City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Mark Shepard kindly asked me to contribute a review of the 'Toward the Sentient City' exhibition he's curated for the Architectural League of New York. As the show, which runs at the Urban Center on Madison Avenue, concerns urban informatics and all that – and features The Living/Natalie Jeremijenko, Usman Haque, SENSEable City Lab and others – I was more than happy to oblige and my review is now available on the well-stocked '…Sentient City' site, as well as re-posted below.

There was much to chew on in terms of show's ideas and implications, even though I wasn't even able to see it in person. I've offered what I hope is a constructive critique below, yet found that I couldn't address the subject without really addressing the role of architecture more broadly. And though I only really touched on that it's not a topic one can get in and out of quickly or, indeed, unscathed.

Toward the Sentient City, New York

This show does nothing less than delineate a possible future trajectory for architecture, in which it remains relevant in the development of 'sentient cities', put frankly. It also implicitly indicates how far architecture has to go to do so. 

Curated by Mark Shepard and organised by the Architectural League of New York, who through their various events and podcasts are doing as much as any architecture organisation worldwide to grasp the possibilities of the internets, the exhibition runs at the Urban Center. For those who aren’t a subway ride from Madison Avenue, the League’s website smartly and straightforwardly organises more details on the commissions themselves in the context of other writers’ responses, of which this is one, curatorial statements, an open archive, public programs, tweets etc. Interviews are distributed via Urban Omnibus, another fine initiative from the League. Whilst a little more activity could’ve been nurtured on further outer rings of content like YouTube or architecture-oriented discussion sites, it really is a very impressive body of work around a theme, and a great example of how to use the internet to stimulate informed discussion.

Enough meta. The content of the show itself, including the various supporting statements, is also generally impressive, hinting at the new possibilities for architecture enabled by urban informatics, or the increasing impact of networked, real-time, data-driven and responsive/interactive systems on physical objects and spaces.

I hope what follows is a constructive critique, during which I’ll try to address the questions implicitly asked by this probing exhibition, such as what architecture is for. Bear with me.

Few commissions here are actually that radical, which makes one wonder about the role of such an exhibition – is it to display the currents running through urban development or to suggest the avant-garde, to convey where a field of practice might go next? To someone working directly in the field, the show contains ideas that are actually already in production, or at least very close to commission and development, on mainstream urban development projects. For instance, over the last 18 months, on urban development projects in Helsinki, Sydney, Masdar, and Brisbane, Arup Informatics has been producing designs for water-borne water quality sensors, co-working infrastructures, smart street furniture, tagged urban agriculture and so on, often using similar technologies.

What’s different of course is the critical nature of these ‘… Sentient City’ works, beyond mere technical similarities. Outside of the stunted rat race of property development, the contested terrains of urban renewal, or even the more benevolent ballet of urban design, these exhibits can explore themes that actual ‘stakeholders’ (in the crude language of the business) would find unpalatable, frivolous or uncomfortably close to a few home truths, perhaps.

In doing so, just as  with Dunne and Raby’s ‘critical design’ examples, they provoke important questions about the business, the nature of urban design, and the role of civic space and urban infrastructure in the 21st century. Certainly, as a practising designer in the field, the show has made me think more deeply about the work. Job done in that respect.

Yet I’m left wondering whether they exhibits go far enough, across a number of axes.

The first is a minor point: that technical axis. Again, there is little here that is genuinely pushing at a boundary. Though technical bravura is clearly far less important than meaning at this point, a show such as this might have had more of an imperative to prototype beyond the charted terrain a little. But perhaps one commission might have explored, say, an indication of how how a membrane of responsive systems over the city might drive shifts in physical fabric, via shape-memory alloys or the seductive surfaces implied by the BMW GINA prototype, for instance. (The Living have some previous here, with their Living Glass project.) Or perhaps another commission might have exploited the current explosion of interest in augmented reality applications concerning urban space and activity. (Having said that, for all AR’s promise, I have a hunch there’s more meaning in informational experiences that are more directly physical and embodied, and that this is where architecture may have real value.)

