Making Sense of the City

Text David Theodore

Mirko Zardini wants you to wake up and smell the coffee. And the grass. And the garbage. Heck, smell everything you can! At the exhibition Sense of the City, the ebullient new Director of Montreal’s Canadian Centre for Architecture is on a mission to make smell, taste, touch and hearing vital factors in city design. Zardini wants architects to apply their senses to today’s critical social, political and ecological issues.

Sense of the City approaches human perception through the animal kingdom. Giant wall graphics of cats, rats and bats proclaim the sensory capacities of animals, arguing that animals perceive the world differently from humans. By extension, we are encouraged to imagine that no two human beings perceive reality in the same way. Finally, we must ponder our perceptions: what’s the significance of the city’s sensorial qualities?

Paradoxically, this desire to explore non-visual perception results in an extremely elegant, eye-catching exhibition. Architects Atelier In Situ and graphic designers Orange Tango arrange the CCA’s five main galleries according to five themes: nocturnal city, seasonal city, sound of the city, surface of the city, and air of the city. It’s a self-assured presentation, graced by subdued and precise lighting by New York-based Linnaea Tillett, but perhaps too stark and too stylish to really fire up the non-visual senses. There are some glass vials of synthetic scents to sniff, but visual documents–photographs, magazine covers, video clips, paintings, wall text and graphics–still dominate. “If you can smell a little bit of garbage, listen to a little bit of noise, see a label that says ‘Please Touch,’ all of those will give a little bit of change,” says Zardini.

The encyclopedic catalogue, too, designed by publisher Lars Mller, is a dazzling potpourri of decisively visual excitement swirling around often familiar ideas. Lawyer-turned-anthropologist David Howes, Director of the University of Concordia Sensoria Research Team, summarizes the sensory turn in scholarship related to the “architecture of the senses.” Howes talks about familiar figures from Jane Jacobs and Witold Rybczinski to Michel Foucault, relating their ideas to a broader overview of the senses in geography, history, philosophy and anthropology.

Not all of the senses get equal treatment, and sometimes the show only skims the surface. For instance, the catalogue essay by sociologist Constance Classen on the Deodorized City passes too quickly from 1357 to 2004. Historian Emily Thompson’s exploration of the sound of 20th-century Manhattan makes sense. But the exhibition’s attempt to present Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer’s sounds of the city project is strangely hushed. There are some headphones playing his Vancouver soundscape, but otherwise sound is presented through graphs and pictures.

Once you get used to the paradox, the show has a lot to offer. The Seasonal City takes a different tack, looking at how Nordic cities are designed for a constant temperate climate–as if the seasons never change. Trucks clear winter snow as it covers the streets, and air-conditioned office towers overpower the summer sun. University of Waterloo-based urbanist Norman Pressman contributes a systematic essay on planning principles for “winterness,” but the focus is on images of winter. There are romantic photographs of wintry Montreal, and a photo-and-text essay by CCA Prints and Drawings Curator Pierre-douard Latouche on ice palaces at Montreal’s well known 19th-century winter carnival. Famously, these grandiose temporary inhabitable pavilions were designed by A.C. Hutchison, who worked on Ottawa’s Parliament Buildings and who designed Montreal’s Redpath Museum.

Most effective is the way Sense of the City questions the modernist idea that reality needs cleaning. Zardini calls this mode of thinking “hygienic.” The argument goes that city-makers ignore the specific sensual characteristics of environments and instead try to launder them–a cleanliness that leads to positive effects but also to an impoverishment of sensorial experience. He explores this conundrum himself by studying asphalt. City designers originally used asphalt for pedestrian surfaces, he explains, but quickly expanded its applications because of its vaunted ability to control dust and noise. “Imagine the noise from horses pulling wood and steel carriages down cobblestone roads,” says Zardini, “and how quiet the asphalt streets would be in contrast.”

When asked about the paucity of traditional architectural drawings in the show, Zardini points to a couple of small but significant sketches created by Cedric Price for his entry in the 1999 CCA Ideas Competition for the Design of Cities. Peter Eisenman won the competition with an innovative warped surface park covering west Manhattan–one of the first major proposals exploring a digitally designed, undulating urban topography. Price suggested instead selective demolition to allow for the possibility of wind and the movement of fresh air over the entire site. “You can understand a completely different strategy between Price and Eisenman,” opines Zardini. “If I had to make a choice between the megastructures and the lung, my choice is completely on the side of Cedric Price.”

But Zardini is no ideologue. So instead of a revolutionary manifesto, the show and its accompanying catalogue comprise a gentle “alternative approach” to urbanism. “It’s not about giving contemporary architects ways to come up with new forms, but rather about changing their attitudes,” says Zardini. The point is to make architects take responsibility not just for architecture, but for the city. And not just the visual form of the city, but its sensual character. “Architects do not do enough to give citizens and cities what they deserve,” says Zardini. We [architects] have a responsibility to offer a better built environment, not only a nicer building.”

The CCA is an important leader in the study of architecture and urbanism in Canada. Its shows, renowned for their thorough scholarship and elegant designs, have worldwide impact. So Sense of the City, Zardini’s inaugural exhibition as Director, is a crucial showcase for his vision–or is it his taste?–of what architecture, cities, and the CCA should be. He believes the general public already understands the point; his target audience–the people he really wants to convince–are architects. “The star system is a nightmare, and the blob and computer influence–the creation of spectacular forms–is not a new direction in architecture,” says Zardini. “We need to look at the future in a different way.”

Sense of the City continues until September 10, 2006.

David Theodore is a Research Associate and College Lecturer at McGill University’s School of Architecture.