Sonic Plaza takes shape

For the past couple of years, sights and sounds on the plaza between the east and west buildings of J.Y. Joyner Library at East Carolina University have consisted primarily of those expected on a $30 million construction and renovation project -lots of individuals in hard hats operating lots of heavy equipment, pushing around earth, knocking down walls, moving things, pounding things, constructing things, makings lots of noise, noise, noise.

In the future, the library plaza will be a much quieter place; but still a center of activity, complete with unique sights and sounds. While structures have risen on the east and west sides of this open area, the 300-foot plaza that stretches in-between is also a carefully conceived space. It is the palette for a work of public art with a whole new beat – a sonic plaza.

The work was commissioned by the state under the Artworks for State Buildings program, in place in North Carolina from 1989 to 1995, to “locate public art in places where people gather to live, work, play, or learn,” according to program guidelines from the North Carolina Arts Council. Through this program, artworks were commissioned for new public buildings using one-half on one percent of a building’s construction budget.

The Joyner Library Sonic Plaza consists of four elements designed to “activate the plaza and provide transitions from new to old,” according to Christopher Janney, the project artist. Janney, the internationally known sound artist who has created interactive sound/architecture installations in such public spaces as the Spanish Steps in Rome, the Miami International Airport, subways in Paris and Boston, and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, was on campus recently to oversee installation of part of the project.

The ECU Clock Tower

Trained as an architect and a jazz musician, Janney said the Sonic Plaza will be a good example of architecture and public art working together. “This will make for a public space that is lively and interesting and ever-changing. There won’t be another piece like this anywhere in the world.”

When complete, a new university entrance off 10th Street will lead into the plaza. At this south end, within the circular end of the plaza, students and visitors will encounter Janney’s first element, a Ground Cloud. This 12-foot circle of water mist over a grate will be designed to “dance according to the whim of the wind, at times static, at times furious,” according to Janney. At night, the Cloud will be illuminated with a large beam of polychromatic light coming up from beneath the grate.

Just beyond the Ground Cloud, at the edge of the circular part of the plaza, is the Media Glockenspiel – in an 85-foot, multimedia clock tower. Within the face of this clock tower, 12 feet above the ground, is a circular ring of a dozen, 20-inch video monitors centered around a set of three-foot doors from which various elements will emerge four times a day.

Programming for the video monitors will initially be set by Janney in collaboration with interested students. “For example, one can have images of the sun setting or rising around the world over the course of an evening,” Janney said. After its inauguration, Janney suggests the programming of this element be changed, “experimented with, played with, by interested students under the direction of a faculty adviser.”

From the doors in the center of the clock face, different icons will emerge four times a day. At dawn, an abstraction of a rooster will appear, complete with crowing. At noon, a steam whistle with smoke will kick off the afternoon, followed by a cannon and the sound of cannon fire at the end of the day. “