architecture / urban

Place-making with Technology and our Senses

Juhani Pallasmaa wrote extensively in his book “The Eye of the Skin” about the dominance of the seeing over other senses. We see our cities mainly through our eyes. We discuss the buildings and places as to how they look. So much so that the discourse of architecture were categorized according to how buildings of certain eras look like, from Classicism, Art nouveau, Gothic, to Modernism, Deconstructivism, Expressionism, etc. Moreover, our discipline is notoriously slow in adapting to the changing pace of the world. Our methods have evolved rather disproportionately to the exploding projection of technology, which permeates into every fabric of the built environment. Many fear that human craftsmanship will be substituted by robotic machinery, that a building will become the product of mathematical coding and algorithm,that the end of experiential architecture is near. Although it is true that we build more but not necessarily better buildings, some designers and architects are now tapping into this new toolbox to redefine our way of experiencing cities. Technology has let open doors to our other senses. Here is a glance at the opportunities and potentials through the discovery of now technologies, and the rediscovery of our human senses.

Public Interaction:

Sensual experiences (touch, sound, and smell) have been increasingly explored within the realm of urban design & place-making. An example of reinventing public spaces with sound is the “Sea Organ” project by Croatian architect Nikola Bašić’s. The city’s seafront has a series of polyethylene tubes of different diameters installed beneath the its concrete steps connecting to a gallery that runs under the parade. With every waves and wind, the system creates sound vibrations that cover a broad range of musical tones. “21 Swings” by Daily tous les jours is another project that adopts the same concept, but with people “making” the sound instead. Each swing is programmed to create a variety of tones depending on how fast or slow the person is swinging it. When used all together, the swings create a musical composition in which certain melodies emerge only through cooperation. The result is a giant collective instrument that engages people, encourages teamwork, and ultimately provides a fun activity at the center of the city. (And it looks quite attractive at night too.)

Figure 1: Sea Organ – Nikola Bašić ;

Figure 2: 21 Swings – Daily Tous Les Jours  ;

The visual landscape of cities have also changed dramatically in the advent of LED & LCD technologies. Digital screens are becoming a new form of architecture, one that has the ability to receiving and broadcast information – a medium to communicate to its cities. Our visual experiences of public space are expanding to include interactive touching and hearing too. Artists and designers have adopted the new technologies to locally engage public audiences, letting them reclaim public spaces; as well as to globally connect cities for ideas and dialogues to be had. The types of projects are extremely diverse, ranging from using fun to involve people (i.e Lummo Blocks project, Hand from Above), public projection to attract audience (The Crown Fountain),to opening platform for communication (i.e SMSlingShot, Mobile Dinner, Waiting Wall). These projects are less about the physical architecture and more about the experience it creates.

Figure 3: Lummo Blocks Project – Lumo Group; Inspired by the legendary Tetris game, the installation is designed to create social interaction between people in the Plaza de las Letras, Madrid. Two players have to collaboratively solve as many possible lines as possible, with one controls the orientation of the pieces and the other controls the movement. 

Figure 4: Hand From Above is a project by Chris O’shea (, a joint co-commision between FACT: Foundation for Art & Creative Technology and Liverpool City Council. Fitted with a CCTV camera, the big screen is linked to a computer with custom built software that picks people based on their proportions & how alon they are from other people. The “victims” will be tickled, streched or flicked by a giant hand – inspired by Land of the Giants and Goliath. The project not only playfully transforms a rather dull billboard screen but also encourages to think about our normal routine rushing from one destination to another, buried in our phone. 

Figure 5: Crown Fountain in Millenium Park is designed by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, consisting of two 50-foot glass block towers at each end of a shallow reflecting pool. The towers project video images from a broad social spectrum of Chicago citizens

Figure 6-7: SMSlingShot – VR/URBAN ; – a project aiming at reclaiming urban space and urban ‘screens’.

Sensory Mapping:

Embracing our other senses also allow us to read our cities in many new dimensions. Kate McLean is a British artist and designer who travels the world and creates “Smell Maps” of cities. Her aim is to use the most under-appreciated sense to sensitize tourists and visitors to a place and make lasting memories of it. So far Kate’s works have included Paris, Edinburgh, Milan, Singapore, New york, etc. Mapping sound is also a concept that is being explored by designer and programmer. Howloud is a Kickstarter project that use map out noises so that they are easier to quantify and compare. This kind of information is particularly useful for the property industry because up until now, noise has been an important yet hard to obtain data. Similar project includes “Soundscape of New York” – a compilation study done by Arup acoustical consultant / composer Anne Guthrie to both raise awareness of noise pollution and to advance one’s understanding of location within the city. “I feel more connected to New York […] More ephermeral sounds like singing make me feel closer to the people who share this city” said Anne. One favorite project of mine is a collaboration between railway company “Thalys” and French advertising agency “Rosapark” called “Sound of the City“. A series of billboard was installed in Amsterdam, Paris & Brussels, showing maps of the cities within the Thalys railway network, embodied with 1000 audio jack ports. Passers-by were invited to plug their headphones into an interactive billboard and listen to original sounds from another city. The utilization of sound not only reinvent the boring billboard in a simple yet exciting way, but it also proves that successful advertising does not have to be all about visual. It also expands the traditional role of a map beyond way-finding to include memory-of-place and mental mapping.

Figure 8: Smell map of Edinburgh – Kate McLean ;

Figure 9: HowLoud – Brendan Farrell ;

Designing Behavior:

Designers have also used technological implementation to foster behavioral changes in public. Two of such projects were made possible through “The Fun Theory” – an initiative by Volkswagen dedicated to intervention ideas that change how people behave in public for the better. “The Speed Camera Lottery” aimed at encouraging drivers to obey speed limit more by making it fun to do. Cameras installed on the street will photograph speeders and issue fines – money which will goes into a pot, and can be won by others law-abiding drivers via lottery. The prototype recorded a 22% reduction in average speed from 32 to 25 km/h. The other project is called “The Piano Stairs”. The team at Wolkswagen Group transformed the stair at Odenplan subway station in Stockholm into piano keyboard so that stepping on it will create musical note. An astounding increase of 66% in people who chose to take the stair instead of adjacent escalators. Since then, a new surge of piano stairs have appeared across the globe, from Milan, San Francisco, to Athens etc. All of these projects have proven that technology doesn’t have to be complex, or unattractive. Instead, using the right mix can reinvent mundane activity and ordinary structures in a new and exciting way.

Figure 10: The Speed Camera Lottery – Fun Theory (Google)

Figure 11: The Piano Stair – Fun Theory (Google)

Cities are where most of us live today. We’ve created many issues yet we possesses tremendous social capital and the technology that comes with it. And technicians are shaping our cities just as much as planners and architects. Time to equip ourselves with new technology in order to augment the urban public domain through the support of social interaction to reinforce social structures and space.As Bagdikian accurately phrased, “since the Industrial Revolution, society and culture have been subservient to technology. One of the compelling task today is to reverse the process and make technology serve culture and society.”


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