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].”

Haussmann tried to achieve an inducement of people towards a subtler way of life. Considering the massive riots and revolutions the city has been through, the street configuration of the Napoleonic 19th century Paris was disabling the chance of building a barricade or attempting a collective opposition event[16]. This was achieved through architecture. The scale of the boulevards, both creating a strong axis which throughout the history made a hint at the strength of the current regime, and an opportunity to have a lot of shops through the streets and preventing the possibility of a civil war.

Other than the “perceived scale”, the material also was a means to create a cloud of proposal for a way of life in 19th century Paris according to Benjamin. The increase in the trend of textile was one of the strongest reasons for the arcades to arise according to Benjamin. Collecting the luxury goods under Siamese constructions while using art for commerce and attraction parameter. The new material, iron, craved with ancient figures creates an intermingle between the old and the new which is a means of being presented as a fetish, a makeover. The new glass, iron and marble, the Empire style, the erection of capitalism in 19th century Paris[17].

City, Citizen & Spectacle

Benjamin also makes some statements supporting this issue in his “A Berlin Chronicle”, an autobiographical essay and study on Berlin which feeds from personal memories. How the perception is used or in a more correct way, manipulated to enhance commerce, consuming. The city becomes the field for the commodity and he has witnessed the early stages of this transition beginning from his adolescent years[18]

Benjamin’s Berlin is a modern urban city. He considers modernity not as a progress but a new interpretation of all the other epochs which are in fact the same. The antiquity veiled in modernity and the modernity in the antiquity. He rendered the term urbanism from a perspective where cities are the site for the “new”. A source for the creation of authenticity and therefore creation of attraction for people[19].

Simmel also discusses the outcomes of the metropolis lifestyle and acts as the constant observer noting down the way people perceive themselves, others and the very fabric, an urban tissue contains and draws an analysis on the mental state of these people. [20]

Before trying to brainstorm on the metropolis of Simmel, a primer comparison of him and Benjamin would clear the way out. While comprehending the metropolis of Simmel and the Berlin of Benjamin, some similar keywords may be noticed that they both declared in their writings. These similar observations are derived from the existing urban texture, even though these authors lived in different years and witnessed other social structures and lifestyles. One is the flaneur of Benjamin[21]: invisible, observer, non-commercial oriented who reminds the blasé person of Simmel, lacking the capacity to react to new stimuli[22]. Another one is the fact that in both their cities, they were fascinated mostly by the social phenomena. Benjamin found the “sameness” of things important since it was the key to creating a platform for the ones trying to be different. (the marginals of Simmel). Benjamin was trying to achieve a curtain against the stimuli, creating a hypothetical glass behind of which he could silently observe without getting affected by the colors. (the blasé person of Simmel)[23].

The important point here, is the fact that the city layout, the spectacle provided by the cities caused this road separation. The choice between the grayness or the colorfulness. And architecture plays a big role at this assertion. Architecture that turns into commodity, that creates the stimuli of spectacle, which leads us to the trending definition of the 21st century, the “starchitects”. The architects who are stars. The spectacle is gradually related with pop culture, with what happens to be popular. Therefore; the very term “starchitecture” gets interesting. It implies a person being like a rock star, being famous and popular. Just like global artists shaping the young followers’ minds as they accept whatever the artist says or does as correct or worse, as a must, the designs of the starchitects generally (as in the society, not always in the academic circles) are considered as perfect, attractive or a success case. What is being forgotten here is again, as mentioned before, the scale, the material, the references derived from the urban fabric, the city. A metropole is dependent on the economy and now with the strong capitalism ruling the world and the globalization, the economy depends on the spectacle. Moreover; the architecture now serves this spectacularism by means of starchitecture. