Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Sentient City is a City

Too Smart City's regurgitating trash can (Source)

I must start off this piece on
Toward the Sentient City with an admission: as I write this, I am unsure as to what my own take on this excellent and thought-provoking exhibition should be. Which hat do I wear? Am I a technologist? Kinda. An architect? Definitely not (although I am affiliated with an architecture school). Urbanist? Unless someone can offer me a specific definition for this term, or circumscribe its putative scope, my only response is, who isn't an urbanist? So let me spin this question around and redirect it somewhat: What object doesn't have a significance at the urban scale? Such thoughts inevitably lead us to think of cities, of those dense agglomerations of natural and built objects that have—for lack of a better description—really, truly shaped all aspects of modern life. As the geographer Ed Soja would put it, such observations are proof that we are, indeed, "putting cities first."

Such language, though deterministic, carries its own burden. And here is where I lay my cards on the table and ask this question from the point of view of architecture and urban history: how do we read a city though its many objects? It's a very old, yet still relevant question. Let's face it: when looking at the objects presented to us in Toward the Sentient City—tilting benches, smart(ass) street signs, plant thermostats, unassuming sensors, and burping trashcans—we are asked to look at our cities differently. This varied and unusual assortment of technical objects command our attention because they reacquaint us with streets, buildings, public spaces.

Reacquaint? How? For starters, consider the use of the term "sentient" in the exhibition title. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "sentient" as "having the power or function of sensation or of perception by the senses"; or, put more simply, "conscious or percipient of something." Sentience is therefore a quality, ostensibly animal in origin, that is transferred onto the inanimate. If a "sentient city" is one imbued with its own sensorium, how, then, to qualify such feeling? The Italian architect Aldo Rossi gives us a clue in his A Scientific Autobiography. He writes:

Cities are in reality great camps of the living and the dead where many elements remain like signals, symbols, cautions. When the holiday is over, what remains of the architecture is scarred, and the sand consumes the street again. There is nothing left but to resume with a certain obstinancy the reconstruction of the elements and instruments in expectation of another holiday.1

The above statement—though taken out of context and applied to a different set of parameters—is still useful when considered alongside the five commissions in Toward the Sentient City. Like the various visions of 21st century urbanism from the exhibit, Rossi's elegaic vision of the city is wholly materialistic. Its various objects are skeleton keys through which we can decode a city's spectral traces to reconstruct a reality. Rossi's quote also provides us with a useful metaphor: his city is sentient in the sense that it has a communicative potential. If, as Rossi believes, a city wants to communicate, it is our task to close this loop. As communications theorist Colin Cherry would put it, the effect of such closing is to create a two-way symmetrical link. In short, the creation of dialogue.

MIT SENSEable City Laboratory's Trash Talk (Source)

To press this point, I want to shift my focus to those commissions that concern consumer objects. And here, I want to talk trash. Literally. Both
JooYoun Paek's and David Jimison's Too Smart City and MIT's SENSEable City Laboratory's Trash Track concern the "afterlives" of consumer objects. Whereas Too Smart City's smart trashcans regurgitate trash when it is "thrown the wrong way" (I'm assuming here that they "return" non-biodegradable or non-recyclable items), Trash Track's intelligent skeins track an item of trash and reveal "the final journey of our everyday objects in a series of real time visualizations." These two projects share similarities in that they both call into question that very moment when a consumer good becomes refuse. I would even say that Too Smart City's trash cans go beyond sentience—they are clever. A denizen of Too Smart City really has little say in determining whether a cardboard coffee cup is trash is not. Similarly, Trash Track's visualizations depict a secret life of sorts for trash: as soon as the same cardboard coffee cup enters a waste receptacle, it becomes part of a different, unseen system. These projects really ask us to rethink what it means to throw something away. And in doing so, they recalibrate our relationship to a city's sanitation infrastructures.

Generally speaking, the above projects demonstrate how consumer objects mediate our understanding of cities. It is in this sense that Too Smart City and Trash Track share a lineage with architectural projects from the 1960s. The most extreme condition would be Archizoom's consumption-centric No-Stop-City (1969). This enigmatic project, consisting of a infinite, isotropic field of objects is really a limit case—its assembly and display of consumer goods in mysterious, hermetically-sealed interior landscapes (intentionally) questions our ability to read the metropolitan condition. Yet other projects come close to mistaking a city for its constitutive consumer objects. And in some cases, architects have readily refused to distinguish between the city and its objects of throwaway culture.

