UC Berkeley (Nick)



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    Desert Obscura

    Nick Sowers
    Mar 22, '10 6:17 PM EST
    Desert Obscura

    I'm back from three days in the Mojave desert. We drove six hours from Berkeley last Thursday, and the moment we pulled up from the Central Valley floor to the high desert, I felt the strangest feeling--it felt like home. It is the wide open horizon that I love, the clear visibility of objects for at least sixty miles. You need the desert to taste the true flavor of a tangerine, to smell sage and petrol lifting off a road shoulder, and to listen to the sound of vibrating air particles. It was great to take a break from the production madness to recharge my senses out there.

    34 degrees north 11 minutes 19 point 763 seconds

    The trip included a visit to the anechoic facility at Edwards Air Base (more on that another time), and a day poking around the streets of a desert suburb that never happened. I took part in Atlas Obscura's Obscura Day, an international day celebrating "wondrous, curious, and esoteric places." One of many events that happened around the world this past Saturday, Geoff Manaugh of BLDG BLOG organized this visit to the Geoglyphs of Nowhere.

    A comment on Geoff's blog in particular caught my eye. Blogger user kGresh's brother who works on the Air Base, said this about the proto-suburb:

    Ha been there? We run simulated military missions out there! I practically have the place memorized because of all the time I've spent driving around. Because it's laid out like a city, it's desert, and there aren't people, it's perfect for training like Iraq etc. We can do airstrike talk ons and such and fake bomb runs without bothering folks. It's great!

    Which just goes to show that there is no escaping militarized space, and especially not in the deserts around Los Angeles.

    So in preparation for the trip (and because I think architects never should just show up empty-handed to a site visit) I built a few prosthetics for listening to the desert. The idea with these boxes is to be able to observe various acoustic phenomena in a landscape which is, or at least was in my mind, barren. I would soon discover otherwise. Still: how to listen to that 'emptiness'?

    1. SOMT

    This instrument can be expanded in length from 24" to 47". The effect is simple: at the shortest length, the ambient sound of air will be amplified at frequencies around 1125 Hz. When you put your ear to one end, you'll hear a dampening or 'tunnel' effect, but you're also hearing the ambient sound being amplified.


    When the box is lengthened, the resonant frequency will decrease (resonant frequency = (speed of sound/box length) * 2). So at 47", you'll hear sound in the desert at about 575 Hz amplified. Earlier this semester, I built a sound tunnel on my desk 8' long which amplifies sound at 281 Hz (low enough to rouse some serious suspicion that I'm trying to find the resonant frequency which will bring Wurster Hall to the ground).

    2. Fata Morgana


    A Fata Morgana is a particular kind of mirage caused by a variation in temperature gradients. In this mirage an image will expand and contract as warm air above the line of sight deflects light rays back to the ground surface. While 'audio mirages' won't work the same way because the waves travel much slower than the speed of light, I am still interested in producing a mirage effect.

    Fata Morgana

    This box is shaped in an upside-down-U fashion and painted a dark grey in order to trap hot air. This air, warmer than the outside temperature, would never sit still but would fluctuate, producing a shifting temperature gradient. Sound waves of a high frequency (low freq. waves will just pass right through the box) should then diffract in observable patterns, stretching but only in microseconds.

    I think I need a bigger box and a hotter desert. Next year, Obscura Day in El Azizia!

    3. Slowscope

    I am interested in the notion of an audio horizon - the moment where distant sounds can barely be heard, and then disappear. The horizon ultimately defines our concept of landscape; it delineates the inhabitable surface of the earth. But horizon is always thought of as an optical phenomenon. What, then, of our sense of sound, which has arguably more to do with notions of defensibility and territory?


    This curved, telescoping box denies the optical horizon and instead seeks to amplify the threshold of hearing. In theory, a curving box built long enough, with absorptive walls, would eventually not permit any wavelength to diffract within it. Low frequencies (20 Hz is the lowest we can hear) would be the last to be stopped. This is a model of a mechanism to collapse the audio horizon.


    My favorite thing about the event is that I left something there. One of the Obscura Day adventurers asked if I was going to go back and check on the sound boxes, to see how they change with summer temperatures, etc. I hadn't thought about leaving the boxes, but I did decide to leave the survey poles that I made to mount the boxes. Plus there is a set of markers in chalk announcing the coordinates to the one thousandth of a second. So, this is an invitation to put your own instruments up there and survey the landscape in your own way. Or just camp out there, or have a block party in a neighborhood that never came to be.

    Vacant desert cul-de-sacs invite a new social practice:

    View soundscrapers@california_city in a larger map

    Finally, you can listen to these instruments over at Soundscrapers and see more photos in my Flickr set.


    • LOOP!

      It was great to see you out there and your work was interesting, as always. On militarized space, it's interesting how the area, while really beautiful, does seem to have this ominous sense to it. You've got Palmdale which prides itself on being an aerospace capital and amazingly exists as an unconnected part of LA County. Then the airforce base is directly above it.
      My friend and I went and checked out the Borax mind, and in the town to the south of it (Boran) you can see this mountain, about a mile off, that has a bunch of towers on top of it. Do you know anything about those? Are they part of the anechoic facility? They looked like something Raimund Abraham would've designed.

      Can't wait to see how your thesis turns out.

      Mar 22, 10 8:10 pm  · 

      Some of those towers are almost twenty stories tall. On the Edwards tour I was told those towers had something to do with the flight testing done in the fifties/sixties. But I can't remember the specifics. We didn't get anywhere near them to pick out Abrahamian details as you suggest. Got any telephoto shots of it?

      Mar 22, 10 8:17 pm  · 

      I think you are talking about the rocket stands on the east side of the dry lake - it's south of Boron/58 - you get a good view of it from the base access road...

      The CLUI site has good advice for viewing within the base.

      Domingo's has the best mexican food in Boron and the last time I was there the walls were covered with photos of the candidates for the new joint-strike fighter which were being proven at Edwards.

      Mar 22, 10 11:39 pm  · 

      Thanks for the link, mud!
      We did get some footage of it that will go to Atlas Obscura once we get it all downloaded. More than the details, I just meant more the ominious feel of them... These giant structures on top of a mountain with nothing around.
      How many Mexican restaurants are there in Boron? It's a pretty small town.

      Mar 23, 10 2:06 am  · 

      Yup - just one that I know of, but that shouldn't prevent it from being considered superlative.

      Apr 13, 10 10:59 pm  · 

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