Sonic debris : Rebuilding former spatialities through reverberations

Mhamad Safa

Artwork: Dissolve - By: Sarah Saroufim.

Multiplicity and variety of inflections produce “events,” or vibrations, “with an infinity of harmonics or submultiples.” Movement of a concept that has bearing upon a subject’s impressions of the physical world does not elevate according to a spiral plan, which belongs to philosophy. but radiates or ramifies everywhere in the geography of experience. such that we can imagine movement of light and sound, together, as folds of ethereal matter that waft and waver.

– Gilles Deleuze. The Fold, Leibniz and the Baroque.

Auditory faculties contain an array of potentialities, that are systemically, discursively or physically unrestricted, but that also equalize and evaluate the soundscapes of contemporary urbanization. Not only do these faculties behave in synchrony with visibility but they compete with it in the sensory hierarchy. Listening, as an experience, both senses what cannot be seen and acts as a method to decipher, cognize and reflect on the nature of events. Hearing aptitudes such as vertical and horizontal sound localization, interaural time difference, binaural listening, among others, calculate information related to volume, and geographic coordinates. Sound acts as a “structural base as well as a speculative guide” that unearths socio-political possibilities[1]. In urban contexts for example, the material conditions of these events are outcomes of different political episodes, which are inextricable from neoliberal reforms, financialization, warfare and militarization, as well as logistical and ecological contingencies. Beyond any activity within an urban landscape, psychoacoustic apparatuses — which dictate how a signal reaches a listener’s ears and its neurocognitive processing — are first and foremost sculpted by architecture and translated via containers of sonic memory[2]. Building materials, spatial disposition, directions and density govern the way through which a sonic source asserts its dominance over one’s sonic-spatial domain[3]. The migration and reflection of vibrations within a territory, known as the reverberation of sound, will be explored in this essay as an acoustic phenomenon whose sensing unearths spatial conditions and illustrates their foundations.

In Lebanon, urban expansion behaves in an ostensible yet aleatory manner. It is equipped with the potential to temper the perceptibility and immersion of listening subjects. By examining the interplay between architecture, sound and their respective political narratives, I will evaluate what Beirut’s reverberations reveal vis-a-vis its post-war politico-legal modes of governance. Here, the politics of aesthetics function as “a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience”[4]

Sensing Anomalies

Historian Emily Thompson defines reverberation as “the lingering over time of residual sound in a space”[5]. She argues that any soundscape is indistinguishable from the sonic behavior of reverberation, which is inseparable from architectural space. Reverberation portrays a sonic reaction created when a signal is reflected by its surrounding environment, generating a large number of late reflections, until the signal decays as it gets absorbed by the material around it[6]. With the invention of reverberation time calculation, which estimated the time difference between a signal emission and its late reflections, modernist architects apprehended reverbs as anomalies to be eradicated. In order to ensure efficient communication and listening habits in enclosed spaces, they treated hearing like vision by guaranteeing, through their design, the reception of a signal-like clarity without obstructions.[7] Here, sound was slowly separated from its architectural signature.

Karin Bijsterveld explains how noise abatement societies, who were preoccupied with reducing street noise in the early twentieth century, faced substantial contingencies that resisted all efforts to silence cities. Beyond attempts to control the soon-to-come hegemony of techno-logistical networks of transportation and exchange, which saturated ambient noise levels, methods of sound intensity calculations were distorted by sonic anomalies, namely prompted by the reverberant components of urban milieus[8].

What problematizes our sonic cognition of those environments relates closely to a growing contemporary logic in urban spatial expansion. Concretely, I’m referencing a divergence in scales, materiality, porosities, perforations and its relation to street set-backs, volumetric occupation, as well as all the elements’ proximity with public infrastructure. This assemblage of construction, and coding parameters generates an overflow of acoustic calculations (and incalculabilities). By meticulously deciphering these makeups, French electro-acousticians Jean-Francois Augoyard argue that reverberations are ubiquitous in an urban environment that “compressed acoustic space and confused directionality, making it often difficult or impossible to locate sources”[9].

