Sense of the City: An Alternate Approach to Urbanism

From October 26, 2005 to September 10, 2006, the Canadian Centre for Architecture presents Sense of the City, a major exhibition dedicated to the theme of urban phenomena and perceptions which have traditionally been ignored, repressed or maligned. Challenging the dominance of the visual in the urban environment, the exhibition proposes a rethinking of latent qualities of the city, offering complex analyses of the comforts, communication systems, and sensory dimensions of urban life thus advancing a new spectrum of experience and engagement.

“The most banal and ubiquitous phenomena,” remarked curator and CCA director designate Mirko Zardini, “like asphalt, the second crust of the earth, cacophonies of everyday sounds and smells, competing light effects, manipulation of temperature and climate, heat and cold, the junk and graffiti that disfigure buildings and streets, as well as the subtle, mostly hidden signs of regeneration in the urban environment, will be presented through artefacts and images that collectively suggest the rich array of urban experience and behaviours lying just beyond traditional interpretations of the city.”

The communicative and symbolic character of the contemporary city has until now resided primarily in visual phenomena. Smell has been systematically erased from the urban domain in the name of hygiene, the outcome of a process which had begun by the 14th century. A barrage of electronic sounds and ambient noise today pervades the social space once reserved largely for verbal communication, driving pedestrians and motorists to retreat into controlled personal soundscapes. Tactility is largely unexplored as a means of navigating and understanding the city, while continuous efforts are made to neutralize or conquer variations in temperature. Sense of the City explores overlooked modes of perception, offering a complex analysis of urban phenomena and proposing a new “sensorial” approach to urbanism.

Sense of the City will be presented in five interrelated sections focusing on fundamental sensory conditions and technological interventions in the urban environment: nocturnal city, seasonal city, sound of the city, surface of the city, and air of the city. The materials exhibited will include drawings, photographs, artefacts, maps, printed ephemera, models, installations, videotapes, projections, recorded sounds, and odours.

A catalogue of the same name will accompany the exhibition, co-published by the CCA and Lars Mller Publishers, and edited by Mirko Zardini. Following the thematic structure of the exhibition, the book comprises a critical interpretation of the city through sensory experience. With an introduction by Mirko Zardini and a preface by Phyllis Lambert, the volume features essays by cultural historians Constance Classen and Wolfgang Schivelbusch, anthropologist David Howes, urban designer and planner Norman Pressman, and historian Emily Thompson. In keeping with the synaesthetic and heterogeneous character of the contemporary city, it juxtaposes text and image in a format that is open to multiple readings. Insightfully illustrated with over 400 colour and black and white images, the 350-page catalogue will be published in English and French editions. Available at the CCA Bookstore at a cost of $60.00 CAD, Sense of the City will also be distributed internationally.

A series of six lectures entitled Sensing the City complement the Sense of the City exhibition, proposing new readings of the city and examining the potential for architecture and design in relation to the senses. Sensing the City is presented in collaboration with Concordia University and is curated by David Howes, Director, Concordia Sensoria research team.

October 20, 2005: The great Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer opens the series with "The Sounding City."

October 27, 2005: Cultural historian Constance Classen discusses "The Sensuous City: From the Middle Ages to Modernity."

November 3, 2005: Mark Sussman, theatre artist and performance scholar, presents "Lighting Urban Spectacle: Electric Interventions in Everyday Life."

November 17, 2005: Jean-Pierre Lemasson, professor of urban and tourism studies at UQAM describes "Le got de la ville."

November 24, 2005: Performance art and interdisciplinary practices scholar Jim Drobnick offers "Guarded Breaths: Art and Smell in the [cough] Metropolis."