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"In Place: Paradeplatz"

Zürich, Switzerland

May 10, 2013
8:00–20:00


The eighth intervention of the "In Place" series. The tram station in the photo above is the vortex of the square.

"When I arrive at Paradeplatz early in the morning, the sound of the trams pulling laboriously into the square disorients me. I walk around aimlessly for a few minutes, trying to find a good place to start my long day here. I decide to sit down on one of the four benches in an alcove just northwest of the square. Several trees surround a large fountain. Three strokes of the bells from the Fraumünster church waft heavily over the morning air. Delivery trucks fill the area around the fountain and benches. With loud clanks of metal the trucks' doors burst open and delivery men noisily roll dollies of food over the cobblestones to the restaurants behind me. A terrific whack signals three men dropping a prodigious cardboard tube onto the street from their truck. All the birds scatter from the trees like a bomb went off. The men then huff and puff as they slowly extract a large carpet from the tube. The manager of the Savoy hotel appears and shows the men where to bring the carpet. He then commences to loudly harangue the hotel's window washer, his voice gravelly and rough. The manager decides to show the window washer how to do his job and climbs a tall aluminum ladder. It rattles loudly as he ascends and takes a squeegee to the windows, squeaking and squealing as he draws rubber across glass. The birds still haven't reappeared, or if they have I can't hear them any longer.

Without warning a long clear tone, something between a bell and an air raid siren, fills Paradeplatz. This goes on for several minutes but I can't locate the source. It seems to fall from the sky like the contours of some immense auricular light capping the area. The tone melts away as instantaneously as it had appeared, like the tide going out and leaving the area to its own sounds: the restful burble of water into the fountain from two spigots; the birds chirping merrily again in the trees; the arriving and departing trams vibrating the ground beneath my feet.

Every three to four minutes a tram enters or leaves Paradeplatz, traveling in one of six different directions. The old trams signal their arrival from afar. They creak and groan under the weight of so much aching steel, with so many people aboard coming to start their work day in one of the banks or stores here around the square. Sometimes these old trams sound broken. Tragic wounded mechanical creatures limping into the square. They squeal to a stop and lurch like a bag of shattered pieces of steel when they leave again. The newer trams glide almost noiselessly to and from their stops. Their doors open with a precision whoosh to street level, affording their passengers an effortless exit or entrance. The older trams spill out their mechanical steps with a loud snap and people struggle to navigate them, heels clanking and knocking, baby carriages hoisted up high, sometimes getting stuck and parents cursing under their breath as they try to extract themselves.

Not far away at the lakeside end of the Bahnhofstrasse lies a harbor, home to Zürich's fleet of ships. I'm pleasantly surprised when the deep, forlorn tone of an old steamer's air horn shoots down the Bahnhostrasse and ricochets around Paradeplatz. This sound from the past totally surprises me. I feel transported back one hundred years to the time of this ship's construction and see the square then, filled with the sound of horses pulling rattling wagons behind them as their hooves clip-clop across the cobblestones. The high-rev caterwaul of a sports car's engine from the Talackerstrasse at the western end of the square brutally jerks me back to the present and calls to mind that I'm at the epicenter of Switzerland's financial industry and luxury shopping, though it is still far too early for any of the stores or banks to open their doors.

A scooter driven by a man in orange overalls hurtles to a stop not far in front of me. He walks over to the fountain with some tools and, with the turn of a spigot beneath the basin, sets about draining all the water away. The loud rush of water surging away beneath the fountain becomes the focus of my thoughts. With the fountain empty, the man takes a hose and sprays down the area with a high pressure stream of water sizzling across the stone. And to top it all off he now gets a brush and vigorously scrubs the inner surface of the fountain. The birds decamp once again amidst all this noisy commotion. The man packs his tools and speeds away down the Bahnhofstrasse, shifting loudly through his scooter's gears.