Another axis would be around the process of building in urban space, and how that may change through pervasive use of advanced digital technologies. The more iterative, responsive, data-driven, fabrication and prototyping methodologies of industrial design and interaction design are within reach of some elements of architecture and planning, just, yet there is little discussion of their implications here.

Finally, a further axis would be the positioning of architecture itself: do these exhibits outline ways in which architects can increase their sphere of influence in order to help shape more productive, sustainable, equitable or engaging cities? This might include strategically using advanced technologies and informed urbanism to increasingly understand the city, expanding the perspective of governance, planning and citizen engagement. Some have argued that architecture has a lot to offer to the practice of design thinking, or service design, and I reckon it might. But while the exhibition moves some way in that direction, it perhaps inadvertently describes the currently limited role of the architect as much as anything.

Urban form has largely been shaped by technologies of mobility – human, horse, streetcar, elevator, automobile etc. – rather than architecture, just as structural form has largely been shaped by the engineer, and infrastructural form by the spreadsheet. Too few buildings and spaces are actually directly shaped by architects. This is not a criticism of architecture, at least not directly. I would welcome a greater involvement in all these things by architects. The profession does have to look at itself, though.

The Melbourne-based educator Leon van Schaik suggests architecture took a wrong turn when professionalising in the mid-19th century, in thrall to the engineer of the emerging industrial economy. Van Schaik’s critique is profoundly important, as it describes the seeds that have led to architecture’s near-marginalisation but also of its potentially influential future:

“To complete with this practical glamour our forebears went to the heart of making in architecture – its technologies of carving, moulding, draping or assembling – when they staked their claim to be caretakers of a body of knowledge for society. The architectural capacity to think and design in three and four dimensions, our highly developed spatial intelligence, was overlooked, and for the profession space became, by default, something that resulted from what was construction … What if our forebears had professionalised architecture around spatial intelligence rather than the technologies of shelter? Might society find it easier to recognise what is unique about what our kind of thinking can offer?” [Leon van Schaik, Spatial Intelligence: New Futures for Architecture]

The articulation and exploration of spatial histories that van Schaik suggests would be a fascinating next step for exhibitions such as this, and the designers involved. How might exhibitions help develop this understanding of how spatial intelligence, and how it augments the other intelligences of kinetic, natural, linguistic, logical, mathematical, musical and personal? (In fact I’d hesitate before suggesting there is also an emerging ‘informational’ intelligence … but only just. Similarly, at other points a few of us have talked of understanding ‘information as a material’, and while this could conceivably lead to the digital equivalent of shelter-fixation, this too may be a theme worth developing.)

Developing a way of communicating such intelligences –  and possibly related sensory modes such as an urban or informational form of proprioception – may be key to where this work goes, at least in hovering around an avant-garde that can generate useful prompts for the emerging mainstream business of urban informatics. 

An axis this exhibition does positively explore, however, is that of seeing architecture itself as communication. I’m reminded of something Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi said recently on the Melbourne radio show The Architects:

“Architecture is a form of communication … of knowledge. Architecture is a way to understand our world, and also possibly to have some effect on it. It doesn’t have to necessarily be through buildings – it has to do with ideas that involve our immediate environment, our physical space. Any way to use that physical environment, that architectural context, as a means to discuss issues I think is very appropriate”

That few of these projects concern a traditional understanding of the building, focusing instead on the implications of space and urban fabric ‘becoming sentient’, is thus hugely important. Tschumi’s directive enables the profession to freely explore issues, ideas and interventions, only some of which need be built, or appear to be buildings. The League could continue to productively plough this furrow, moving further beyond the traditional limits of building, articulating the implications of architects as conductors for spatial intelligence within a society and connecting ever deeper to an understanding of how people live in cities. These and others projects might then begin to match the leaps of imagination made by Peter Cook and Reyner Banham, as referred to by Shepard in his valuable curatorial statement.

So let’s look briefly at how these particular exhibits “use the physical environment as a means to discuss ideas”, in Tschumi’s words.


