Rethinking Montreal: Sensorial Urbanism

Sensorial Urbanism In recent years, the human and social sciences, from anthropology to geography, have undergone a \'sensorial revolution\' in which the \'senses\' constitute not so much a new field of study as a fundamental shift in the mode and media we employ to observe and define our own fields of study. This studio will test the possibility of combining different approaches to contemporary urbanism with such a \'sensorial urbanism,\' in order to better understand the character and atmosphere of urban settings, while contributing to a new definition of urban space. The perception of the urban environment has always changed in time, in accordance with different cultural perceptions. Since the 18th century, cities have been gradually de-odorized, thanks to improved public sanitization, and the removal of both animals and heavy industry from central areas. Likewise, in the early 20th century, a desire for noise abatement led to zoning initiatives which separated industrial and residential quarters. Whereas in the late 19th century the sound of the city came largely from people and animals, in the 20th century it had become mechanized. Once seen as a sign of industrial progress, this noise had become a hazard to be controlled and reduced.Today, this still-growing concern for general environmental conditions has resulted in a quantitative approach, based on measured regulations. In fact, architects and urban designers have rarely dedicated the attention to the sensorial effect necessary in order to address the senses in a qualitative way.MontrealThese constant shifts in the sensorial perception of the urban environment were manifest in Montreal in the 1960s and 1970s. This was a time when Montreal, encouraged by the adventurous confidence which defined its 1967 World Exhibition, became a laboratory for new infrastructures, building types and planning proposals. Architects, urbanists and theorists from around the world were drawn to the city, where for some years, everything seemed possible. Many of the megaprojects of the 1960s developed an idea of urban comfort based on the control of climatic conditions within an interiorized public space. These projects were often linked to each other and to the Metro through the \'underground city\', which led the English critic Reyner Banham to wonder if Montreal itself had not in fact been transformed into a megastructure. This new infrastructure – highways and metro – produced, at the same time, processes of decentralization and recentralization within Montreal\'s urban structure. The city center was affected by heavy processes of substitution, in which new projects replaced entire blocks or even sectors of the city. Together, these interventions deeply affected the structure and image of Montreal.Unsurprisingly, Montreal could not continue at this rapid pace of transformation. The optimism of the 1960s faded into the economic and political upheavals of the 1970s; citizens began to fear the mega-projects which had devoured so much of the city. While this new landscape Montreal acquired almost overnight now forms a large part of the image of the city, the coexistence of these interventions within the pre-existing structure is still an incomplete project. Furthermore, since the end of this period of bold moves and drastic changes, Montreal has had great difficulty in developing alternate urban strategies and visions.Cabot SquareThe area of Cabot Square, near to the Mies van der Rohe-designed Westmount Square complex, is an example of this unresolved coexistence between different urban structures and visions: the traditional Montreal of the 19th and early 20th centuries on one side, and the Modern project of the 1960s-1970s interventions on the other. It has recently declined, and now forms a vague and awkward pocket in Montreal\'s downtown. While densely-populated, this area is interru