu (offensive attitude, users/residents, regulation of social interactions), to compose the landscape (creative attitude, designers, evolution of cultural and aesthetic models).

The three dimensions must be articulated together.

Q: Fourth term in that tripod: AMBIANCE – funding concept for the laboratory. (singular/plural?)

A: To me, it’s very simple. Ambiance is the modality of articulation/dynamics of these three ways to see/hear the world. The concept of ambiance articulates these three concepts/notions. Some are more dominant than others at times, at other times, they are more balanced, etc.

It’s a form of co-presence between those three types of listening.

Ecoutes (terms in the nautical environment – I can’t quite translate that, sorry)

Analytical relation, or connected to the ambiance (“Nice ambiance” = something that we can’t quite hear, but that holds us) + sensory dimension. Question of aesthetics.

Way to navigate those three dimensions.

Q: Does it remind you of the three dimensions of ambiances?

A: Yes, in a way. On an epistemological scale, I like ternary structures. I am very critical of dual structures, because it quickly turns into oppositions.

What I’m interested in is the “AND”. In the history of landscapes, it’s not about “or” but the “and”. First, paintings (mode of representation), then we use the terms to designate perceptions. The two dimensions are valuable.

If you build your thinking in a ternary way, the ideas can navigate. Three ways of thinking. I think a lot in ternary ways. Question of articulating the three dimensions/aspects. The three are needed. Otherwise it doesn’t work.

The art of designing is the articulation of the three.

Q: How do you work on the conceptual model to make it practical in design?

A: All this work was done simultaneously with the other one on effects. The question of sonic effects implied the question of effects at all times. Effects imply the “right” time. Event.

The three listening activities helped to designate criteria from what people told us on the cities in Switzerland. People liked the idea – recurring aspect. People were never mistaken on the type of space, whenever they listened to the recordings.

It’s not objective in a measurable way, but it’s objective as in shared between many people.

Question of an expressive sample (not representative). People were very different from one another. They tell things with their own words, and then you can pinpoint what always comes back/comes back often.

The articulation started to appear. The vocabulary started appearing too. Classification – fractal categories.

Parallels between the different types of listening activities (if one was found in the milieu, for example, then parallels were supposed to be found in the two others).

You can go beyond that point. Very fine and specific vocabulary at this point.

Power of description and conception.

Those criteria are not to be taken as recipes. But we can invent situations to trigger some of these effects. There are not criteria to apply but it’s a way to trigger some situations, and have more chances to see something specific.

The vocabulary changes everything to the way of designing. We can be more precise.

Two examples – on the other screen.

Rudy Decelière: artist who works with sound. Sound installation under the Learning Centre, EPFL (Lausanne). Architecture out of nowhere. Under that space on the picture, pure sounds with little tools. Each one had a pure sound. The goal was to represent water.

I went there – I found it great. The envelop earned a sound material. Cf. JF earlier and the example of the market. Constant, continuous background soundscape. Usually well experienced/received. Every sound emerges in a very distinctive way, before they all blend together and slowly fade into one murmur.

In applying the three analytical listening activities, behaviour patterns are implied by the sound intervention. We can’t prove it, but we can witness it. Fitting with the architecture.


Second example: Acoustic screen. To be used not just for what it was intended for. They can modulate and go beyond the norms. Work on the perceptions (opening, closing, dynamics, etc.)

Underneath the viaduct – lots of decibels (from traffic) Recreating a total silence, modulation, etc.

Many projects have great qualities when it comes to sound, but that often happens intuitively, without really meaning to (even though there is obvious quality and technicity). They can become principles we can re-use in other contexts/projects. Not to determine behaviour, but to imply attitudes.

We will come back to it with Grégoire Chelkoff and Théo Marshal.


Question 1: Re-activated listening: helps with the typology. The sonic milieu (listening) is not conscious. Do people become conscious of it when they re-listen to it?

A: Yes. Some things are not said by someone, and when they re-listen the recordings, they become aware. (at least two listening sessions seem to be necessary).

Some people mention this, others say that, but there’s something more, and I can add this… Idea of “recurrence”

“Someone said xxx” “What? Not at all!” Some people don’t hear the same things. They hear things but don’t perceive. The medial listening is always present – but it is identified.

Question 2: What is the difference between ambiance and atmosphere?

A: I don’t know.

Atmosphere – something aerial/close to air. Often, they are confused. Differences that are fleeting.

Linguistic question. Translation problems/discussion.

Atmosphere: aerial/air connotations.

In French, Ambiance is more neutral. It’s not an element (=/= air). Dominant connotation. Latin etymology – waltz of ambiances. Ambire – going around. Dynamics, movements, that kind of elements.

Atmosphere is primarily elementary.

Terms to go towards feelings. The body is implied either way. You must feel free to use the words, and create meaning with the surrounding words.

Words are semantic basins – you can’t translate a word by another word.

Translation by Sophie Provost

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