Reverb’s ubiquity taints sonic activities with symptomatic conditions. It imposes a distorted amplification of sound due to an overlap of reflections[10], leakage[11], and most importantly its extension, which occurs only seconds after its initial occurrence[12]. These manifestations equip sound with the potential of invasiveness where the material boundaries between source, listening subject, and their shelters, collapse. Within this experience, ears are sensing a volatile sonic response to spatial parameters. They listen for an anomaly, an irregularity, and a catastrophe, as it extends over time before it dissipates into inaudibility. This extension, however, is indivisible from an ontological definition of any Event that can potentially trigger, materialize, or coerce a sonic condition. Drawing from Deleuze’s theorization of the Event, French philosopher Alain Badiou maintains that the Event cannot be separated from the act of becoming; it is both a continuity and an intensification. It is a sequence of multiplicities that concurs the “limitless of becoming and the singularity of the Event”[13]. Here, I’m referring to both the Sonic Event and its repercussions on architecture.

Architectural narratives for a sonic unpredictability

On July 9, 2018, the head of the Public sCorporation for Housing (PCH), a public institution in charge for the subsidization of housing loans, announced the immediate halt of all funding[14]. In fact, the abrupt cut of loan schemes, whose beneficiaries were middle to low income families, effectively prevented these classes’ access to adequate shelter. This decision may have appeared to be a mere managerial, bureaucratic and strategic policy in a financially vulnerable state, but in fact, it was an intentional move by the ruling class to protract already existing neoliberal policies, which were responsible for deregulating the urban sphere.

Originating in the post-civil war reconstruction project[15], the architectural landscape of Beirut is reflected in policies, which systematically exerted a stronger control over the capital’s most precarious social classes[16]. Solidere’s so-called reconstruction scheme led to a series of forced displacements, disproportionate construction ventures, and a spatialization of wealth disparity[17].

To delineate the inseparability between real-estate politics and their spatial narratives is, above all, to draw a cognition of their impacts and agencies, whereby the latter is perceived when it is juxtaposed with other agencies. Karen Barad’s notion of Intra-action is defined as “the mutual constitution of entangled agencies”, whereby individual agencies only [im]materialize through Intra-action. Barad asserts that “agencies are only distinct in relation to their mutual entanglement; they don’t exist as individual elements”[18].

Baradian intra-actions provide a measurement rationale to “measured agencies” (effect) and “measured objects” (cause). They outline that Events (cause) seep into boundless probabilities, but in intra-action with spatial constraints, the resulting reverberations (effect), highlight the nature of those Events.

Reverberations in Beirut equip us with facts about its urban condition. They are the remnants of an accumulation of building permits issued by the Order of Architects and Engineers of Lebanon from 1993 till 2018. Each peak or drop in the issuing of permits became an index to gage the scope of spatial expansion and its influence on the city’s sonic identity. The oscillations of these data allow us to expound on an array of maneuvers that distorted reverberations.

The first attempt to consolidate a territorial reconstruction policy took place in 1994 when 34,572 square meters of built surfaces were approved for construction in Lebanon[19]. Forced evictions and unlawful land expropriation[20] were funneled by the 1992 rent law[21].  Landlords were now able to displace tenants before demolishing properties to erect buildings with maximized profit. An amendment in these construction laws guaranteed more land exploitation to the newly imposed architectural morphologies[22]. The swift and successive demolitions of decaying structures during the period of reconstruction generated a sonically immersive state. Beside its visibility, the capital’s dwellers sensed the politics of dispossession and displacement when empty reverberant lots were abruptly planted in neighborhoods. Through ubiquitous mists of sonic reflections, hearing was stripped from its potential of localization, where it became impossible to decipher the perfect identity of the sonic source[23]. As their hearing structures modulated, street-level auditors were repetitively deprived from their sense of emplacement[24].