Amphibious Architecture is by The Living Architecture Lab at Columbia Uni (formerly The Living) and Natalie Jeremijenko of NYU and elsewhere. It’s a rather beautiful piece of work, comprising two interactive networks of floating tubes, connecting the Bronx River and the East River. The tubes are both sensors and actuators, the latter in the form of LEDs, the former measuring water quality, presence of fish and so on.

A development of an earlier project by The Living, the glowing, bobbing lights are immediately compelling, but more interesting is this exploration of the relationship between urban bodies of water and the city. As Jeremijenko points out, there is a vast amount of public information about water quality yet this generates only small pockets of engagement. Meanwhile, waterfronts in New York and elsewhere have become attractive again to urban development, though only at a superficial level of the view over the water. “Harbour glimpses”, as we say in Sydney. This project moves beyond that facile surface connection to engage with water as a body, rather than a mirror with a memory. In doing so, it helps us understand something of what’s going on in the opaque mass that created, nourished, supported and shaped New York.

The idea that you can “text-message the fish” is somewhat dubious, however. We’ve probably done enough to the poor buggers without now subjecting them to spam too. (Another Jeremijenko project has already suggested the fish in the Hudson River are on anti-depressants.) The project works perfectly well by remaining in the responsive, reflexive camp, without the need to suggest this faux-interactivity.


If SMS for fish is possibly a joke, David Jimison’s and JooYoun Paek’s  project Too Smart City certainly is. They deliberately use comedy to highlight the potentially absurd nature of placing too much hopes in so-called smart technology, or rather outsourcing responsibility for civic spaces to algorithms and actuators. By subtly engaging with the political undercurrents in urban design, they’ve created a set of smart-arse street furniture that is all too plausible, embedding a sort of grumpy, obstreperous character into benches and trashcans, as if years of neglect had finally caused the city’s street furniture to flip out.

The Smart Bench tips you up if you spend too long on it, disturbing potential vagrants. The Smart Sign berates you with legal codes. The Smart Trashcan spits your waste back atcha if it’s deposited in the wrong bin.

The artists describe the objects as “so smart that they’re functionally useless”, and it’s good to see humour being deployed here. If Tschumi’s directive to engage is taken seriously, then not being serious at all by going for laughs is entirely fair game, and probably essential, occasionally. Certainly these are close to the “funny because it’s true” category. William H. Whyte’s seminal 1970s photographs of New York are full of benches and ledges that are not supposed to be inhabited for any length of time – in fact you almost fear that this bench design may end up in the wrong hands and get actually commissioned. Similarly, the rhetoric around sorting one’s waste can verge on a slightly desperate hectoring that makes the Smart Trashcan seem like Oscar the Grouch in a rare good mood.

Though questioning what they describe as “the myth that technology is going to be a transformative force” is also fair game, it would be good to move beyond the question and at least hint at some answers, however. But as with many of the projects here, you can track ongoing progress on their entertaining blog and watch what develops, not least Jimison’s attempts to create an “ass algorithm”.

As if emerging from the rear end of the waste-bin in Too Smart City, Trash Track is a continuation of the MIT SENSEable City Lab’s research into sensor-based interventions into existing urban and telecommunications systems. In this case, trash is tagged with sensors and then followed throughout its slow, inexorable and often depressing journey to landfill or recycling. As with many projects in this area, it concerns the now-ubiquitous idea of making the invisible visible. In this case, the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ problem when it comes to dealing with waste. Some initial visualisations indicate an interesting product-centred view of how garbage interacts with the city, yet with this broader goal I’d be more interested in a sense of the aggregated footprint of the city itself, derived from all the coffee cups discarded over time. 


The project suggests it’s almost a practical demonstration of a core idea in pervasive computing – that of ‘smart dust’. Though it isn’t there yet – the sensors are large, cumbersome and apparently placed by hand – it hints at its possibilities, if remaining a little uncritical. The connection to architecture and urbanism is not as obvious, despite positioning garbage as an urban system, perceived in terms of mobility. I suspect the implications are more broadly for industrial design and product design. Again, though, it’s worth reflecting on the sense of ambition, scale and connectivity that often comes with MIT’s work. Their ability to connect does place them in a sphere of influence, and at the highest levels.


