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Experiencing a sense of place

The second international congress on ambiances comes to Montreal
September 11, 2012
By Tom Peacock

A major event, the second international congress on ambiances, Ambiances in Action, is coming to Montreal’s Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) from September 19 to 22, and it’s largely thanks to Concordia’s new multidisciplinary Centre for Sensory Studies.

Back in 2005, Concordia faculty members collaborated with the CCA on an exhibition and catalogue entitled Sense of the City, which presented an alternate approach to understanding the urban environment and architecture, putting the accent on the senses. The congress has a similar mission.

“The focus of the congress dovetails nicely with the objective of the centre, where what we’re interested in is how the senses are constructed and lived differently in different cultures and historical periods, and how these constructions affect the experience of place, among other things” says Professor David Howes from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and a founding member of the Centre for Sensory Studies. “Various members of the centre were instrumental in attracting the congress to Montreal.”
As Howes explains, studying ambiances is essentially trying to deepen our understanding of spaces and how we interact with them through our different senses. For example, visiting a building and actually walking through it leads to a more profound understanding than simply seeing a picture of it.

“Instead of thinking about architecture solely in terms of bricks and mortar, or about architectural form in some very abstract sense, what we’re trying to do is get at the idea of atmosphere,” he says.

“What is atmosphere, how do you study it? Can you measure it in the same way you can measure light levels, or a building’s footprint? No, atmosphere is very elusive, and you need to start working on other ways entirely of imagining and studying it.”

Over 80 oral presentations will be given during the congress on a range of subjects relating to ambiances. There will also be lectures by two high-profile invited speakers: artist, lighting designer and environmental psychologist Linnaea Tillett, who will deliver the talk, Finding Atmosphere/Making Ambiance: A View from Practice; and renowned architect Elizabeth Diller, from the New York-based firm Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, known for its interdisciplinary approach to architecture (Diller has yet to announce the subject of her talk).

During a special outdoor session, Associate Professor Andra McCartney from Concordia’s Department of Communication Studies, in collaboration with PhD student David Paquette, will offer an interactive sound walk. “A group of people will do a sound walk together, and afterwards they’ll discuss what they’ve heard, and we’ll talk about how we might represent what we heard to a larger community,” McCartney explains. “Then there will be an audio piece made out of the event.”

What’s interesting about the shared experience of a sound walk, McCartney explains, is how varied people’s perceptions can be of the sounds they hear. “It brings to the surface all the different ways that people are listening,” she says.

Also during the outdoor session, two other congress delegates — Victoria Henshaw, a researcher at the Manchester Architecture Research Centre in England, and Montreal-based researcher Natalie Bouchard — will offer a guided smell walk, “investigating city scents, whiffs and stinks.”

As Howes explains, when it comes to the study of ambiances, it’s not all roses. “There are lots of interesting issues to be dealt with in terms of sensorial clashes in the contemporary urban environment,” he says, citing the sound of church bells competing with a Muslim call to prayer, or the smells of different ‘ethnic’ cuisines mixing at street level.

Ambiances in Action is co-produced by the International Network on Ambiances, led by the research groups CERMA Laboratory Architectural and Urban Ambient Environment and the Centre for research on sonic space and urban environment (CRESSON) from the Graduate Schools of Architecture of Nantes and Grenoble (UMR CNRS 1563 Architectural and Urban Ambiances), with the CCA and Concordia’s Centre for Sensory Studies.

What: The second international congress on ambiances, Ambiances in Action
When: Wednesday, September 19 to Saturday, September 22, 2012
Where: Canadian Centre for Architecture (1921 Baile Rd.), Montreal

Related links:
•    Ambiances 2012
•    Concordia’s Centre for Sensory Studies
•    Sensory Studies research current

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