Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle | Book Cover

Solid & Void

The general perception of architecture today indicates the design of the solid, the mass, the seen and the tactile. However, in a wide range of scales from cityscape to buildings, rooms, what really is designed is the void. The light, the sense, the feel, the mood. The capitalistic attributes to everyday life lead to the evolution of a lot of things including design and its parameters. The square meter is now calculated according to commodity features of the space as every inch will be translated in dollars, not according to psychological effects of the width or size of the space. In this article, I will try to explain how architecture turns into a commodity in various metropoles and how this spectacle is marketed in terms of culture and tourism. The starchitects[1] shaping these terms and how public space and the city scale are interrelatedly manipulated. As indicated by Marco Susani:

"I can only answer with a dream, not with a forecast: it will be a set of complex organisms integrated at different scales, from very small to global, supporting the exchange of experiences and every day’s social practices. Physical and material local communities enhanced by digital networking[2]”

Authors like the art theorist Hal Foster and the architectural historian Gevork Hartoonian have been expressing worry over the major movement of emphasis from the building toward the image and spectacle[3]. A new understanding of “imageability”, the focus of designing something attractive, photogenic and suddenly recognized structures, as Foster indicates. He says in his book The Art-Architecture Complex (2011):

“In the guise of our activation, some work even tends to subdue us, for the more it opts for special effects, the less it engages us as active viewers. […] The phenomenological reflexivity of ‘seeing oneself see’ approaches its opposite: a space that seems to do the perceiving for us. This is a new version of the old problem of fetishization, for it takes our thoughts and sensations, processes them as images and effects, and delivers them back to us for our appreciative amazement.”

This way Foster recognized sites that point on “the sensuous particularity of the here-and-now” (tactility), as a potential alternative to those benefitting vision and visuality[4]. Such sites he goes on, lead to a discharge on “the stunned subjectivity and arrested sociality supported by spectacle.”[5]

In an interview conducted with the sculptor Richard Serra, “Building Contra Image”, Foster runs the two terms against each other. During their conversation, they handle contemporary architecture in the dialectic of tectonic versus scenographic, structure versus skin[6].

“One of the big problems I see in architecture now is the division between the structure, the more engineered part, and the skin, the more architected part. The architect becomes the person who focuses a little on the layout and a lot on the ornament, whether it’s glass, titanium that bends, or scenographic surface, while the structure is handed over to the engineer. That wasn’t a problem with, say, Jørn Utzon in his Sydney Opera House. But the division becomes problematic with postmodern architecture, and more and more architects are limited to the design of ornament as skin. (There are exceptions, such as Koolhaas’ library in Seattle where the glass surface is tectonic).” [7]

Hartoonian also walked on a similar line whereas Foster. Like Foster’s statements in “The Art-Architecture Complex” or similarly in his previous work “Design and Crime (2002)” The leads Hartoonian follows in his work “Architecture and Spectacle: A Critique (2013) also feeds from Guy Debord’s readings. Debord’s definition on “Commodity Fetishism” is really felt in Hartoonian’s research area.

“In The Society of the Spectacle (1967) Guy Debord defined spectacle as ‘capital accumulated to such a degree that it becomes an image.’ With Gehry and other architects the reverse is now true as well: spectacle is an image accumulated to such a degree that it becomes capital.”[8]

“The spectacle…in the present context of commodification of the life-world should be considered neither a mere technological effect nor, as Debord reminds us, ‘something added to the real world…On the contrary it is the very heart of society’s real unreality’. […] Architecture today has become the site of spectacle, and its temporality is informed by a culture that is primarily image-laden […] It is therefore the task of the critic to uncover the thematic of the culture of building nestled beneath architecture’s spectacle.”[9]

Yet again, the opposition of the tactile and perceived, the void and the solid, the building and the image appears. According to Hartoonian, the surface, more accurately the skin or the envelope of the structure and the resurrection of organic forms also stemming from the increasing popularity of digital fabrication, are indications for an orientation towards the spectacular aims.[10] What has been discussed by Walter Benjamin in the “Paris: Capital of the 19th century” is the rising of the capitalism and the exhibitionist approach on the commodity[11].