Usman Haque, a designer who in the creation of the Pachube data-meets-place-meets-people platform  has grasped the promise of informatics as much as anyone, makes a typically fascinating contribution. Natural Fuse is simply more interactive – it’s not just an abstract signal that might raise awareness around energy consumption, and so possibly stimulate intervention, but actually and actively requires an intervention of the users. The possible outcome of the Natural Fuse system – that PLANTS WILL DIE! If energy consumption gets too high – may be the more visceral mode of engagement that is required around energy consumption, as compared to the quietly glowing LED screens of smart meters that have replaced the flashing ‘12:00’ of VCRs in homes around the land. (Though you half-wonder whether an ‘arms race’ of ever more gruesome natural deaths may be required if people become inured to wilting brown husks of Leopard Lily?!)

The project also describes an architecture around the exhibit – of websites, RSS and Twitter feeds, maps and of the platform of Pachube itself. Again, the team led by Haque appear to have the greatest facility with this networked aspect of informatics. And this is interactive, at least to some degree, where others are responsive. Whether there is a spatial intelligence being articulated here is another matter – this is perhaps more informational intelligence than spatial. And so is it architecture? Many of Haque’s other works certainly are, rather more obviously, but his sense of “the software of space” is certainly interesting and a genuine attempt to reconfigure architecture around an understanding of the shared and ongoing production of cities. Watch that (soft) space.


The most genuinely interactive contribution of all – in that it comprises an essentially open and accessible platform – is from the team led by Anthony Townsend and featuring several from workplace consultants DEGW. Breakout! is inspired by the co-working spaces (or “jellies” as some are known) that enable work to take place via shared resources. It’s a mobile infrastructure of power, connectivity and social interaction, supported by smart social software application to facilitate  transient workplaces. While the stated motive is to “liberate office workers from office buildings”, it could be argued that this is already happening – see all the ventures the Breakout! team is inspired by, for a start. When it doesn’t happen, it’s not for lack of infrastructure in a city like New York, but rather social, cultural and economic issues around present-day business culture. However, the Breakout! team can hardly change that overnight, and like the annual PARKing Days, we’re reminded of the value in creating a series of public focal points on such activity, and so of the powerful role of events in shaping the city. In terms of the environments the Breakout! team can create, I’d like to see a more varied set emerging, with different kinds of workshop available, particularly those that involve physical ‘making’ via the return of light manufacturing to urban environments. But that can come later.

Almost all of these commissions do variously deal with the social rather than built form, with explorations of the civic realm rather than physical structure. Sure, there are a few shortcomings but taken as a whole they comprise an excellent set of examples of how a more sophisticated relationship between architecture and the sentient city might unfold over the next few years. 

Might” is a key word there, for it’s going to take a lot of effort to retrain and reorient architects in general for this particular form of spatial intelligence, and while programmes like this are part of that effort, they’re not enough in themselves.

Gregory Weissner’s introduction indicates that the show is “intended to bring architects and urban designers into a conversation that until now has been limited largely to technologists." He continues:

"Don’t be confused by the technology (and the terminology), though. What we are talking about is nothing short of a complete reorientation of our relationship to the built environment and the unintended consequences are not going to be all positive. Either architects and urban designers insert themselves now into the discussion about how these technologies are conceptualized and deployed or they risk diminishing the unique contributions they bring to shaping our world."

Architecture and urban design should be in this debate, no doubt, but its entire practice, sensibility and economic model may need redressing (as with many other fields, of course.) Given their previous predilections, the lack of technical and conceptual understanding – never mind an apparently congenital inability to design a decent website – the profession has a long way to go before it can demand a seat at the table. An admittedly fading tradition of thinking of itself as the ‘master builder’ needs to be entirely excoriated once and for all. Devising the architect’s new sensibility – what Paul Dourish would describe as “the designer’s stance” for the discipline – will also be fundamentally important. Either way, complex urban systems are well beyond the ken of the sole master builder; they have been for years, but increasingly so with this ever more multi-layered understanding of the city.

