Within only a few days of moving to San Francisco’s Outer Richmond I found myself attached to the sounds of the foghorns. Falling asleep and waking up to their melodies brought a sense of comfort and the spacious Pacific Ocean. From research I learned their sounds had changed and homogenized over time and in step with technological advancement and the city’s development. As technology changed, so did the sounds of the foghorns and every transition inspired dozens of letters to the editor from the public. Some mourned the loss of the two-tone foghorn and others welcomed the change. Because the public demonstrated a passionate relationship to their aesthetic over a the 20th century and into the 21st, I came to think of the SF foghorns as public art; I questioned why I found them, as they sounded in the 2000s, so comforting.
Moving back home to Vermont I became curious about bells and bell towers. The ringing of bells can unify a community around a message; historically bells dictated singular point-of-view and established priorities. In the 21st century bell towers often don’t house bells but instead project digital recordings of bell sounds through electric speakers. While great efforts have been made to restore and return bells to their iconic towers it’s likely the restored bell no longer rings. What are communities both holding onto and letting go as they celebrate their silent bells?
Most of the bells we hear today are notifications from our mobile devices or computers. They alert of us of something individual, not communal, and of our personal schedules. The contrast between these personal bells and the once unifying civic ringing bell is curious.
How might we rethink the hierarchical architecture of the bell tower? How might we reconfigure its tradition of contracting, ascending and assimilating to a singular point? What if we opened it up, flattened it out and allowed more space for a sundry of messages to come in? What if our structures stopped talking and started listening?