Walk the City Blindfolded

Ruminating over old notes, projects, travels and the like I happily remembered an exercise, or field trip, I participated in while studying in Copenhagen. As often occurred, the class time for my urban design theory class was devoted to a walking field trip. These were always memorable and educational days, walking through the cobbled and serpentine streets of Copenhagen, where stately and patinad buildings stand side-by-side with contemporary design. Doing so blindfolded stimulated us to pay more attention to our remaining senses, bringing a whole new level of experience and appreciation to the city.

Strolls through these parts of the city are always awash with life. Wafting, blowing, hinting and delighting, smells abound in the air of the city, the air of the harbor and canals, the bakeries, cafes, sidewalks, gutters and garbage. A cool breeze brings warm smells of rolls and coffee, chills from the water, and the premonition of rain from the skies, from the clouds, grey canvases creased with strokes from the wind, laden and permanent over the land, cloaking the sun and damping out precious hours of daylight. Already the shadows of the passages seem to darken. The nose awakens, ancient olfactory machinations, aware of more in the air. Damp, moss covered corners, dusty crevices, sharp tinge of urine, stale smell of spilled beer. Echoes, reverberations, vibrations, clues, phantoms fill the auditory space of our worlds. Painting a three-dimensional panorama invisible to our eyes we understand more of the physical world and spaces we occupy. Sounds from the street recede, replaced by strengthening echoes from our footsteps, our conversations, our belts of laughter and hushed whispers. Under echoing footfalls, old and worn cobblestones greet the feet. Thin shoe soles do not impede the nerves and skin from contouring, tracing the outline of each cobble, worn corners, imperfect gaps of patterns and intervals that never repeat, lain with the uniquely creative and imperfect laboring hand. Fingertips are reassured by rough brick sliding coarsely by in the darkness, scraping fingernails add to the acoustic space while imperceptibly being ground, filed, shaped. Minute imperfections unable to hide from the sensitive skin, acutely aware of even the slightest deviance from perfection, appreciating the endless story told upon the face of brick after brick. A gasp, a rush of blood, flush of the face, pulse quickening step into the abyss. A loss of repetition in the footfalls, a dislocation of the ground plane, hands flinching to seize the unseen for support. Laughter and apologies from nearby friends and classmates, forgot to the mention the step down, won’t happen again. Winding down a street, feeling the shape of the city, the shape of the constructive forces of centuries past, cross streets and alleys signified by the opening and closing of sounds, bikes bells, conversation, echoes, distant sounds barely able to address us. A bustle is approaching, sounds of commerce, rush, heavy pedestrian traffic, walking faster, energizing the air, feeling the space of the city, the crush of the crowd. Cobbles smooth out underfoot, pace quickens, less to feel here on the recently lain cobbles, full of intricate tone and pattern (or so your friend tells you). Conversations from passerbys, sounds of transactions and inquiries, cinnamon roles, hot dogs, ice cream, meat, coffee and more roll in wave upon wave across the nose. Strangers unseen brush by, bumping shoulders, rustling coats, fragments of words bounce away in the turbulence, light smells hang ephemerally in the air, sweat, stress, masks, memories, desires. Seated upon a bench, feet value the rest from labor, leg and back muscles relax, re-adjust as they feel out the contours of the bench, the chill of metal, the spacing of the slats. Light rushes in as the blindfold is removed, squinting, blinking eyes welcome the contraction of the pupil, a return of focus to the scene, a return to the dominance of the eye.

Simple outings as powerful reminders of the deep and envoking world enlightened by the senses. A chance for a retrospective on the ocular-centric culture of our day and lives, and the archaic, embedded, indescribably rich experiences open to us if we close our eyes. Considering how much our senses contribute to how we feel about a place, how we define a place, as well as remember it, ample energy should be given to address all of our haptic system in our designs, large and small.

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