I decide to finally venture out into the middle of Paradeplatz, which is nothing more than a tarmac island surrounded by a network of steel rails. A small structure in the middle of the square houses a ticket office, a public bathroom and two kiosks. I take a seat on one of the benches at the western end of the square. The dogged incursion of trams squeaking across their rails in varying degrees of resistance submerses me in a hypnotic maelstrom of more or less unbroken sound. Unlike when I arrived, the trams don't seem too loud now, and after not too long I hardly notice them at all. It is only when for a brief moment that either no tram is arriving or departing that I remember their movement. These brief lapses produce something more akin to a sudden low pressure zone than a silence. It feels as if the bottom has dropped out of Paradeplatz, that its very substance hangs together with this continuous flow of tram traffic. The ground no longer rumbles, no old steel wheels squall across their tracks. Just the low mutter of voices and footsteps across the pavement. As short as these gaps of relative silence actually are they seem in their magnitude to last an eternity. As the day progresses I look forward greedily to the next hole in time and a break from the unforgiving circulation of the city's public transportation.

The morning wears on, bright sunlight fills Paradeplatz. The arriving trams are full of people on their way to work. The passengers disembark but hardly anyone is talking. Even the cell phones don't ring. Perhaps everyone is just lost in their thoughts, contemplating the long day ahead of them. The stores roll up their metal window shades, throw open their doors. Some Chinese tourists make their entry, huddling together and slowly meandering from one end of the square to another. Their voices rise above the surrounding sounds, a language so foreign to this square, overshadowing the soft, melodic swells of Swiss German. As I move around Paradeplatz I also hear French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German and English. A constellation of different nationalities orbits within the boundaries set by the rhythm of the trams.

I take a seat on one of the benches in front of the ticket office. A young boy plays a game on his phone. Tiny blips and beeps subvert my train of thought, competing for their space against the warning bell from a tram nearly running over a pedestrian. These large and small sounds create a tension, my consciousness veering between fore- and background, pushing and pulling. In this rising swell of sound, the bells from the Fraumünster church have all but disappeared. Only with the greatest of effort can I make them out at all now.

Around midday Paradeplatz fills with people and everyone seems to be chatting with each other, talking on their phones, yelling across the square to friends, laughing. A brief respite from the day's work, people are eager to start their lunch. The two restaurants behind the fountain now fill with diners enjoying the warm weather. I hear the clink of glasses and of silverware striking porcelain. A strong wind surges through the trees overhead but try as I might I can't hear the rustling of the leaves. Occasionally, the loud cries of some birds pierce the mass of sound but for the most part I can't detect them. The lunch hour marks a new density of sound on the square. I see myself moving through an infinite field of resonating sound, layer upon layer, a high pressure zone yielding only with considerable resistance as I wander from one end of the square to another. And then, before I know it, the square empties out again, like the water draining out of the fountain earlier this morning. A massive black hole has replaced the sea of voices. I practically lose my equilibrium in this sudden tectonic rift of sound. The sun beats down mercilessly now and I seek some shade under the roof of one of the kiosks. Sitting on a bench there I hover on the verge of sleep as tendrils of heat rise languidly around me and the trams make their way relentlessly around the square. Even the tourists seem to have lost their voices now.

Under the blazing white light and scorching heat of the late afternoon sun, all sound on the square seems distorted and louder than in the cool shade of the morning hours. The rails sound like they're being torn from the ground by each tram rolling by. Every ringing cell phone pierces the air like an ice pick to my ears. I've taken refuge from the heat again under the eaves of the ticket office. Yet, even here sounds settle around me like blasts of white noise. I must be more tired than I thought. I feel the blood pumping ruthlessly in my temples. I hear my own pulse, beating like a crazed drummer keeping time to the cavalcade of sounds vying for my attention.

As the sun sinks over the buildings in the west I decide to make my way out onto the square again. Clots of tourists stand everywhere. I hear Chinese at all points on the square. Again a cool wind blows benevolently through the square and all sound diminishes in the sweep of this soothing draught of air. I keep walking around and around the square, spatializing the mix of sounds in a slow arc from one end to another. People are starting to leave their places of work, waiting for a tram to take them home or out somewhere for the evening. Like at midday the energy of Paradeplatz surges, the sound level rises. The stress of the day evaporates in this sea of voices and the cool, long shadows cast from the buildings as the sun retires below the horizon. Walking away to where I've parked my bike, I hear for the last time today the bells of the Fraumünster church, resonating on the breeze and settling like a gentle veil over Paradeplatz as evening falls."

 

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