Sentient City

As networked digital technologies leave the desktop and spill into the streets, this book presents multiple visions of the future city.

Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space.
Mark Shepard, ed. MIT Press, 2011. (200 pp. PB, US $24.95)

Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space is the bibliographic product of a several-year-long conversation that has traversed physical sites and publication venues. It all began in 2006 with the "Architecture and Situated Technologies" symposium organized by Mark Shepard and multiple individual and institutional partners, including the Architectural League of New York. The gathering focused on the critical roles that networked digital technologies play in shaping the urban environment—roles that "challenge [those] traditionally played by architects," who, if they are to be actively involved in directing the evolution of the networked city, "must insert themselves now into the discussion of how these technologies are conceptualized and deployed" (Wessner 9). Many symposium participants later contributed to the Situated Technologies Pamphlet Series, and then collaborated again in 2009 in organizing the Toward the Sentient City exhibition at the Urban Center in New York.

The projects on display at the exhibition are featured again in the book, but here they're "put…in[to] theoretical context" via essays by Shepard and other "prominent thinkers"—from Keller Easterling and Saskia Sassen to Matthew Fuller and Kazys Varnelis. In his introduction, Shepard, both exhibition curator and book editor, proposes that the volume is "less concerned with projecting near-future urban conditions than providing concrete examples in the present around which to organize a public debate on just what kind of future we might want" (14). That debate involves questioning the "implications of calling a city 'sentient'" (31). What does it mean to say that this is a place that "feels you, but doesn't necessarily know you"? (31) What does it mean to anthropomorphize spatial objects, to attribute agency to inanimate things, to assume that urban sentience translates into urbanite engagement? Both the case studies in the book's pages and the book-object itself, with its heat-sensitive cover, are what Lévi-Strauss might have regarded as bonnes à penser , goods to think with—goods with which to think about the future of the city, the future of situated technology, and architecture's potential contribution to both.
Spreads from <i>Sentient City</i>. Cover photo (above) by Thumb.
Spreads from Sentient City . Cover photo (above) by Thumb.
Visitors to the exhibition could engage with functioning prototypes, attend project demonstrations, and participate in charrettes and workshops linked to or inspired by the projects on display. Meanwhile, the exhibition website featured responses from critics and an "open archive" of projects related to the show's themes. The multiple platforms of the exhibition thus offered myriad "things" through which to think about the "things" on display. What does the book offer to this ongoing conversation? First, it aims to provide historical context: two opening essays, by Shepard and Hadas Steiner, identify Archigram's 1963 Living City exhibition at London's Institute for Contemporary Art and 1970's Information and Software exhibitions at MoMA and the Jewish Museum, respectively, as precursors. Second, the "Case Studies" section presents dossiers—statements of intent, research diaries, process documentation, sketches and data visualizations—for each of the five exhibited projects. These projects are all described on the exhibition's website, so I won't say much about them here, other than to note that the book permits the exhibitors to provide much greater methodological detail for their projects, particularly the processes through which they came into being, than would have been possible in the exhibition setting.
Spreads from <i>Sentient City</i>.
Spreads from Sentient City .
Finally—and perhaps most significantly, given that the final "Essays" section commands the largest part of the book—the printed object provides theoretical context for the case studies; this, we hope, offers deeper discussion and reflection than is possible through gallery wall texts or on-site demonstrations. Aside from a short overview in the book's introduction, there's little discussion of how these essays were chosen, how they're organized, or how they "think with," or through, the exhibitors' projects. The lack of a stronger editorial voice in this section also means that there is occasional redundancy (Latour's actor-network theory is mentioned repeatedly, yet no connection is made between these disparate references) and contradiction—much of which might have been productive if it had been acknowledged and addressed critically. For the most part, the "Essays" constitute a provocative if disjointed assemblage of "longstanding and established discourses on the technological mediation of urban life," along with new contributions to the debate on the aesthetics, politics, and economics of urban and ubiquitous computing (12). We range from Saskia Sassen on topographic representation (an adaptation of a 2001 Art Journal article), to Matthew Fuller on animal architectures, to Trebor Scholz on the "geospatial labor" we (un)wittingly perform by putting our "mobility [up] for sale," to Mimi Zeiger on "hacking" the sentient city as a form of "DIY urbanism."
Shepard wonders if the profession can 'engage a form of practice that no longer places the act of making buildings as the central and defining role of the architect?'. It must, if architects are to be involved in shaping our networked urban futures.
Spreads from <i>Sentient City</i>.
Spreads from Sentient City .
The conversation among these contributors might have been more productive if all of the authors were "thinking through" the same "things," the same bonnes à penser —or if Shepard more clearly contextualized their different subjects and scales of analysis. Yet it's this very disconnect that at times allows Sentient City , perhaps accidentally, to raise larger existential and epistemological questions. As stated very early in the book, and repeatedly throughout, the nature of architectural practice is under debate. Several contributors, while examining particular networked urban infrastructures or sensing technologies, ask, "But is this architecture?" Shepard wonders if the profession can "engage a form of practice that no longer places the act of making buildings as the central and defining role of the architect?" (37). It must, if architects are to be involved in shaping our networked urban futures.

We are left wondering, as we peruse the "Essays," how each author might be conceptualizing "sentience," and what he or she believes to be at stake: how do object sentience and human sapience converge when decisions are made regarding the design and deployment of new urban technologies? Thinking through the case studies' concrete examples of possible urban developments, and the sentient city as it is discursively constructed through this book, raises a larger question: what is the episteme of this urban sentience? What are the relationships between discourses of technological development, urban design, architecture, research methodology, data visualization, and other practices that collectively contribute to the creation of the sentient city—and how do they structure how we know the city and urban experience? What does it mean to employ inductive, data-driven methodologies to produce spaces that activate efficient urban actions, or, in Anne Galloway's words, "transmit the right kinds of urban experience"? (222). What, and who, is "right" in the sentient city? Do data decide? Because Sentient City offers little help in the way of thinking across the theoretical discussions in its "Essays" section, or thinking through the "Case Studies" via those essays, it relies heavily on the sapience of its readers to extract productive questions to frame "a public debate on just what kind of [an urban] future we might want."
Spreads from <i>Sentient City</i>.
Spreads from Sentient City .
Shannon Mattern is a faculty member in the Department of Media Studies and Film at The New School. Her research and teaching address relationships between the forms and materialities of media and the spaces (architectural, urban, conceptual) they create and inhabit. She's written about libraries and archives, media companies' headquarters, place branding, public design projects, and urban media art. You can find her at wordsinspace.net.
Spreads from <i>Sentient City</i>.
Spreads from Sentient City .

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