Jason Kahn 
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"In Place: Röntgenplatz"

Zürich, Switzerland

April 22, 2013

The seventh intervention of the "In Place" series. In the photo above a quiet moment on the square.

"The sound of bulky steel objects rasping across concrete greets me as I arrive at Röntgenplatz this cold, windy and wet morning. Two city workers are in the process of removing one of the three large picnic tables normally left on this large square of gravel. A group of school kids sits on the other tables, their animated voices blown every which way by the wind. As the bells from St. Joseph's church ring eight o'clock, the kids scurry away to make it in time for their first class of the morning. I take a seat at one of the tables situated under a metal shelter installed on one corner of the square. Light rain dances down softly and I shiver in the cold morning air.

The clamor of construction work one street away in the Quellenstrasse dominates the area. Bulldozers, steamrollers and the insistent banging of pickaxes, shovels and hammers cuts through the morning air. In the Fabrikstrasse a team of workers disassembles five stories' worth of metal scaffolding. I catch snatches of Italian, Spanish and Swiss German filling the street. At first I'm a bit dismayed by all these voices from the construction sites but steadily other sounds come into focus around me. St. Joseph's bells signal the first quarter hour after eight o'clock and the rain stops. I move out from under the shelter and walk around the square.

Five streets empty into Röntgenplatz, which once upon a time was a very busy knot of traffic until the local residents petitioned the city to close the intersection and have it paved over. It now serves as a meeting point for the area. Each street opens up to another source of sound. As I slowly walk around the square I pass different nodes of sound driving towards me like thick currents of air, more or less evident depending on the fervor of construction work.

To the south, the Zürich main train station's yard hosts an unremitting procession of trains ambling slowly by. The sound of freight trains rattles and creaks across the wind. The newer passenger trains roll by nearly inaudibly and it seems I can only guess at their sound as I watch them. To the west, more trains pass along an old stone viaduct. With the right direction of wind and a pause in construction work I am just able to hear their wheels rolling heavily over the rails. A bit further beyond the viaduct an interminable column of traffic rolls sluggishly across the Hardbrücke, well out of earshot. In my mind I can hear the pandemonium of countless engines and horns and low bass rumble resonating through the bridge as the traffic grinds its way in and out of the city.

To the east of Röntgenplatz trams trudge wearily up and down the Limmatstrasse. The newer trams move soundlessly, the older ones grind painfully across the rails. About the only sound I don't hear is that of traffic. The odd car drives past the square, either lost in the tight network of streets or searching hopelessly for a place to park. With a loud crash, what sounds like a waterfall of breaking glass tears the morning air apart, momentarily obliterating the sound of construction work. A bit further up the Fabrikstrasse a large truck empties out glass recycling bins into its trailer. Thousands of bottles smash against the hard steel of the truck's trailer. All the birds fly away. A baby in a carriage begins to scream. A dog yelps, scampering between its owner's legs. And then in a flash everything is back to normal. Slowly the birds return and I can hear them singing again. The construction workers put down their tools and tromp back to their work shed, temporarily erected on the northeast corner of Röntgenplatz. Their bulky work boots crunch loudly across the gravel covering the square. It's ten a.m. and some office workers arrive for their morning break. The smell of cigarettes and coffee pervades the square.

It occurs to me now that I've entirely forgotten about the bells from St. Joseph's. In their regularity they've all but subsided completely. Only when I really concentrate on their reappearance can I hear them dolefully pealing out the day's progression. With the brief respite from construction work I can now more clearly hear the trains rolling in and out of Zürich main station. From a supermarket on the southeast corner of the Rötngenplatz I can just make out the small electronic bleeps from its two cash registers. Four flagpoles stand in front of the supermarket. Metal hooks affixed to the ropes running their height clink melodically in the wind against the poles. The postman arrives, riding his yellow scooter. Its two-stroke engine obliterates all the more subtle sounds in the area. Valves and pistons hammer away at each other as the postman makes his way from mailbox to mailbox in front of each apartment house on the square. And by now the construction workers have finished their break and move in a line back across the gravel towards their machines and tools. One worker climbs in a timeworn steamroller parked in the Josephstrasse. Its mammoth diesel engine sparks to life and fills the air with sound waves so low that it seems I feel them before actually I hear them. Pungent diesel exhaust fumes close like a dark curtain over the square.

