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Exhibit review: "Sense of the City"


Published December 21, 2005 at 5:00 a.m.

If you've ever wondered how urban critters experience their environment, Montreal's Canadian Centre for Architecture is offering a chance to find out. Its current exhibition, "Sense of the City," encourages visitors to rely less on sight and take things in more as a rat, bat or dog might. And that is but one of the aims of the show, curated by the CCA's new director, architect Mirko Zardini. According to press material, "Sense of the City" is "dedicated to the theme of urban phenomena and perceptions which have traditionally been ignored, repressed, or maligned." It proposes "a re-thinking of the latent qualities of the city" and advances "a new spectrum of experience and engagement." Does the exhibit deliver on these promises? Well, it comes close.

It's said that we Homo sapiens perceive the world 80 percent through our eyes. This exhibition attempts to tip the balance in favor of the other senses -- some authorities claim we have 17 -- so we might emulate the animals who share our urban spaces.

A darkened hallway at the show's entrance helps prepare visitors for the change of perceptions. Sight becomes nearly useless -- a surprising sensation in a museum setting, where vision typically reigns supreme. Oversized animal silhouettes on the walls of the first room temporarily shift the focus back to seeing -- that is, reading blurbs about how various animals' perceptions differ from our own. Rats and cats hear more sensitively than we do, for instance; dogs are much better equipped to sniff out the nuances of an odoriferous city sidewalk. While we might panic in a dark alley, a bat would feel quite at home.

The changing nature of the nocturnal city provides the theme for the next room. When we think of the city at night, lights quickly come to mind. As much as we now take electricity for granted, it's a recent phenomenon, historically speaking, and one that has allowed our senses of smell and hearing to grow sluggish.

What happens when the lights go out, as they did during the 2003 blackout in North America? Not what one might have expected, the exhibition reminds us. The night New York City went dark, the crime free-for-all many anticipated didn't materialize. The reason: Lots of people were in the streets. Light doesn't offer safety unless people are drawn into it -- a line of thinking pursued in experiments such as one in Brooklyn pitting harsh "anti-crime" lighting against less bright but more pleasing illumination.

In addition to chronicling the 2003 power outage, the Nocturnal City room features canvasses of the city during World War II curfew blackouts, and more artistic renderings of various cities after dark by such famous photographic "nightwalkers" as John Gossage, Berenice Abbott and Brassaï. A subway map in Braille and an "audiotactile" tourist guide to Bologna, Italy, further emphasize sightless means of navigating the urban environment.

The next room focuses on the Seasonal City, specifically during winter. During the cold months many of us complain a lot; others flee for more hospitable climes. Ah, but that's the wrong attitude! The problem is, even those of us geographically positioned to fully appreciate the four seasons often believe in the "myth of a weatherless society," the exhibition tells us. Instead of seeking a "greater understanding of the limitations and opportunities inherent in weather conditions," we prefer "to eliminate winter and summer except as purely aesthetic experiences."

Illustrations of fanciful ice palaces and mazes from the 19th century underscore this contemporary lack of winter imagination. Photographs of ice structures from the 2004 Snow Show in Lapland offer new inspiration -- that is, if you're inspired by such projects as a penal colony made from 800 huge blocks of ice. That was designed, by the way, by Yoko Ono and Japanese architect Arata Isozaki. How artsy ice constructions relate to the practicalities of surviving winter is left a bit vague. But videos, complete with roaring sound, of urban snow removal do snap one back to reality.

Winter celebrations -- such as Montreal's own High Lights Festival -- seem intended to recapture some of that old-fashioned winter spirit without pushing us modern wimps too far outside our comfort zones. Facing several months of winter, I would have been interested in seeing creative examples of how other cities foster joie de vivre when the weather outside is frightful.

The Sounds of the City room is arguably the highlight of this exhibition, because it best fulfills the curator's goal of nudging our perceptions away from the visual. Here, after a quick perusal of the wall texts, you can settle into one of the big, white seating pods, clamp on a headset, close your eyes and simply listen.

Unfortunately, the "One Minute Vacations," recorded in various cities around the world, seemed to be on vacation itself the day I visited. But both "Soundscape Vancouver," directed by Canadian composer R. Murray Shafer, and Francisco Lopez's "Buildings (New York)" provided fascinating, out-of-context urban symphonies. These included everything from the hum of elevators and HVAC systems to lapping water, chimes and boat horns.

The exhibition argues that as digital devices replace machines, the city is actually growing quieter, allowing us -- if we come out from under our iPods -- to notice once again "repressed and forgotten sounds." Or inane cellphone chatter, as the case may be.

It's obvious that environmental soundscapes are heavily influenced by the materials with which they're constructed. One of the exhibition's strengths, however, is the way it calls attention to urban phenomena that seem too mundane to merit serious study.

Take asphalt. We spend a good portion of our lives traversing it, yet do we ever pause to imagine what our cities would be like without it? Asphalt's smooth surface not only changed the sound of cities -- no more bumping over cobblestones -- but revolutionized hygiene. Not so long ago cities were very dirty places. Asphalt's cheapness helped pave the way, so to speak. And "Sense of the City" suggests that the asphalt revolution is not over. Innovative examples of how color-coated asphalt is used in Europe -- both to decorate surfaces and to codify them for multiple uses -- made me wonder why it's taken so long for us to think outside the gray box.

The final section of the exhibition, Air in the City, encourages the visitor to stop and smell -- but not the roses. More like the subway, the rain, the bakery and the garbage. I'm a smell-challenged individual, so the bottled scents were lost on me, perhaps fortunately. "Vile!" I heard someone exclaim after he'd uncorked the "garbage" bottle. "Like a heap of rotten celery," my museum companion decided. Having stepped in dog poop just before we entered the museum, he added yet another authentic urban aroma to the mix.

Like asphalt, air-conditioning has such a ubiquitous presence in urban life that we overlook its enormous significance. But just try to imagine, say, skyscrapers without it. While the concept of air-conditioning is not new, technological advances have both transformed architecture and changed the nature of the air we breathe. Nowadays, interior urban spaces are so bereft of olfactory interest that artificial odors are pumped into places such as shopping malls, just to spice up the sterile air.

Ultimately, "Sense of the City" doesn't stray as far from the visual as it might have. The show's text admits, for instance, "We have trouble representing odours in space, essentially because they are invisible." Even so, when I stepped outside, I reconsidered the familiar urban environment in a refreshingly unfamiliar, and more perceptive, way.

If you haven't visited the CCA before, the one-hour guided tour is an excellent way to discover the building -- including spaces usually off-limits to the general public -- as well as the exhibition. Just bring as many senses as you can.