DID YOU SENSE THAT!?
The public space is a common good for urban dwellers; it belongs to everyone and is everyone’s responsibility. Thus the way public spaces are managed and operated expresses a great deal about the societal drivers, civic ownership and sense of belonging in a city. But how can the secrets of the public space be unlocked?
We could use other shared human qualities, our means of sensory perception, to unwrap the understanding of our common public space. Our five senses evolved to guide and protect us in a wild natural environment and it is still these same senses that we use to navigate in the –not less wild- built environments of our cities.
The senses are a common denominator which cuts across age, walk of life, ethnic group, linguistic affiliation, community membership, economic status, nationality, interests, and all the other barriers and categories within which we are used to regarding each other. Consequently, observing our common public spaces consciously through our senses is an inclusive exercise which everyone can participate in on an equal level, regardless of any of the above.
Taking its point of departure in our everyday experience of the places we share, the workshop focused on how we perceive and what we desire from public space. The workshop introduced a variety of tools to map public space by means of the five senses: touching, hearing, tasting, smelling and seeing. The ambition was to work as concretely as possible and understand the place as a complete phenomenological experience. In this manner we worked towards understanding and expressing the physical qualities of public space and how they affect us- not only as individuals but also as a social body within a shared space.
Emphasising the concrete common experiences of people in places like the metro, the street, the hospital and the library, we approached a different level from what is normally addressed in planning and politics. We highlighted how personal and social experiences are constituted not only in abstract categories, but also in their tangible manifestations such as lighting, smell, flavour, sound and tactility.
In the workshop we pursued how a shared space like a metro station is constituted – not only as architecture, but as the living place it is. Following a multi-layered perceptual exploration, the workshop directed attention to the desirability and potential enhancement of the human quality of the public space. We worked on scenarios for each individual sensory layer as well as on the cross-pollination of all. Emphasising that personally experienced phenomena also incorporate social aspects, questions addressed in the workshop thus included: How are public spaces perceived by our senses? What type of public does that constitute? How is the “we” expressed? What are the borders and limits of the space? What type of sensory impression is desirable? What type of “urban design” deepens the sense of belonging in the public space?
The workshop took a human centric approach, and firstly introduced sensory perspectives of the public space and secondly engaged all participants in on-site exploration. In conclusion, the ambition was to document and analyse the human quality of the public space, share tools on understanding and involve the public in the making of public space.
HEARING TOUCHING TASTING SMELLING SEEING
In the framework of Human Cities, this workshop was a live experiment to test how humane the city of Brussels actually is. We invited Human Cities Symposium delegates and members of the public to a sensory exploration of public space. The workshop consisted of a small series of exercises opening the mind and
preparing the senses, introductions to each sense and a tour in the public space guided by our facilitators, each a specialist in one of the senses.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
You might wonder why the senses are important in relation to public space, the background idea was that public space is a common good for urban dwellers; it belongs to everyone and is everyone’s responsibility. Thus the way public spaces are managed and operated expresses a great deal about the societal drivers, civic ownership and sense of belonging in a city. But how can the secrets of public space be unlocked?
We propose to use another shared human quality, namely our means of sensory perception, to unwrap the understanding of our common public space. Our senses apparatus consists of five senses that all evolved to guide and protect us in a wild natural environment These are still the same senses that we use to navigate in the not less wild, built environment of our cities.
Our senses are a common denominator which cuts across age, walk of life, ethnic group, linguistic affiliation, community membership, economic status, nationality, interests, and all
the other barriers and categories within which we are used to regarding each other. Consequently, observing our common public spaces consciously through our senses is an inclusive exercise which everyone can participate in on an equal level, regardless of any of the above.
The workshop took a human-centric approach, and firstly introduced sensory perspectives of public space and secondly engaged all participants in on-site exploration. In conclusion, the ambition was to document and analyse the human quality of public space, share tools on understanding and involve the public in the making of public space.
