Urban Key Note – Listening to the City

Can we really hear the city and its wealth of stories? Or is it possible that there is a whole range in frequencies that are outside maybe not the human ear but outside the range that is dominated by a view of the city as a mechanical and plannable thing (and the talk about creativity as a (market driven) driver in the development of the cities does not radically divert from that).

What made me stop and think recently was the story about how the languages of elephants were discovered not many years ago. It was not a story about how technology suddenly opened up for new ranges of sound, but technology confirmed the discovery which was made in a more bodily and accidental way. In short the researcher, Katy Payne,  one day went to the ZOO and standing next to the elephant house she could sense something both in her ears and body. A sound deeper that the normal range of the human ear was discovered and then confirmed afterwards using sensitive microphones. After this discovery the researchers has been able to get an insight into a whole new world of the elephants talking to each other.

This might be a good image for how to listen to the city using the most diverse sensor that still exists: being there with your eyes, ears, nose, hands etc, and remembering how often one tend to focus on certain things and thereby exclude others. Both being conscious about sensing what you know you don’t know but also what you don’t know that you don’t know.  Here the techniques of the situationists come in handy as a way of introducing unplanned encounters by using little games like walking backwards, blindfolded, systematically taking turns left and right. Just like the accidental discovery of the low sounds of the elephants this playful and very personal sensation of the city is necessary to avoid projecting your own established vision of the city onto the city and instead try to be as open and receptive as possible.

What needs to be discovered and acknowledged is this urban key note – a language that is part of the life in the city and just like the language of elephants and humans shapes the way we are able to think and express ourselves about the city and a language that is shaped by the life in the city.

In recent years advances in technology both in the development of new sensors, wireless communication and computing powers has led to the idea of “Smart Cities” which is driven by the wish to make cites more efficient – using less energy and for example getting an ambulance faster to its destination. These advances can make life easier for us and save energy and money but a presentation some months ago by Carlo Ratti from the SENSEable City lab, MIT, in Boston made me think about some possible problems with this approach. Among other things he talked about these technological advances and used an image of Corbusier standing in front of he’s big car (a Voisin – “the perfect machine”) to underline the point that technology shapes our cities and the way we live. I got reminded of my work in the suburbs of Copenhagen where this fascination of the car dominated technology had a very negative consequences.

To my surprise this was meant as a positive thing and Ratti went on to present the possibilities of todays technology by referring to the successful Ferrari race cars where the whole drive is monitored by a vast number of sensors and a team of 20 people watching the data from the sensors during the race. The point of this was to show how it is possible to monitor the city in the same way as the race car and all the advantages this have. It struck me that just like the fascination of the car had disastrous consequences the same could be said about the present technology and the somehow very masculine “need for speed” without knowing exactly what the disasters would be this time.

One thing that is similar in the use of any technology is the danger of giving too much weight to the rational and abstract aspects that drives technology. In the case of Corbusier and his Plan Voisin from 1925 (named after the car of the same name) he went even further so the industrial building techniques was not only a means to an end; Corbusier celebrated industrialised production as the perfect creation: ‘If houses were built industrially, mass-produced like chassis,’ Le Corbusier said in his manifesto Towards an Architecture, ‘an aesthetic would be formed with surprising precision.’  In Rattis presentation using the Ferrari race car as an analogy of how technology could improve the city we get close to the same fascination for technology. The image fits into the present discussion of cities in a competition against each other and how to make this “machine” run faster, better and stronger (to quote Daft Punk).

This way of thinking can be blamed for producing a city (mostly the suburbs where people don’t go except if they have to) that is very vulnerable to social meltdowns and its rational and abstract focus makes it harder to correct the mistakes of the past and see the potentials for a more poetic and playful (and stronger) city. To use another analogy it could be compared to making a movie where the engineers that designed the hardware or software also were the ones to decide what the story should be like depending on the capabilities of their technological contribution. This movie probably wouldn’t be a box office hit (just like a car that Corbusier designed).Then why did so much of  this industrially produced city get build? Many people didn’t really have a choice. The process behind the production of the suburbs was a strange dance couple where market driven industrial production went hand in hand with idealists who wanted to produce housing for the “masses.”

With riots in London this summer, riots in suburbs in Paris and many other places it should seem obvious that we are missing some points about how we work with cities – or maybe we are just ignoring them. How to open up to the possibilities in the city and how to produce a city in a way that empowers and opens for involvement of people in the continuos process of creating the city? As a start just being in public space using the best sensor for the rich sensory and emotional diversity of the city: ourselves and our senses. Taking time to allow more openness and play to experience the unexpected stories and sensations or provoke new ones. Always knowing that the urban keynote is out there and we will probably hear it where or when we least expected it.

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