When the Unremarkable Becomes Remarkable

by Caitlin

Screen Shot 2016-11-23 at 17.53.55.png

Unknown Artist. Nightbox.

Urban ambiance. Poetics of Space. The sense of tone. Emotional cartography. Do you feel that wind. The metaphor not the element. How my memory is fogged, and then the street gives way to an open hill and I remember something quite young. As if the world is seen momentarily through pink eyelids of a newborn foal. The moment the road became remarkable.

Urban ambiance is a term popularised over the past twenty years to help describe  and analyze the affect of the sensory landscape on the urban landscape and the people that occupy it (Amphoux, Thibaud, and Chelkoff 2004). As much as we are encouraged to simplify and reduce concepts into neat and separate compartments described by precise linguistic terms, urban ambiance makes no apologies for stating that it is distinctly different from  concepts like environment, comfort and landscape, and instead has everything to do with ecological interconnection, subjectivity, and intermingling (Thibaud, 2o11).

If the term must be set into a succinct definition, urban ambiance is a lens to feel through. To re-engage with our senses, and permit them to co-exist, fire, dwindle, surge, retreat, collide and contradict. It is concerned with subtlety and nuance, and the tones and shadows of the urban environment. Sociologist John Thibaud sums it up as “an ambiance can be provisionally defined as a space-time qualified from a sensory perspective. It emerges as an alternative way to bridge the sensate, spatial, and social domains” (Thibaud, 2011, p.204).

Screen Shot 2016-11-23 at 17.58.03.png

Image sourced from the Telegraph. Photographer unknown.

The playground wall represented a thousand good-byes. It worked well, keeping the children in and the dogs out, but for me it was as sad as the parting between the living and the dead.

To delve deeper into this theoretical framework, Thibaud posits that there are four main characteristics that distinguish this research field.

Firstly, urban ambiance is holistic and belongs to the body more than the mind. It is built on the assumption that we are perceiving the world through a unified sensory encounter. We are not perceiving and responding to the world based on reductive analysis of isolated sensory variables. An encounter with ambiance involves embodying all the senses at once.

Secondly, ambiance expresses an “affective tonality” (Thibaud, 2011, p.204). It gives space for the moods and emotional tones of material urban life to emerge and to be observed. This helps to understand how spaces and urban environment is perceived in terms of subtlety, association, memory and poetics.

Thirdly, urban ambiance is a research method and critical approach that dismisses a normative approach. One that aims to name phenomena and give it an emotional attribute or name. Urban ambiance allows us to describe the whole experience of a sensory moment, without needing to underline it with an evaluative judgement. We can focus on the description and be liberated from constructing a value judgement. When engaging with urban ambiance, space is opened up for in depth, bracketed observation, as advocated by Hussurl in his development of phenomenology.

Lastly, ambiance privileges the activity between the urban environment and the activity of its residents. It stresses importance on how social activity shapes the meaning and form of the built urban environment. In this sense, urban ambiance is closely related to the commitment to description and analysis of subjective meaning, that is central to ethnographic and phenomenological research methods. Both are concerned with accessing the experiences of the individual as a means of understanding how and why meaning has been constructed, and in turn, how such meaning shapes social behaviour.

Now we have had a brief introduction to the theory, I will address the question; why is urban ambiance relevant to Sonorous States? It is an emerging discipline that is relevant to artists, designers, urban planners, cultural geographers, ethnographers and those engaged with sensory studies. It provides a space to research, analyse and organise methods of inquiry that focus on examining how urban spaces hold subtle emotional tones, how social behaviour shapes environment, and how the body perceives place, as well as the eye and the mind. Through my PhD research project Sonorous States, I’m particularly interested to study what relational affect site-specific sound installations have on individual experience of place, and how such interventions affect social behaviour. Additionally, I am interested in measuring if engagement with such urban interventions are shaped by economic class, and want to further understand the relationship between wealth and perceived permission to engage with public sound art.