Archigram, Living City Survival Kit (1963), Reproduced in Theo Crosby and John Bodley (eds), Living Arts, no. 2, London: Institute of Contemporary Arts and Tillotsons, 1963. Archigram Archives, London (Source: Sadler, "The Living City Survival Kit: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man").

For instance, Archigram's Living City Survival Kit (1963) is a carefully-arranged display of cigarette cartons, phonograph records, Playboy magazine, and other objects organized into categories of "air", "drink", "fags", "make up", "drugs", "money", "sex", and "cars". Historian Simon Sadler problematized the relationship between these objects and architecture, reminding us how, "Living CIty and its catalogue were not about form, but its opposite: the pre-architectural formlessness of space, behaviour, life."2 When placed within the circumscribed spaces of the Living City exhibition, these objects described "an urban experience unaccounted for by maps, plan or function. It concentrated on space and experience at the micro-scale. The Survival Kit for these micro-spaces was predominantly made up of low-brow, everyday, pocket-sized, throwaway, illicit, mass-produced consumer goods."3

Urban objects, from 2 ou 3 chose que je sais de elle (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)

The actual, physical arrangement of consumer objects in the Living City Survival Kit also recalls another similar configuration—the (famous) final shot from Jean-Luc Godard's 2 ou 3 choses que je sais de ellle (2 or 3 Things I Know About Her) (1967). Here, the equation of a city with its constitutive consumer objects reaches its fullest expression. Godard arranged containers of laundry detergent, cigarette boxes, pasta cartons as buildings. This decisive orthogonal arrangement almost reads as a branded version of Ludwig Hilberseimer's Hochhausstadt project (1924). As critic and theorist Sarah Whiting put it in a recent issue of Log, Godard's set pieces suggest "vast bundles of urban land that represent power and its lubricant, money."4 Unlike Living City, then, Godard's meticulous final shot is an act of cognitive dissonance that conceives of an architecture literally shaped by consumer behavior.

What does this all have to do with an exhibit devoted to situated technologies? The above projects were all contemporary visions and only looked to very immediate futures. Likewise, the idea of a "situated" technology also suggests contemporaneity, a literal and figurative rooting in the present. And yet the exhibition's title deserves additional scrutiny—specifically, the calculated use of the word "toward." In an architectural context, the word no doubt recalls the title to Le Corbusier's Vers une architecture (1923). Much critical ink has been spilled interpreting that particular book's mysteries and trajectories. It almost goes without saying, but deploying the word "toward" in such a decidedly architectural context signals a move to the future.5 If the title Toward an Architecture describes a hope in architecture's ability to counter a social threat, similarly, we would like to think that Toward the Sentient City looks to situated technologies as a formative part of our future urban experience.

Such talk about the future can veer towards the sentimental and the nostalgic. Literary critic Frederic Jameson even admonished popular visions of the future, such as science fiction, as a kind of wasted futureology. He declared how science fiction's "deepest vocation is over and over again to dramatize our incapacity to imagine the future."6 Despite this seemingly hopeless assessment, Jameson even recognized that science fiction is rooted in the interminable now, or, as Sigfried Giedion would put it, the "eternal present." And being rooted in the now is not a bad thing. Recall that some, if not all of the technologies in Toward the Sentient City are available in the here and now. Being rooted in the present at least gives us the hope of imagining our urban future.

Toward the Sentient City is curated by Mark Shepard and organized by the Architectural League of New York. The exhibition is on display at the Urban Center, 457 Madison Avenue, New York, NY from September 17 to November 7, 2009.


1 Aldo Rossi, Autobiografia scientifica (1981), quoted in The Architecture of the City, Joan Ockman and Diane Ghirardo, trans. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1984), p. 3.
2 Simon Sadler, "The Living City Survival Kit: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" Art History Vol. 26, No. 4 (Sep., 2003), p. 559.
3 Ibid.
4 Sarah M. Whiting, "Super!" in Log 16 (Spring/Summer, 2009), p. 23.
5 For more on the meaning of the book's title, see Jean-Louis Cohen's introduction to Toward an Architecture, John Goodman, trans. (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute Publications, 2007).
6 Frederic Jameson, "Progress Versus Utopia, or, Can We Imagine the Future?" in Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (New York: Verso, 2005), pp. 288-89.


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Kind Regards,
Baresh Raymond

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