Linguistic shortcomings

We do not have a well-developed language to explore and describe the senses, let alone in relation to the city. This restricts our capacity to experience fully, as only when we have words can we build on primary sensations. Without suitable descriptors, it is difficult to create and work with a rich associational palette around a sensation. Often we have to turn to literature to seek linguistic inspiration. Sights are better articulated because in general we have a rich vocabulary around physical appearance. Sounds too are easier to describe because language (itself a system of sounds as well as visual signs) can be used to approximate them: The whoosh of a car going past or the buzz of a bee (although, as noted, there are cultural discrepancies here). Smell and taste, however, seem to evade easy encapsulation. (Interestingly, unlike our other four main senses, smell goes directly to the limbic system in the brain. As a result, the immediate impact of smell is unfiltered by language, thought, clutter or translation.15) We rely more on metaphor and associations with other senses, dangers and pleasures here, hence terms such as 'comfort food' or 'the smell of death' and the use of adjectives like 'sharp', 'warm' and 'bursting'. Or else, we describe smells and tastes with reference to the source of the stimuli: 'fishy', 'musky', 'salty'.

The language of the senses is not rich enough for describing our cities today, especially when we think of the combined sensory experience together as one. Our language, unless we look to artists, is hollowed out, eviscerated and dry. It is shaped by the technical jargon of the professions, especially those in planning and the built environment: planning framework, qualitative planning goal, spatial development code, development strategy, outcome targets, site option appraisal process, stakeholder consultation, the role of the development board in delivering integrated services, income inadequacy, statutory review policy programme, neighbourhood framework delivery plan, sustainability proofing, benchmarking, underspend, empowerment, triple bottom line, visioning, mainstreaming, worklessness, early wins, step change, liveability, additionality.

The language of what cities look like is thus dominated by the physical but without descriptions of movement, rhythm or people. This visual language comes largely from architecture and urban design. Its principles derive from key texts such as that by Vitruvius, with notions of symmetry or harmony at its core.16 Descriptions of the visual city come from habits of portraying classic architecture where building components are illustrated: pedestals, columns, capitals, pediments and architraves. The language has broadened somewhat, yet still has a focus on static elements rather than dynamic wholes like space, structure, technology, materials, colour, light, function, efficiency, the expression and presence of a building. Urban design, meanwhile, sees and describes cities more as dynamic totalities: place, connections, movement, mixed uses, blocks, neighbourhoods, zones, densities, centres, peripheries, landscapes, vistas, focal points and realms. But both frequently exclude the atmospherics of cities, the feeling of the look. Does it make you shrink into yourself, make you calmly reflect or fill you with passion? Does it close you in or open you out? Does the physical fabric make you respond with a sense of 'yes' or 'no'? Does it involve you, make you want to participate?

Let's explore senses in turn, starting with sound.

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