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Architect About Town

Listen closely for the sounds of Fort Myers

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Architect About Town - Special to the Fort Myers News Press

In Southwest Florida, we are removed from the commotion of the big city and the noise pollution that accompanies it. Here in paradise, the din that big-city folk are forced to tolerate morning until night just isn’t an issue.

Over coffee with Joshua Fisher, a graduate architect with a passion for acoustical design and photography, we discussed the variety of sounds the built environment generates here in Southwest Florida.

Southwest Florida’s sounds of nature are legendary: the sea gull cawing high overhead. Lapping waves. Rustling palms. Summer rain pounding on a roof. Frogs at dusk, cicadas at night, and, on occasion, the lonely cry of a boat horn in the distance. And notably, the glorious silence.

Cities, though, are recognized by their own individual sounds as well. Rome can be nearly deafening: honking horns, chaotic traffic and that distinctive post-siesta clatter when shopkeepers roll up their shutters and reopen for business. And don’t forget the constant church bells.

Is Fort Myers audibly distinctive from other cities?

Like Anywhere USA, interior spaces here buzz with the white noise of technology: air conditioning, phones, computers and cheerful muzak for a start. Stores are filled with multiple beeps, bleeps, intercoms and clattering carts.

It doesn’t get any better at home, jampacked with the electric buzz of the latest wizardry of kitchen gadgets, the promise of “silent” appliances, multiple televisions and the neighbor finishing the yardwork.

Outside, cities have a generic acoustic landscape. On the sidewalk the idle chatter of restaurant patrons, cell phone users and pedestrians resonates off hard building frontages of brick and glass. On the street there is the sound of moving vehicles and deliveries — at a variety of volumes dependent on population.

Buildings today are completely reliant on mechanical equipment to provide comfortable indoor environments — here we rely on air conditioning to survive the humidity and heat. The combined result is an unrelenting hum in every direction, generating a very urban experience.

So how is our downtown different? Strolling down the sidewalk, is it possible to establish you are in Fort Myers just by what you hear?

Just listen. The newer brick streets create an atypical cadence of place as cars slowly pass over them. (ba ba ba bump). The canopies that serve to protect business clientele from rain and sun are unique to our downtown and acoustically create chamberlike spaces that intensify sound and often reflect vocal compositions of spirited pedestrians as they pass.

Uniquely, our city breathes with the seasons. The ebb and flow of a seasonal population makes an impact on traffic noises, both vehicular and pedestrian. In addition, ordinarily manageable events like Art Walk and Music Walk swell the acoustics found in here — changing the dynamics by the sheer volume of people and an abundance of music.

Patio de Leon, a traditional urban square, provides a rare oasis from the drama of the street. Small entrances from the street shield it from traditional downtown noises. As one of a number of hidden pedestrian-only places, it becomes like an ancient church or temple — once the only quiet retreat available from hubbub outside.

The intensity of sound disperses near the river. The lack of buildings in this area diffuses the volume. Nature meets urban place and a change in hierarchy results in harmony.

Sound is only one of the many facets of a city and its architecture and can be so much more than just quiet or loud and pleasant or annoying. It can add great value to the experience of the city — but only if you are listening.

Joyce Owens AIA RIBA