What burgeoned architecturally after those demolitions was an ascending degree of density in concrete, metal, glass facades, perforations and networks of geometric suspensions, matched with discrepant heights. It simultaneously created a convoluted visibility and distorted acoustics. The former was dominated by volumes that act as environmental sensors lodging sonic activities and amplified them through multiple reflections. Through this emergent, stochastic behavior in sound, an asymmetry between the sender and the receiver of a signal restructured spatial cognition. Reverberation became a metric for spatial expansion strategies, their legal counterpart, as well as the state’s subjugation of its disenfranchised population.

Within an unequally distributed real-estate investment and rehabilitation scheme[25], spatial operations and sectarian strategies were favored by a neoliberal logic to administer power upon urban patches[26]. These omnipresent disparities, materialized in what LaBelle defines as “acoustic territory”, the sonorous repercussions of architectural configurations were in fact conditioning subjectivities[27]. Reverberant qualities were gradually — often steeply — modulated in close proximity to the city’s periphery. Sound waves that are reflected through low absorption concrete, were also dampened both by street installations and compressed bodies occupying the public sphere. But in some cases, juxtapositions between dwellings and infrastructure instigated acute sonorous environments.

The Yerevan bridge, for instance, sharply splits, along two kilometers by eighteen meters, significantly populated blocks in Burj Hammoud and Nabaa area, where a large number of internally displaced and migrant population had found refuge since the civil war. It asserted the state’s structural deprivation of Burj Hammoud by isolating it from the rest of the city and its economic flow. The bridge’s extreme proximity with existing buildings produced a cavernous sonic texture on the street level.

In a milieu that bustles with social and commercial interactions, a fly-over, low porosity, concrete structure obfuscated both the penetration of natural light and the leakage of sonic activity occurring within that vital area. Contained sonic reflections, generating what Daughtry calls a resonant acoustic territory, were “amplified, complicated and co-implicated”[28]. As they bounce back to the listener’s ears and bodies, they are processed as sonic-spatial attributes that deepen the division between inside and outside[29]. Through these reverberant peculiarities, ground floors sank into an underground, emphasizing the state’s endeavors to conceal and exclude the existing social strata.

The so-called 2004 real-estate boom extended this spiraling urban condition by shrinking all remaining terrains, and accelerated adjustments in construction laws that increased further land exploitation and building heights[30]. A month-long war in 2006, which substantially erased residential areas and their infrastructures, imposed a reconstruction scheme that coincided with pre-imposed territorial policies. A surge in construction permits totaled 7,719 square meters in 2004 and reached 15,187 in 2010, which indicated that the real-estate boom had increased despite the surrounding geopolitical and security tides.

The financialization of the economy that was hinging on potentials for land exploitation[31], failed dramatically when housing loans subsidies were discontinued. What followed was a sharp decline of an already groundless socio-economic condition that reached its rock-bottom in late 2019.

Listening to these architectural presents of Beirut constitutes an act of witnessing to the politico-legal operations that were deployed by the ruling class over three decades. Lands out of which surpluses were extracted to sponsor a soaring and un-leveraged debt regime, provoked a sharp vertical class discrepancy that is both visible and audible. As such, reverbs are a synthesis of mostly empty, maximal building-to-land ratio towers along with decaying dwellings that resisted the 1992 rent laws. Colossal high-reflection glass facades, embedded within concrete framing, accentuate, oscillate, and bounce back sonic activities into thousands of rays.

Beirut’s stochastic urban combinations sculpted and tuned modes of hearing to conform with its spatial-sonic paradigm, namely its ubiquitous reverberations. It colored neighborhoods where street activity was crucial for its survival and leaked inside dwellings whose crumbling, perforated material failed to obstruct. By deciphering the invasion of urban reverbs, those whose ears have become accustomed to the sensorial manifestations of power structures, resist this enveloping urbanity and quantize the aftermath of spatial violence.