“World exhibitions are the sites of pilgrimages to the commodity fetish. ‘Europe is on the move to look at merchandise,’ said Taine in 1835. The world exhibitions are preceded by national industrial exhibitions, the first of which takes place in 1798 on the Champ-de-Mars. It proceeds from the wish "to entertain the working classes, and becomes for them a festival of emancipation." The workers stand as customers in the foreground. The framework of the entertainment industry has not yet been formed. The popular festival supplies it[12].”

Hartoonian claims the logic of late capitalism is also a reflecting surface for this exhibitionism of the commodities on display. Simply put, he discusses how the skin design of the structures is indeed, a part of “the aesthetics of commodity fetishism”[13]

“Visual excess is what makes architecture today part of the culture of spectacle produced and sustained by late capitalism operating on a global scale.”[14]

The “Perceived” Scale

The scale matters. The height of the pavement we walk next to the height of the skyscraper, the size of a tin can next to a street poll, the grape and the watermelon etc. The core of an atom in the electron cloud is like a tennis ball in the middle of a football field. However, the scale is an illusion, a trick, a measure to spectate. The correct way to address it is by saying “perceived scale”. There are in a very basic way of thinking, very similar layouts on different levels of scales.

An incredible diversity is at the same time a mutual parameter for everything. Meaning, when we look how the satellites turn around planets and when we consider a microscope and observe the electrons sweeping around a core (protons and neutrons); in terms of concept and moving idea we can catch a beautiful similarity. This is an applicable idea for everything. A building has its vascular systems for circulation, rooms and service components in the same way, a city has its streets, boulevards and centers and a human having a heart, organs and vessels.

Watching the film "urbanized" this can be realized even better. To be able to understand how a city grows, how it is constructed and form its texture one should zoom into detailed scales. Sometimes a human itself in every angle: with his/her emotions, thoughts, physical features etc. gives more information or reference than a 1/10000 scale. To understand how an urban space is shaped we should firstly understand the needs of the habitants, the historical background, the memory of the city, the memories of the citizens, how the city tends to shift, how is the compact multi-disciplinary order working, the cultural paradigms, public-private qualifications, density, population predictions, geographical limitations, economic graphics and on and on... Because urbanization is not something temporary or momentarily decided. It considers the future with past references. The evolution of trading, battling, energy supply, industrial design, farming, socializing, movements, art, language, architecture all give signs of an unending need for updating. Our minds, emotions, reactions and philosophies change within time as human-beings. It all changes, evolves and turns into something else. The only thing remaining is the fact of changing. Therefore; a city should be updateable. The focus should be the methods of designing and applying being in harmony with the human and nature.

A designer in all disciplines should be able to sympathize with different thoughts, different angles just like the atheist architect Niemeyer designing 23 churches. It requires wider visions, being open-minded and ready to change. This also gives direction to the investments. Governing a city is very important in that sense. Investing on people or investing on the investments is mostly the case in most cities. The safety and the peace provided to people living and the solutions' qualifications -short-term or long-term- the challenges and the transformations are generally handled and leaded by a mayor which makes that chair very important.

The city must be designed always keeping the “perceived scale” in mind. Because this perception gives a message, it even shapes the personalities of the citizens, it may cause riots, provoke people or keep them calm. As imagined, this case is more complex than the choice between the tree and the road. It has subconscious stimuli, subliminal aspects. Take Walter Benjamin’s observation on the Haussmann’s Paris under the ruling of Napoleonic idealism.

“Haussmann' s urban ideal was of long perspectives of streets and thoroughfares. This corresponds to the inclination, noticeable again and again in the nineteenth century, to ennoble technical necessities by artistic aims. The institutions of the secular and clerical dominance of the bourgeoisie were to find their apotheosis in a framework of streets. Streets, before their completion, were draped in canvas and unveiled like monuments[15].”