Sense of the City
Kenny, Nicolas, Urban History Review
Sense of the City
Canadian Centre for Architecture, 1920 rue Baile, Montreal
26 October 2005 to 10 September 2006
As visitors first step into the latest exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), the senses are immediately aroused. We are drawn through a dark and narrow tunnel and, before our eyes can adjust, the sounds of a railway station, with trains pulling up to and leaving platforms and announcers calling out the next departures in various languages, immediately evoke the constant movement of city life. A small screen tells us that one minute we are in Cologne, the next in Lille, and thus, with eyes squinting and ears alert, begins a sensorial voyage through urban space. Questioning assumptions is the primary objective of "Sense of the City," curated by the CCA's recently appointed director, architect, and scholar Mirko Zardini, who wants to inspire visitors to think differently about how they experience their urban environment. Zardini reminds us that although the visual has always been privileged in urban dwellers' conception, design, and interaction with their milieu, cities also stimulate the other senses in a multitude of ways. A more pronounced appreciation of how we touch, hear, smell, and perhaps even taste the city, argues this exhibition, will not only lead us to a fuller, more balanced understanding of our habitat, but will also encourage us to formulate new claims for an environment planned with greater sensitivity to our fundamentally, though oft-neglected, corporeal relationship with urban space.
Noting that even our traditional breakdown of the senses into five categories is a western construction dating back to Aristotle, and that some researchers have detected up to seventeen different senses, the exhibition challenges even our most basic assumptions. To keep things manageable, the exhibition focuses on the familiar quintet, and because the point is to underscore its hegemony, sight is the first sense considered. But here the perspective is switched to what we don't see. The emphasis is on the nocturnal city, and black images of night-time cityscapes demonstrate the political and social implications of a widespread urban planning philosophy, which, in the 20th century, has erroneously equated more street lamps with greater personal safety. As an advertising poster for the Joe Torre Safe at Home Foundation makes devastatingly clear, however, a dim Manhattan back street can be a far safer place than a brightly lit but abusive private home.
The following room, particularly geared to Montrealers, explores the effect of snow on the urban system. Although the 19th-century Canadian metropolis was one of the first cities to seize the potential of marketing the winter to tourists, the utopian vision of post-war planning soon caught up, and Montreal, as with many of its northern counterparts, has sought to rid the urban environment of perceived nuisances such as snow and ice. The transcriptions of related municipal by-laws on the museum walls emphasize the point that bureaucratic regulations have sought to eliminate such perfectly natural aspects of the environment as darkness and cold, leading only to unpreparedness and bafflement when disasters, like the ice storm of 1998, do strike.
Municipal administrations have also led a war against noise, and as we continue the visit, we are confronted with the "soundscape" of cities such as New York and Vancouver, the latter having been recorded by the composer Murray Schafer. Here again, the exhibition explains that the meaning of the urban landscape is more than visual, that despite policies promoting noise reduction, sounds are a defining aspect of the urban experience. With a little goodwill, the introductory caption suggests, we might hear anew the "forgotten sounds of nature" and the "myriad languages that are increasingly spoken, shouted and whispered in our cities. …