Other design disciplines – interaction design, industrial design, service design, to name three – are currently far better placed to lead on these ideas, within multidisciplinary design teams. So the architect may be best-placed as part of that team, leading on spatial intelligence just as others might lead on information and communication systems, materials, structures, embodied interaction, behavioural psychology, topography, acoustics, biodiversity and so on. In a recent conversation with the SENSEable City Lab’s Carlo Ratti, we ended up sketching out a loosely multidisciplinary team in which the architect was one of perhaps ten different disciplines, all of whom would lead at various points.

Yet there doesn’t seem to be much explicit recognition of that here. I’d like to have seen more of a debate of the craft, process and shifting nature of disciplines throughout – though I appreciate that’s harder to make a compelling public exhibit around. 

And of course the smart, progressive and more inclusive designers represented here are far-removed from the Roark stars of architectural mythology. But whether many in the wider profession have moved far enough in their direction is another matter. 

To put it another way, who would you actually rather designed some sentient street furniture? Naota Fukasawa or Frank Gehry? Jonathan Ive or Daniel Libeskind? Luigi Colani or Ken Yeang? (Actually, I suspect that the intentions of any sentient furniture designed by Colani may not be entirely honourable. Wipe-off plastic required. Be careful where you sit.)

But given that it’s actually the likes of large software and hardware corporations that are currently attempting to claim the ‘smarter cities’ mantra for their own, I’d like the profession to pull up a chair nonetheless. At least many architects and urban designers have an understanding of what makes good cities tick.

With that in mind, this exhibition – not least through its manifestation as a widely-communicable online exhibit – is fantastically useful and worthwhile. It weaves together several threads running through contemporary thinking around cities and information, and through the provision of context and discussion, it does indeed use architecture, of a sort, as a means to discuss ideas, as Tschumi suggests, or to more broadly exert a form of spatial intelligence, after van Schaik. In this, it suggests the new form of architecture that we’re all striving for, something beyond variations on shelter or indeed the gaudy showmanship of the last two decades, in which new ways of living can be articulated via a genuinely open and interactive framework.

Devising an urbanism that extends this last aspect – urban fabric suffused with rich forms of civic interactivity – is perhaps the biggest challenge. Funnily enough I’m reminded of the British architecture critic Ian Nairn’s line about the avenues of trees in Bushey Park, surrounding Hampton Court – and by extension England, and design:

“Man proposes, and a noble enough proposal. Nature takes over, but heeds man’s direction. All you see now are the glorious trees: but they would not have been so glorious without the initial design. As a symbol of Hampton Court, and of the whole of England, you could do worse: the tree allowed to grow freely, but to man’s pattern.” [Ian Nairn, Nairn's London]

Perhaps in this line from 1966, concerning a design from the 1530s, there are the seeds of a more responsive and sometimes interactive architecture, iterative in development, predicated with change in mind, a space described around both biological and social ecosystems, constructed around the organic, chaotic and complex, yet symbiotically shaped by clarity and intent.

Van Schaik implores us not to unthinkingly overlay inappropriate spatial histories and asks instead “What spatial constructs does this new place allow?” We should ask the same of such rare opportunities for addressing the promise of the sentient city.

This stimulating exhibition begins to tentatively trace out some lines describing this new place, and those of us who inhabit cities will benefit hugely from continuing to pick apart its implications.


3 responses to “Essays: ‘Toward the Sentient City’ exhibition, New York”

  1. Kalle Avatar

    Dear Dan,
    You mention the work of Arup Informatics in Helsinki. Could you please give me more information on what is it? Is it part of the Low2no scheme, or something else? I am writing my diploma work on urban design at Aalto University (formerly Helsinki University of Technology as you know) and I find it really difficult to find concrete examples of urban informatics.
    Thanks a million!


  2. Dan Hill Avatar

    Dear Kalle –
    Yes, that’s right – low2no. Not many details yet, but as we develop them, I’ll try to share them here.


  3. website design New York City Avatar

    This was amazing and great inspiration. I really like the work.


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