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Sound walls are everywhere, yet we tend not to notice them. Indifferent to our attention, they are –  by design – aesthetically mute. Intended to contain road noise caused by motor vehicles traveling at high speeds, these extruded lines frame the rural, suburban, and urban landscapes through which they course, circumscribing both sound and vision. Given the increasing discursive and physical presence of walls, we would do well to consider the ways in which this quintessentially American piece of infrastructure – born alongside the postwar suburb, freeway, and automobile – orients and orchestrates how we see and move by virtue of the apparent evacuation of design (that is, no design).

As of 2016, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) had documented the construction of 3,263 linear miles of sound walls along US highways. [1] Simple and cost efficient, sound walls are a utilitarian solution to practical problems: they protect non-drivers, including wildlife, from traffic noise while also shielding pedestrians from unwanted views of the road. Sound walls also raise questions for designers at a time when the dominant stylistic tendencies, defined by the mutually enabling poles of formal expressionism and minimalism, are so noisy. How much is too much design? At what point do the means overwhelm the ends? Can design self-consciously evacuate itself of its very charge?
Sound wall designers respond to these questions by creating environments that are both variable and restrained. Sound walls cannot become so monotonous that they endanger drivers by inducing tunnel vision – leading to drowsiness or sleep – yet they cannot become so expressive as to be a distraction. To function, sound walls must be both linear and discontinuous, as well as accord with the aesthetic values and sensibilities of neighboring communities. They should be neither seen nor heard on either side. 
 
What would it mean for architects to consider the “noise” of their work? And how might we evaluate the volume of contemporary architectural aesthetics, or even political rhetoric, in an age in which the loudest voice always seems to win? 

NOTES ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓

[1] FHWA highway noise regulations require each state highway agency to maintain inventory of all constructed noise abatement measures. This data shows that, between 1963 (when the FHWA noise program began) and 2016, 48 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico built 247,567,044 square feet of barriers, with total construction costs of $7.44 billion and an average barrier height of 14 feet. California did not report data between 1999 and 2004, and only provided limited data between 2005 and 2007. Nevertheless, California’s reported noise barriers make up 16% of US noise barriers by area and 19% by length, numbers that would surely rise with more complete information. See FHWA, "Summary of Noise Barriers Constructed by December 31, 2016."

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