The workshop group was 15 people strong and fairly mixed:
+ 40% Brussels residents, 60% coming from outside the region
+ 1/3 occupied in cultural businesses; 20% architects, academics and designers, respectively, and 7% other;
+ a spread in age from 25 to 50 and
+ a gender split of women to men of 53% to 47%
14.00 Welcome & Introduction at the Royal Library of Belgium Exercises to open mind & senses
15.30 Tour de Public space commences from Mont des Arts
16.30 Mapping of the sensory impressions, Roof Garden of Mont des Arts
17.00 Homage to the gustatory taste by Laurent Gerbaud, at Chocolate Gerbaud
17.30 Presentations of senses maps & discussion
+ The visual map painted a picture of a sense mostly either over-stimulated or bored, both rather unsatisfactory states of mind;
+ The olfactory sense seemed quick to judge and swung from “like” to “dislike” throughout
+ The hearing sensors settled on a “ground noise” and then only received information “over” the ground noise;
+ The tactile perceivers mapped a city with multiple hidden layers of messages
SENSES & PEOPLE
In the public space, participants agreed that their sensibility was influenced by other people sharing that same space. For some participants, the presence of others sharpened their senses,
for others this was utterly disturbing. This feeling was neither exclusive to, nor overrepresented in any one group and seemed to be a more subjective trait, thus not specifically connected to
any one sense.
Across senses, there was a tendency to prefer places where other people were present, when looking at the human quality of the urban public space. This is an unsurprising finding, yet
nevertheless significant that it was highlighted by participants completely unprompted. Related thereto and similarly unsurprising, all agreed that, as a general point, recognisable traces of people (urine, waste, pollution,..) in the absence of people, had a negative effect of the perception of the space,
both sense-specific and in general.
SENSES & SPACE
Most agreed that public space is often not welcoming and instead overwhelming to the human sensory system. Some suggested that this was due to public space offering mixed messages to the senses, whilst others felt that the confusion was caused by the many commercial actors in public
space sending out sensory pulses to tempt the passer-by, for instance a smell of coffee or waffles, advertising posters, offering comfortable seats in the sun, playing jazzy tunes etc.
It was suggested that the human sensory system can sense an “appropriateness of scale” in the city, which makes out the human quality of the space, including sound and echo, natural
light and wind, urban smells, surfaces and cleanliness – in short, it creates the framework for the life between the buildings, which we instinctively understand.
FACILITATORS & HOSTS
CHRISTIAN PAGH, UIWE, Copenhagen
Christian founded UiWE in 2008 to combine cultural thinking and design. Improving the connections between people and their environment is Christian’s drive. He is dedicated to creating solutions that have a genuine impact on people’s lives through user-oriented innovation and filmmaking. Christian holds an MA in Modern Culture & Philosophy and is assistant professor at Copenhagen Business School.
At the “Did you sense that!?” workshop, Christian was the agitator for the visual sense and guided the participants to enhanced visual observations in public space.
LISE COIRIER, Pro Materia, Brussels
Lise is the initiator and visionary of Human Cities. She works through her company Pro Materia, which she created in 1999. It hosts a swarm of diverse activities around arts & crafts, and the
link to history, communication and curation. She has authored various publications: Design in Belgium 1945-2000; Made in Belgium; Industrial Archaeology in Belgium and Labeldesign and is a contributor to Textile magazine, ARTE news, isel, She is also a curator and behind the organisation of many exhibitions, competitions, jury’s and others. One of Lise’s many competencies lies in unveiling the sensory values of flavour and at “Did you sense that!?” she was the ambassador of the difficult connection between flavour and public space.
ALICE HOLMBERG, Clear Village, London
Clear Village’s own co-director, Alice Holmberg, was the herald for the tactile sense. Alice has a background as designer and was, during her academic years, the co-founder of the “Institute
of Haptic Interface Design”. An experimental platform purely dedicated the tactile sense, the building of a language, praxis for designers and research of its cross-pollination and impact on
identity and self-perception. The latter two, seen from a societal perspective greatly influences the her work at Clear Village with communities and the participants of “Did you sense that!?” were
greatly inspired by having to consciously taking in the tactile dimension of public space.