Three main ideas running through the theory of urban ambiance that connect to established philosophical thought about embodied cognition, experience and perception are those of ambiance as action, ambiance as experience and ambiance as progress. Ambiance gives us space to feel more completely, to understand that perception is not just the activity observed in the mind and seen through the eyes. The body is a site of knowledge and, the way it knows is distinctly different from the way we use language and thought to give a name to knowledge.

I ran my hands over the edge of the door. I knew what happened here and how. I opened the door as easily as breathing, and slowly walked inside. 


Gregory Crewdson (2011) Photograph. Available Pintrest.

Through the framework urban ambiance, we are presented with the idea that thought, research, interpretation and analysis are not only residents in the hotel of the mind, but belongs also, to the intelligence of the body.  The body as the site of knowing (Merleau-Ponty, 1968). In the aforementioned article, Thibaud refers to Merleau-ponty as a philosopher who paved the way in terms of arguing that the body is the primary site of knowledge. For Merleau Ponty, perception was not a channel that names and filters information, but a more holistic process that is interpreted by interaction between the body a environment. Merleau-Ponty coined the term “primacy of perception.” What he refers to here, is the idea that we are first perceiving the world, then we construct language to help us identify and interpret the experience.

I can feel you when you breathe. I can feel you when you breathe. Breathe. 

Screen Shot 2016-11-23 at 18.02.32.png

Christian Boltanski (Date Unknown). Apres.

We perceive the world through our bodies; we are embodied subjects, involved in existence. Sensations for Merleau-Ponty are the unit of experience. Through his work, he sets out to explore the pre-objective realm of our lived experience. We cannot understand the objective world without lived experience of the world. The senses in perceiving the objects in the world are not separate, but overlap and transgress each other’s boundaries (Moran, 2000).

Moving onto the idea of urban ambiance as a more detailed means of describing and analysing experience. John Thibaud further clarifies the thinking behind urban ambiance in the essay  The Sensory Fabric of Urban Ambiances. He statesan ambiance-centric approach places the perceiver at the heart of the world he or she perceives and puts the emphasis on its all-encompassing nature, rather than any direct face-to-face relationship.” (Thibaud, 2011, p. 204). What is significant here, is the importance given to the individual experiencing a whole; this links nicely back to the premise that urban ambiance is best hooked onto an ecological philosophy of perception; one that considers perception as enmeshed with the environment and sensory stimuli within which something is identified, named and responded to. And so with the importance of individual, context specific perception in hand, we can turn our heads to the notion of experience.

At this point I will introduce the work on experience furthered by philosopher and psychologist Jon Dewey. According to Dewey, situations form the basic units of all types of experience and can be defined as the “environing experienced world.” “What is designated by the word ‘situation’ is not a single object or event or set of events. It is argued thus, as we never experience nor form judgments about objects and events in isolation, but only in connection with a contextual whole. This latter is what is called a ‘situation’(Dewey 1938: 66). A situation, therefore, cannot be reduced to a series of isolated or separable elements. It necessarily involves a unity that gives meaning to the whole and its parts. At this point, we can see that a way to comprehend experience, is to look at the units of a situation. These must be considered as moments or units of relationship, in time based, location specific interaction with one another. We are looking at a system not a relationship. In his theory of pervasive qualities (Dewey 1931), Dewey stresses the importance of unity in an experience, and sets forth the idea of “tertiary quality”. Empirical philosophy makes a distinction between primary (form, number, movement, solidity) and secondary qualities o (color, sound, smell, taste) that describe and give shape to an experience. But Dewey goes beyond this, by preferring to use tertiary quality as a means of describing a coherent qualities that help give shape to experience. By this term he means to interpret and read an experience as whole. Thibaud refers frequently to Dewey’s work and thinking on the identification and definition of experience. What links urban ambiance to the idea of experience is that it provides space for the individual to describe a holistic account of a primal perception, and it also emphasises the affect of the invisible and felt of perception, behaviour and relation within space. As Thibaud describes “ambiance cannot be reduced to a sum of isolated objects, discrete signals, successive sensations, or individual behavior patterns. It unifies the situation and colours the environs.” (Thibaud, 2015, p. 206).

