What does your house sound like? Right now, mine sounds like this: a car accelerating up the hill outside, and a kettle reaching the boil and clicking off. A toddler kicking off her wellies and requesting some juice and a biscuit. And the radio, constantly nearby.
Art of Now: Hearing Architecture (Radio 4, Tuesday) was an invitation to think about buildings in a different way: not about how they look, but about how they sound and feel. It featured Chris Downey, an architect who became entirely blind suddenly in 2008 following surgery to remove a brain tumour, just before the financial crisis hit. He faced the prospect of competing for work with thousands of other freshly unemployed architects who had, it seemed, one crucial advantage over him: being able to see the buildings they were designing.
“I didn’t know anybody who was blind,” he says of this moment in the programme. “I didn’t have anybody to turn to. I’d never heard of a blind architect. The thought had never crossed my mind... How are you going to do your job?” he asked himself.
But then he realised something. Perhaps he hadn’t lost as much as he thought: “The reality is, no architect sees a building they’re designing except through visualising it in their mind. Your pencil, your pen, the mouse, it doesn’t know where to go, except as led by your mind. No other sighted architect has anything on me. It took me a while to realise that.”
He completely reframed his way of thinking about his practice. Some modern materials and styles so beloved of trendy architects of the moment – large expanses of steel and glass, for instance – amplify sounds into harsh, overwhelming cacophonies that make it hard to identify what individual people are saying, or to distinguish a building from the world beyond. Annoying for sighted people, but potentially disastrous for visually impaired people who interact with the world around them mostly through sound.
The programme argued that, whether you incorporate sound design into a building or not, it will still sound like something. Will you hear the bustle of the food market down the road, or the constant roar of traffic, or hushed softness? Which would you prefer?
It was the most perfect programme for radio, because of course, like Downey, we couldn’t see any of the buildings either, including the Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco, where the programme was recorded and a building for which Downey was a consulting architect. We could hear the building, though, through a deftly woven aural texture by producer Michael Umney.
We heard the importance, for blind people, of hard floors that allow you to hear approaching footsteps. We heard the footsteps approach, and the taps of Downey’s cane on the smooth polished concrete. And we heard the beauty of sound, too. The wind chimes in Downey’s studio as he worked, and the soft scratchings of the wax sticks he uses to make marks he can feel on the embossed plans for a new building.
It raised plenty of intriguing sensory questions beyond sound. How should buildings feel when you touch them? How could they smell? Could the design of a restaurant make things taste better? It was exquisite radio; one of those programmes that changes, even if only a little, the way you perceive the world.
Also on the subject of ambitious plans, though rather less successfully realised, was the strange tale that unfolded in Tudur Owen: Zoo (Radio 4, Wednesday). This is a captivating two-part comedy series from Welsh comedian Owen, relating the “almost-true” story of how his father, a farmer on Ynys Môn, attempted to diversify his income stream by opening a small zoo in the early 1980s. Monkeys, owls, a wallaby and an actual bona fide lion all turned up to stay in the rainy, muddy Welsh countryside for a tourist attraction that was promptly labelled by the News of the World as “The Worst Zoo in Britain”.
And for the then 13-year-old Tudur Owen, whose mother had recently left the family (partly because of the whole zoo thing), the endeavour was a mixture of surreal excitement, confusion and pain. I’m not sure it matters how much of the story is true. It was an elegant kind of comedy, sparkily told with a sensitive awareness of small community life, while wallowing moodily in the humour of hubris. It was funny and overblown, with vivid characters, but a sting of sadness too.