The Sound of Silence

Embracing the quiet during COVID-19
The Sound of Silence

Photo by Olivia Bauso

Mary Rose Rankin, AIA, LEED AP of Perkins Eastman DC shares a personal message with colleagues during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I have never been afraid of silence. Perhaps because I discovered at a young age that if you’re very still, and listen really carefully, there is always some form of sound around you. I find that comforting.

My dad worked in the aerospace department of a physics laboratory for over 30 years. Due to the confidential nature of his work, he couldn’t tell us much about what he did. But when I was 5 or 6, the lab had an open house, and my brothers, sister, and I got to tour some of their incredible facilities, such as an anechoic testing chamber.

An anechoic chamber is a room that completely absorbs all sound and waves. It is so still and silent that all you can hear is … you. Your heart beat. Your pulsing blood. And if you skipped breakfast…everyone in the room will know! It was the first time I realized that even in clinically defined “absolute silence” there is still sound to be found.

I find it ironic that anechoic chambers are often referred to as dead rooms, because when you stand in one of those spaces, and can hear every function swirling around inside of you, it is a rare moment that you can truly hear just how alive you are.

When we started remote working at Perkins Eastman 50 days ago, I was living and working from my little house in Silver Spring, Maryland — “across the street” from my colleague John, and “down the street” from another coworker, Darryl. About three weeks ago, my 80-year-old mother hurt her hand pretty bad, and was having a hard time handling daily tasks. Since I had been socially distancing for weeks, the family felt it was safe for me to move home to help her. So I am now back at my childhood home in Lisbon, Maryland, very far away from the rest of my Perkins Eastman family.

When I was a kid, Lisbon was a more rural area, covered by family-owned cattle and sheep farms, and horse “farmettes.” Today, there are a lot more houses, a lot more people, and a lot more cars. But during this time of COVID-19, it is still. It is quiet again like I remember it was when we were kids, running around barefoot across the back fields. If you walk outside now in the early morning, or around 7:30 p.m. as the sun is setting, at first it seems very quiet. But if you stand very still, maybe close your eyes to cut out distractions, you start to hear the orchestra playing. Tree frogs (peepers) down in the damp parts of the woods. Crickets tuning up. The low chortle of blue birds. The prideful piercing call of the cardinals. Jenny Wrens who don’t want you to forget that small birds have big mouths too. Wind cymbals up in the tops of the trees. Fox trotting by. The “whoosh whoosh” of a giant blue heron taking off over two acres away. Buzzing mosquitoes. And if you’re really lucky, sitting up high in the trees, providing commentary on the ensemble’s performance… the owls.

Since being back here, I have found myself thinking a lot about the “sound” of silence, and what sound can “feel” like.

As architects, we are taught and trained how to use our eyes. How to observe patterns, behaviors, and details in the built world around us. How to see trends. We create drawings and renderings so that our clients can picture themselves in their new office, library, or school.

But have you ever stopped in the middle of a D.C. sidewalk, and instead of looking at the architecture, instead just listened? Have you ever tried to filter out the traffic noise, and the pedestrians on their cell phones, and really focus on what other sounds are around you?

Photo by Damon Lam

Would you hear kids in the nearby park laughing? The “squeeek ….squeeek” as the kid on the swing tries to kick the sun? The “thump, thump, thump” as a player sets up a shot, or the “clash…YES!” when it goes through a metal basketball hoop? (Or the “$%!#!!&” when he misses?).

What if, when designing an apartment building, we stood on the site, closed our eyes, and thought about what the tenants would hear when they stood on their balcony? Would those sounds bring joy? Evoke old memories? Or keep them up at night?

What about the 5-year-old autistic child, like my godson, to whom everyday noises like an automatic hand dryer can be deafening? Or the blind graduate student who experiences their college campus through touch, scent, and sound? What do they hear when navigating our master plans? Is it calming? Is it directional? Or is it confusing?