When I introduced the idea of ambiance as progress, it is in attempt to communicate the real world application of urban ambiance, and outline it’s practical applications. Urban ambiance is more than a lens to look through in pursuit of a more nuanced, multi sensory and embodied world. One where design processes at local authority level incorporates the significance of factors such as lighting, texture, spatiality, sonics and other interfaces that influence the realm of bodily perception. Taking a phenomenological approach to perception, one that recognises the complexity of perception, and challenges the idea that perception is always about perceiving objects, urban ambiance can drive forwards conversations and debates about how to incorporate corporeal and sensual sensitivity into the day to day landscape and experience of the city. Furthermore, the idea of perception of place being dependent on relationships between form.

To conclude, I want to take a moment to link the the field of urban ambiance back to my research question, and summarise how it is relevant to my research. Sonorous States is a project that sets out to examine the affect of sound installations on individual behaviour within public space. The leading question is “What behavioural affects are produced by public sound art installations, situated in urban environments?”  In order to answer this question I need to refer to theories and methods that examine affect, behaviour and sensorality, specifically auditory sensorality, specifically within public spaces. I am also in the process of reviewing a tonne of literature across the fields of urban studies, sound studies and socially engaged art. But relating the ideas of urban ambiance back to my research question, there are three relevant themes that present themselves. A focus on embodied perception as a pose to ocularcentricity. A inquiry into the psychology of perception, and what affect materiality, spatiality and movement has on perception. An interest in the affective tonality of environment, and how subtle, backgrounded aspects of environment play a key role in perception and feeling of a place.

Using the notion of ambiance, it is possible to introduce research methods, and indeed terminology to assist various professions involved in the conception, design and fabrication of space to make space to think about the sensory, affective and material dimensions of our built environment. This material and embodied lens to help understand how and why people behave the way they do in certain environments recognises the complexity of relationships between people and their surroundings. Hence, a comprehensive approach is required that acknowledges the variety of ways in which city dwellers deal with and handle urban situations. In order to grasp one of the main epistemological implications of the notion of ambiance, it is necessary to bear in mind that it relies on a modal rather than a causal logic. The key question lingers on how and in what conditions do people perceive the way they do. Here we can see links between ambiance and ethnography, and an interest in understanding perception and psychology behind behaviour and action. It is clear to me that urban ambiance is a field of study and research that is relevant bed, in which to lay my question and research interests. Additionally many of the ideas to do with perception, embodiment, tonal affect and environmental nuances will aid my own exploration into prior research relevant to Sonorous States, as well as present new questions that will inform the development of the project.


Amphoux, P., J.P. Thibaud, and G. Chelkoff (eds) (2004) Ambiances en Débats. Grenoble: Editions A la Croisée.

Dewey, J. (1931) Qualitative Thought In Philosophy and Civilization, pp. 93–116. New York: Minton, Balch & Co.

Dewey, J. (1934) Art as Experience. New York: Minton, Balch & Co.

Dewey, J. ( 1938) Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Moran, D. (2000) Introduction to Phenomenology. London: Routledge.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1968) The Visible and the Invisible. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, M.  (1970) Themes from the Lectures at the Collège de France, 1952–1960. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Thibaud, J.P. (2004) De la qualité diffuse aux ambiances urbaines. In B. Karsenti and L. Quéré (eds) Raisons Pratiques. La croyance et l’enquête, pp. 227–53. Paris: Editions de l’EHESS.

Thibaud J.P. (2011) The Sensory Fabric of Urban Ambiances. In The Senses and Society, 6:2, 203-215, DOI: 10.2752/174589311X12961584845846