The rain starts again, this time in earnest. I run for cover under the metal shelter. Ear-pummeling drops of water smash down on the roof, reminding me of a group of kids spraying me with pea shooters. An old man pulls up behind me on his bike. He takes out a can of beer from his bike's basket and sits down at the other table. With a loud, satisfying pop he opens the beer. He takes a long swig from the can and lets loose an enormous burp, which momentarily rivals the rain as loudest sound in the area. I'm shivering now in the cold. The sound of my teeth chattering provides a syncopated counterpoint to the raindrops. I briefly enjoy these excruciating rhythms but I don't like being cold. Before long, the rain lets up. To get my blood running again, I leave the shelter of the roof and move slowly around Röntgenplatz.

I walk around the perimeter of the square, enjoying the sensation of each street's runnel of sound competing for my perception. At each street's entrance I pass through a low pressure zone. The air opens up and sounds from further down that street funnel back to me as I trace the circumference of the square at a leisurely gait. At eleven a.m. the bells from St. Joseph's continue on for many minutes after ringing the hour. They compete with the jack hammers, which do their best to keep pace with a bulldozer digging up the Quellenstrasse. A delivery truck parks in front of the supermarket and sounds its air horn. A platform opens from the back of its trailer and whines loudly as it lowers to ground level, laden with boxes holding many glass bottles tinkling from the movement. Magnificently now the sun appears. I shade my eyes from the blinding white light. The warmth feels good.

It's now midday. School kids fill Röntgenplatz again, making their way home for lunch. The construction workers put down their tools and turn off the engines to their vehicles. In the sunlight now everyone seems happy. Birds singing, kids laughing, a bicycle bell sounds warning as its rider moves too quickly across the gravel. I take a seat on one of the benches in front of the supermarket and eat my lunch. The benches slowly fill with people. Inside the supermarket the cash registers beep furiously as long lines of shoppers wait to purchase their groceries. The smell of sausage frying in the construction workers' shed on the square wafts across the air. Birds chirp at my feet as they scurry after crumbs of bread thrown to them by people eating. I hear people talking and laughing all around me.

A brief window of time exists between when everyone has left Röntgenplatz after their lunch break and when the construction workers have gone back to work again. An oppressive vacuum of near silence fills the air. Even the birds have stopped singing. I slowly navigate my way around the square. I hear people talking somewhere in the air above me. Looking up I see two women on a balcony. Their voices spiral down like thin smoke. A whirring sound slowly creeps across my field of hearing. I walk around the square twice before I discover its source: someone tidying up their apartment with a vacuum cleaner. Its nasal drawl undulates lightly, barely making itself heard above the city's deep drone.

I now move to the center of the square, allowing all these small sounds to mix together, phasing in and out with streams of light wind blowing from the different streets, all of which used to converge at the point I'm standing at now. With a rain of shouts and what sounds like an avalanche of boulders slamming into the ground, the construction work begins again. The balance of sound across the square now hangs unevenly, pulled by the severe blows and shouts and the whirring racket of machinery to my left in the Quellenstrasse. I take a seat on one of the stone benches facing southeast across the square. In the street behind me a Sri Lankan food market does brisk business. I hear music from Bollywood films, loud haggling and the battered door to the market swinging back and forth in the wind. For one fleeting moment, the delicious smell of exotic spices curls enticingly in the air.

Following the sun's trajectory around the square, I sit down once more on a bench in front of the supermarket. It's late afternoon. Kids appear again, coming home from school. Some stop to play, scattering around the area with their bikes and soccer balls. The number of cyclists crossing the square increases now too. Their bells ring in the air, prompting the kids to get out of the way. A group of mothers and babies arrives at the picnic tables. The mothers talk excitedly, the babies cry. The sun blazes down bright and strong. Scores of pigeons and sparrows peck around the gravel on Röntgenplatz, looking for crumbs. The beautiful fluttering sound of a flock of birds taking flight suddenly fills my ears. Voices talking from a radio sprinkle down across the square from an apartment's open windows.

The construction workers call it a day. Their voices fill Röntgenplatz. People sit at every bench, at every picnic table. Bikes whir this way and that, gears changing, bells ringing, brakes howling. Avoiding a near collision, a bike rider cries, “Sorry!” A soccer ball smacks against the wall of an apartment building, then lands with a loud splash in the fountain on the northwest corner of the square. Someone calls my name. It's my friend Edward. He asks me what I'm doing and I tell him, “Working.” He laughs and waves goodbye. And I'm surprised at how strange my own voice sounds. It seems like a good moment to go home. The bells of St. Joseph's ring out seven times."