SARAH VAN SONSBEECK IS NOT A VERY GOOD ARCHITECT, ANNICK KLEIZEN 2011                                        

In fact, though she was trained as one, you can barely call her an architect at all. Her houses just never seem to hold their shape: the walls are fragile, permeable and somewhat ill-defined. Moreover, she makes you aware of their failings – of where sounds leak, the outside world enters and privacy succumbs to the interventions of neighbours. She deconstructs the solidness of the private shelter and lifts the thin veil of privacy.

Sarah van Sonsbeeck works from the inside out: she inhabits and, from that point of view, negotiates her private space. It all started with a letter she wrote to her upstairs neighbours in which she pointed out how much space they took up in her house through their noise, and asked them to pay a corresponding amount of her rent (Letter To My Neighbours, 2010; original Dutch version 2006). This sparked a whole series of studies of her neighbours, both upstairs and on the other side of the street, and resulted in the book Mental Space: How My Neighbours Became Buildings (2010). Although she focuses a lot on silence – or the lack of it – this preoccupation does not spring from a longing for perfect stillness or the total absence of noise. Instead, it has everything to do with determining the relationship between her private space and the world outside it. Hearing her neighbours take off their shoes every night before they go to bed makes them a part of her life; they infiltrate her home. As much as her neighbours enter her world, though, she also enters theirs, staring through their windows, observing them. In Sarah van Sonsbeeck’s work, it is not the inhabitants who communicate but their houses. Their walls and ceilings transmit noises and their façades convey signals. They appear to speak of a human presence that is never visibly there yet that is present nonetheless. She shows this not only as intrusive but also as comforting: though the neighbours’ noises are disturbing at times, they can be assuring as well, a pleasantly familiar part of your daily routine, shaping your personal living space.

In Mental Space: How My Neighbours Became Buildings, Sarah van Sonsbeeck states that your home comprises your living space plus your view; it extends beyond your house. While living in the silent centre of the city of Mönchengladbach for a couple of months and making this place her home, she focused on her view. Not only did the weather and the cars in the adjacent parking lot seem to respond to her mood. By opening and closing their pivot window, the neighbours on the other side of the street seemed to send her the message ‘Keep up the good work!’ By capturing these fleeting moments, she extends their encouraging message of wordless communication. In the same vein, she also ‘collects’ personal experiences and situations (not necessarily her own) that touch on similar issues. Like the moment in São Paolo for example, where buses driving over a loose manhole cover – almost inaudible among the many noises on the busy road – kept an old man who lived beside the road awake.Sarah van Sonsbeeck’s work is two-sided: on the one hand, she tries to define, defend and extend private space; on the other, she simultaneously reveals the impossibility and perhaps even undesirability of doing so. A case in point is when she tried to contain one cubic meter of silence on an as yet undeveloped plot of land near the De Paviljoens Museum in the rapidly developing new town of Almere. One night the reinforced glass cube was smashed with a stone by a local youth. She embraced this vandalizing act and renamed the work One Cubic Meter of Broken Silence (2009). Instead of preserving the increasingly rare silence – which, strictly speaking, because of the rustling reeds and chirping insects, was no silence at all – the focus of the work shifted to contact (however violent), interaction and communication. Working on what she calls the ‘right to silence’, she made a tent out of Faraday fabric that shields the person inside from all electromagnetic signals, and thus from all visible [invisible?] and inaudible noise. The tent becomes a portable personal space that you can take with you wherever you go, and, though the fabric is very thin, it definitely does not keep audible noises out. It may be a shelter, therefore, but only to a certain degree.

Reading about ambient noises and silence, I came across a musical score that strikingly illustrates Sarah van Sonsbeeck’s concerns[1]

The Building of a Silence
Build a left wall with a drum roll (half a minute)
Build a right wall with a din, a downtown car / street car horn,
     voices and screeches (half a minute)
Build a floor with a gurgling of water in pipes (half a minute)
Build a ceiling terrace with chirp chirp chirp srschirp of sparrows
and swallows (20 seconds)

In this score, as in Sarah van Sonsbeeck’s work, the interior space is shaped by what surrounds it. Van Sonsbeeck often mentions that at architecture school, the ideal home had no neighbours; it was an isolated building, an intricate structure of designed volumes and spaces. Her work, in contrast, focuses on the thin permeable line between interior and exterior – without concern for the façade. This detour brings her to an investigation of the more immaterial side of architecture in which she emphasizes all the small elements that determine how we live in our homes, the things the architect cannot control. She stresses these elements and designs shields against them, but also welcomes the unpredictable and reveals the minute but intimate relationships between people who don’t necessarily know each other. In short, Sarah van Sonsbeeck practises architecture after all, but of the immaterial – though no less fundamental – kind.


1)    The Building of a Silence (La costruzione di un silenzio) is part of a series of five scores written by the controversial founder of the Futurist movement Filippo Marinetti in the 1930s, called Cinque Sintesi Radiofoniche. Found in: Kevin Concannon, ‘Cut and Paste: Collage and the Art of Sound’ in: Sound by Artists, Toronto: Art Metropole and Walter Phillips Gallery, 1990, online at: (last accessed: June 2011). The original date when these scores were written is unclear.