IKE UDECHUKU, Ampersand House, Brussels
Ike lives and breathes art. Together with his partner, Kathryn Smith, he has founded the Ampersand House & Gallery in central Brussels, where works of art are shown in a living environment and life is exhibited in an interaction with a space that has both public and private character traits. Ike and Kathryn curate the gallery as a constantly evolving living environment, mixing vintage,
contemporary and prototype work to inspire a dialogue between collectors and creatives, the inclusive and the exclusive, the private and the public. Ampersand House & Gallery exhibited a collection
of works at the Human Cities festival that had a strong audio component and Ike prepared the participants of “Did you sense that!?” for the audio stimuli of public space and guided them
LAURENT GERBAUD, Chocolats Gerbaud, Brussels
Laurent is a chocolatier extraordinaire and blends chocolate, fruit and spices. Chocolats Gerbaud has existed in a central public location in Brussels since 2005, where Laurent had returned from
a prolonged stay in China. He masters the rich realm of Asian tastes and smells as well as the European and creates eclectic mixes of chocolate-coated kumquats, gingers and chillies. He rounded off our sensory tour of the city by sharing a taste of wild grown chocolate and insights like “The chocolate and every ingredient we use are noble and precious: their character can be preserved only through a hand-made treatment“ as he also talked us through what the notion of space and place means to a métier
EMILIE BONNARD, Jean Monnet University, St. Etienne
Teaching at the Jean Monnet University in Southern France, Emilie dedicates herself to urban olfactory design. Her works span over scented gardens, urban furniture; vegetation smell environments and was representing the Rhône-Alps Region at the World Expo in Shanghai 2010. Her academic works on the
olfactory sense has brought her a Phd in Design and we were very happy to have her at “Did you sense that!?” Emilie of course represented the olfactory dimension of public space and both guided the participants’ observation as well as carried out a couple of mind opening experiments.
MORE ON 2012 HUMAN CITIES FESTIVAL – RECLAIMING PUBLIC SPACE
The time has come for our partners, the excellent Human Cities, to host their next big conference: Reclaiming public space. This proud gathering of public space thinkers followed Celebrating public space in Brussels 2010 and Designing public space in Istanbul in the autumn of that same year.
Human Cities is a European-wide partnership incorporating design-focussed Promateria from Belgium, social innovators from Politecnico di Milano, architects from Brussels’s La Cambre-Horta, urban planners from the Urban Planning Institute of the Republic of Slovenia, and the hosts of the renowned International Design Biennale in St. Etienne, Cité du Design.
Added to the mix are the associated partners, whose ranks include CLEAR VILLAGE, together with Strategic Design Scenarios, the travelling intervention activists Timecircus, the organisers Esterni of one of the most visited public design festivals worldwide, and the green space animators Prostoroz.
This year’s symposium did not stand in the shadow of its predecessors and dared the step from mere observation –and celebration- of the public space, to actual strategies for reclaiming. These days the notion of reclaiming might seem to echo the Occupy movement, but though the Human Cities partners are comparable in passion, the conference did not bear any resemblance to activism. Instead, the aim and focus of Reclaiming public space was to share sound academic research and verified professional experience of which models works when one –principally any member of the public- wants to claim the public space as a safe place for us all to live, work and play.
The programme was a blend of lectures, discussions and workshops. The first day of the symposium on 15 March 2012 led the participants into the subject by deepening the analytic and methodological side of public space. The second and final day of the symposium on 16 March dug further into operational best-practice examples in the morning and offer everyone an opportunity to get involved through 10 different workshops in the public space in the afternoon. Both conference delegates and Brussels inhabitants participated at the conference in general and the workshops in particular.
Importantly, the symposium is complemented by exhibitions and interventions in the public space which continue throughout March.
Human Cities is supported by the EU “Culture” programme 2007-2013, the European Network of partners and Belgian public authorities such as the Brussels-Capital Region, the Flemish Region and Community, the Federation of Wallonia-Brussels, the District of Ixelles and others.
Read about the CLEAR VILLAGE contribution to Human Cities Festival Istanbul in 2010 here.
Thanks to all participants for passion & contributions, to Human Cities for inviting us, in particular to Lise Coirier for being our host and ambassador, to IUWE for both planning cocreation, facilitation and images, to Emilie Bonnard for facilitation and live experiments, to Ike Idechuku for facilitation and not least to Laurent Gerbaud for inspiration, use of his space -and chocolates!