Toward the Sentient City: Interviews

Next week, the Architectural League will launch an ambitious, multi-platform exhibition – on view from September 18th to November 7th, 2009 – that will critically explore the evolving relationship between ubiquitous computing, architecture and urban space curated by Mark Shepard and organized by the League. Toward the Sentient City is organized around five newly commissioned projects distributed throughout the city and will also include a gallery and reading room, an open video archive, public programs, and a web-based portal for documentation and invited commentary.

The five commissioned projects include “intelligent” street furniture that behaves in unexpected ways by David Jimison and JooYoun Paek; a public interface to water quality and aquatic life of urban rivers by David Benjamin and Soo-in Yang in collaboration with Natalie Jeremijenko; a social network for collectively regulating energy consumption involving plant life as both carbon sink and circuit breaker by Haque Design + Research; smart tags for tracing the city’s digestive system and illuminating its removal chain by the SENSEable City Lab at MIT; and a festival of collaborative work sessions organized in urban public spaces by Anthony Townsend and the Breakout! team. Taken together, the projects in Toward the Sentient City aim to catalyze public discussion on the design and inhabitation of near-future urban environments.

According to the project’s director, Gregory Wessner (Exhibitions Director, the Architectural League of New York),

Over the past several years, as the Architectural League has become increasingly involved in exploring the proliferation of various types of ambient, mobile and ubiquitous computer technologies, we have often been asked, what does this have to do with architecture? … At a moment when new digital technologies seem to be dematerializing more and more of the world around us (think books, CDs, photographs), what impact can they possibly have on the insistent materiality of buildings and cities?

The exhibition offers a provocative series of answers to these questions. In advance of the opening next week, Urban Omnibus has invited the commissioned teams to answer, in their own words, what they think their project has to do with architecture and what it has to do with the future of the city.

Too Smart City

Three pieces of street furniture – a bench, a trash can, and a sign – offer a comedic challenge to the notion that increasingly “smarter” embedded intelligence and robotic systems are an aspirational goal in the design of objects, environments and services in public space.

Amphibious Architecture

Two networks of interactive, luminescent tubes floating in the East River and the Bronx River monitor and report water quality, presence of fish and human interest in the river. Through a simple text message interface, the project links the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems of the city, urging citizens to look beneath the surface and suggesting a new mode of engagement with natural systems and public information.

Natural Fuse

A city-wide network of biotic devices act as both electricity outlets and as a shared resource that offsets C02. The exhibition space will act as a store where visitors trade in an economy of plants networked in their ability to produce electricity and to act as a carbon-sink. Cooperation among user produces more energy to share; inefficiencies or greed diminish the network’s capacity.

Trash Track

Hundreds of small, smart, location-aware tags – deployed in Seattle and New York – track different types of trash through the city’s waste management system, revealing the often surprising journeys of our everyday objects in a series of real time visualizations.


This festival liberates workers from the traditional offices spaces and invites them to relocate their work in urban public settings, relying on three sets of tools: lightweight infrastructure, social software and facilitators’ guides that will jumpstart collaborations to inspire creative workers, activate street-life and intensify the use of under-performing public spaces.

The Sentient City Hub Exhibition will be on view at The Urban Center
from September 18th to November 7th, 2009.
457 Madison Avenue
New York City

Gallery hours:
Monday – Saturday (closed Thursday)
11 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Free admission

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.