[1] Labelle, Brandon. 2020. Sonic Agency: sound and emergent forms of resistance. [Place of publication not identified]: Goldsmiths PR LTD.

[2] Buali, Sheyma. 2016. The Islamic sonic Social: Interview with Seth Ayyaz. Ibraaz. Ayyaz states that the auditory cortex has a memory and predictive cognitive capacities.

[3] Schafer, R. Murray. 1997. The soundscape: our sonic environment and the tuning of the world. Rochester, Vt: Destiny.

[4] McKee, Yates. 2007. “Eyes and ears”: aesthetics, visual culture and the claims of nongovernmental politics”. Nongovernmental Politics. 327-355.

[5] Thompson, Emily Ann. 2008. The soundscape of modernity: architectural acoustics and the culture of listening in America, 1900-1933. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Tkaczyk, Viktoria. 2015. “The Shot Is Fired Unheard: Sigmund Exner and the Physiology of Reverberation”. Grey Room. 66-81.

[8] Bijsterveld, Karin. 2017. Mechanical Sound: technology, culture, and public problems of noise in the twentieth century. Cambridge: MIT Press.

[9] Augoyard, Jean-Francois, and Henri Torgue. 2014. Sonic Experience: a Guide to Everyday Sounds. Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

[10] Augoyard and Torgue. 2014.

[11] Abu Hamdan, Lawrence. 2017. Aural Contract: Investigation At the Threshold of Audibility. Phd Thesis. Goldsmiths University of London.


[13] My emphasis. More in Safa, Mohamad. 2019. Reverberant Territories: Extended low frequency modulations as an account of affective aftermaths. MA dissertation. Goldsmiths University of London.

[14] Roffe, Jon. 2014. Badiou’s Deleuze. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.               

[15] Initially speculated under a nation-wide endeavor “Horizon 2000”, and later contracted to the real-estate company of “Solidere”.

[16] Leenders, Reinoud “Public means to private ends: state building and power in Post-war Lebanon”. 313-315.

[17]  Makarem, Hadi. The Limits of Neoliberal Policies in Post-Civil War Lebanon: A Critical Study of Solidere’s Reconstruction of Downtown Beirut. 20-21, reconstruction schemes also contributed to the formation of a substantial debt policy, and imposed a previously-speculated real estate inflation.

[18] Barad, Karen Michelle. 2007. Meeting the universe halfway quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.

[19] See archives at

[20] Ohrstrom, Lysandra . “Solidere ‘Vigilantism under color of law” The Daily Star, 06 August 2007.

[21] el-Achkar, Hicham, “The Lebanese State as Initiator of Gentrification in Achrafieh,” in: Les Carnets de l’Ifpo, July 5, 2012. http://ifpo.hypotheses. org/3834 (accessed on October 29, 2014).

[22] In 1994, the construction law’s additional regulations forced all estates to settle their “illegalities” with taxes and/or abide by the previously amended 1983 building law. 

[23] See Piekut and Stanyek, Technologies of the Intermundane. They term this phenomenon as rhizophenia – or the impossibility of a perfect identity between sound and source.

[24] Daughtry, J. Martin. 2020. Listening to War: Sound, Music, Trauma, and Survival in Wartime Iraq. [place of publication not identified]: Oxford Univ Press.

[25] Harb El-Kak, Mona. “Towards a Regionally Balanced Development,” UNDP Conference on Linking Economic Growth and Social Development, Beirut, Lebanon, 11–13 January 2000.

[26] Bou Akar, Hiba. 2018. For the war yet to come: planning Beirut’s frontiers.

[27] LaBelle, Brandon. 2019. Acoustic territories: sound culture and everyday life.

[28] Daughtry. 2020.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ashkar, Hisham. 2015. “Benefiting from a Crisis: Lebanese Upscale Real-Estate Industry and the War in Syria”. Confluences Méditerranée. 92 (1): 89.

[31] Ashkar. 2015