Just like colors, sounds can also evoke strong feelings. Some happy and hopeful. Some fearful (“what was THAT??!). And the lack of sound…sometimes sadness.

On the second full day I was home, my mom made an observation over lunch that I never thought I would hear her say. She told me she was grateful to my late father for having passed away five years ago, instead of more recently. My face must have shown my surprise, because then she said, “because these five years, living alone, have prepared me for this silence.” Wow, Mom.

I have thought about what she said every day since. This brings me back to where we are today, and the situations we each find ourselves in while remote working.

The author's mother pictured outdoors

Mary’s mother experiences the quiet solitude of nature

We are living in a world where many of the common everyday sounds are temporarily gone. For some of us, the sound of silence is comforting. As Henry David Thoreau said, “Silence is the universal refuge.” For us, filtering out the everyday noise allows us to find within the silence the old familiar sounds. And for some of our coworkers with young kids at home, they might wish for just a couple hours of complete silence!

But for others, the lack of the familiar hustle and bustle produces anxiety, stress, or loneliness. They miss the comforting sounds of a city percolating in the morning, overflowing onto the sidewalks at lunch time, and waking up in the clubs when the rest of the world is going to sleep.

For all of us, the silence from working remotely is keenly felt.

My parents moved out here to Lisbon in the early 1970s, when my father was just about finished building our family home. During one of those first summers, my cousin, who was just a teenager, came to stay with them for a couple months. For my cousin, who knew nothing but the constant District din, the nights were terrifying. Without any streetlights around, the darkness took a lot to get used to. But it was the silence punctuated by random wildlife calls that kept him awake at night, poking him like the fingers of the imaginary monster under the bed right as he would finally drift off to sleep. My parents ended up getting him a radio that he could play. Sound to fill eight hours of sleep.

I have thought about my mom’s comment on silence every day, and wondered what each of us could do to help others who might not, as she put it, be prepared for the silence. It is not as simple as suggesting they turn on the radio to fill their eight-hour day, because this silence is felt, not just auditory. It is like standing in that anechoic chamber, where not only are the familiar sounds gone, but so are the waves. Those waves we all experience through personal interaction are gone. The waves that are generated when we are working side by side with friends and colleagues, collaborating, and sharing ideas.

My suggestion is to reach out and connect with employees and friends as directly as you can. Pick up the phone and make a call, rather than typing another email. Allow them the opportunity to hear a familiar voice. Provide a little more sound to fill a small part of their day. If you need to send an instant message, then type a friendly “Hi, how are you doing?” first, before jumping into your question or request. The small gesture shows you recognize that there is a person on the other end of that IM string.

Photo by Charles DeLuvio

Know a parent who is working remotely, and has small kids at home right now? Schedule a virtual lunch with them, and let them talk about whatever they want to talk about. They may really need to just talk to another adult, and to hear another adult voice.

And finally, go ahead and share music with your staff or coworkers. But instead of just sharing a YouTube video, or a link, also share your time. Know of a great lecture or concert that is going to be live streamed? Invite others to virtually join you in the concert, lecture, or movie hall. What many people miss during this time of remote working is the small everyday interactions that generate fond memories. So use opportunities like these to help others still feel connected, even if when we can’t physically all be together.

I am confident that before too long, we will be back in our offices, working together, albeit perhaps with a little more distance between us at first. I say this because each night this week, when I go out for my evening walks, I have noticed new sounds mixing in with nature’s evening chorus. The rumble of planes overhead is being added to the percussion section. The hums and honks of cars racing down the street are taking over the horn section. The white noises of our pre-COVID-19 lives, like the workers who have been heroically waiting it out at home, are beginning to emerge from their temporary hiatus.

As we wait to be given the all clear to go back to our office, I hope all of you are doing well, and I can’t wait to be able to HEAR you all again, in person, when we are back in our home away from home at One Thomas Circle!”