XL - Urban Sensorium-0401

On August 30th SWA’s innovation lab, XL: Experiments in Landscape and Urbanism, opened an exhibition entitled Urban Sensorium: 5 Cities, 5 Senses, 5 Maps at SPUR Urban Center in San Francisco. Over the course of the evening, about 200 people passed through the gallery space, checking out the freshly mounted panels, sipping on beers brewed in the five featured cities, and discussing future urban scenarios.

The idea for Urban Sensorium emerged in early 2016 as an exercise in foresight to explore and speculate on the built environments of tomorrow. Through the lens of sensory experience, using touch, smell, sight, taste and sound, the project anticipates potential scenarios for five cities where our firm’s designers work in urban design, planning, and landscape architecture. Chosen for their projected growth and international influence, the featured cities include two global giants (New York City and Los Angeles); two knowledge capitals (San Francisco and Houston); and an Asian anchor (Shanghai).

In each city, we isolated potential drivers of change—drivers gleaned from our own design work or that of our colleagues, on site fieldwork, and mapping. Drivers involved a policy change, a transformation in urban material or technology, or altered environmental conditions. We then extended the implications of each driver’s relevance to the body and its sensory experience; and finally viewed each as physical object that contributes to a sensory change.

In New York, for example, we identified the driver of urban change to be a municipal concern with lowering energy and maintenance costs. New technologies in lighting allow for smaller, longer life bulbs, with lower energy requirements. In 2009, New York began a test changing out older high-pressure sodium streetlamps for new light-emitting diode fixtures. In pilot neighborhoods, the visual effect has been startling. The shift in color temperature and perceived brightness from one lighting type to the next has provoked strong backlash. The nocturnal landscape in public streets, parks, and bridges could look brighter and colder if a streetlight retrofit is carried through all five boroughs. Starry skies may not be perceptible and sleep could be disrupted, but crime may reduce, and pedestrian traffic increase.

Visitors to the exhibition will see the areas that could be brighter in New York mapped as hotspots onto the existing street grid. They are laser-etched onto Plexiglas in reverse, and then mounted onto black panels. A description of a scenario where New York appears brighter, and a counter scenario where, in fact, it could be the opposite—a darker New York—appears mounted below. In addition, a clear display box shows examples of the object creating the sensory change.  In this case, about 500 30 watt diffused white superbright 10mm light emitting diodes, or LEDs, fill the box.

Why did we take this approach to thinking about urban futures? As designers, it helped us to think toward possible constructions of the built environment and changed economies, not only the ones we know today, but those that are forming, and those we do not yet know. Infrastructure, transit, food systems, ecology, energy, economy, and climate—the things that affect the built environment—are enormous in scale, and require abstract thinking and planning for the long term in order not to be purely reactive to systemic shocks. Grounding these issues in the bodily senses, in human experience, and in particular objects, made the abstract tangible for us. In this way, we followed familiar things into multiple, unfamiliar futures and scenarios—scenarios that we have agency in shaping the direction of.  Urban Sensorium is a testing ground that enables us to become more intimately “in touch” with the near future.

The exhibition was supported by SWA Group and SPUR and is open to the public through from 9am-5pm on weekdays. Want to see more? Check out the exhibition website: http://bit.ly/2wV5nXs  or a recent Atlantic CityLab article: http://bit.ly/2w206iK

Emily Schlickman and Anya Domlesky are Associates at SWA Group in the Sausalito studio, where they design and co-lead XL. Photo courtesy of Bill Tatham/SWA.


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