To understand the sensescape of cities today, transport yourself back into a yesterday perhaps 250 years ago somewhere in Europe. Subtract the noises, smells and what you can see, touch and taste one by one: the car, petrol fumes, the hum of electrical appliances, air conditioning, grinding mechanical noises, asphalt, tall buildings, the profusion of glass, plastic materials and concrete.
Mid-18th century, a central street like Oxford Street in London, Nevsky Prospect in St Petersburg or Via Condotti in Rome would be deafening. The clacking and clatter of horses' hooves and carriages were so loud you couldn't hear yourself think. It would be almost impossible to hold a conversation. For a while the stone cobbles in London were changed into wooden cobbles to dampen the sound and quieten things down. The side streets would be immeasurably calmer and, away from the city hub, it would be near silent bar the shout of a voice or a distant bell. You get a sense of the back streets of old when walking through Venice today. You hear footsteps and even dogs walking, which can be eerie. In Europe the sound of bells would be ever-present, telling the time every fifteen minutes to watchless citizens. Bells would also call the people to prayer. The bells of each church were slightly misaligned for identification purposes. There were only short breaks between chimes. In market areas, there would be the sound of talking and shouting as wares were sold and other trades plied. There were fewer shops. Horses, dogs and pigs would add to the cacophony. There was thudding, clanging, banging and clinking as hammer hit metal or wood, making or mending things. Near the rivers on a busy day, the human voice would rise above other sounds. The pathways to the riverfront would be clogged up by horses and there would be lots of shouting as boatmen loaded and unloaded. In contrast to today, the sound of humanity would be more obvious.
The smell could be very strong, powerful, pungent and putrid, at times made up of horse, other animal and human shit, stagnant sewage, rotting garbage, interlaced on occasion by the whiff of lavender from a rich passer-by or a stall. A whiff too on occasion of a bakery, but more likely overpowered, especially if a tannery was nearby. Though not every street would have a stench this bad. You would smell people. People generally stank. Hygiene only truly came into its own from the mid-19th century.
There was more wood and masonry around. Things had a more hand-made feel, more rough to touch. The urban shapes were more crenulated and less angular. The hue of colours was more sombre -browns, greys and blacks, even for clothes because of dirt, dust and a lack of washing. Brighter reds, greens, blues and yellows were a rarity as dyeing was very expensive. The height of buildings averaged perhaps five times the human height, with the churches thrusting above as the only high buildings.
The look and smell of poverty would be all over - people dressed in unwashed, stinking rags, scrapping a living from the streets. The sound of disease would have been more prevalent too, with coughs and spluttering joining the yells and clatter.
But once out of the city, very soon the sounds and smells of nature and the overriding sense of the rural would take over. The city was the exception not the rule.
Fast forward to the early 20th century and much of the old smell has abated: sewerage systems are in place, there is a greater awareness of cleanliness and the motorcar has not yet marched its way to dominance. Nevertheless, new smells are on the horizon closer to those of today: smoke from coal whose heavy particles hang in the air and hover over the ground especially on cold days; burning home coal fires creating over time a smoggy filter and muggy atmosphere that would make you cough and choke. perhaps there would be a background of grease, sweet and sharp to the nose at the same time. Mechanical sounds are increasing: regular grinding, pumping, cutting and banging noises. The city begins to acquire its more angular, upright feel and heights are rising - ten, twenty times human height. Height is especially dominant in the emerging cities of the 'new continent'. Chicago, New York and philadelphia adopt a template of wide grid-patterning and buildings are built towards the sky, fuelled by an optimistic modernism. The building archetype is the factory, a paean to production. Retrospectively, the factory has a beauty, generates awe and inspires artists to revitalize them and the chi-chi-ria to transform them into apartments. Yet in their time, they told a different story. Factories, especially the great mills of Lowell or Halifax, have a monumental quality with their regular patterning, great halls and assembly yards. There is a mechanical feel, people suddenly feel secondary and like automatons.14 The machinery of city-making, as in construction, becomes ever larger with new types of crane, steel, pylons. Electricity is being embraced with such enthusiasm that
New York builds its first electric chair in 1888. Things are becoming more like today.
These are mere flavours of a past, not a detailed description. They seek to call forth memory, to suggest and evoke. Everyone can paint their own picture. Lest we are tempted to romanticize, they also remind us of some past dreadfulness, much of which has been overcome - disease, hunger and poverty, at least in the more developed world. On the other hand, grim and hideous as these were, they did not threaten the planet and civilization as have today's toxic set of chemical compounds and relentless exploitation of finite resources.
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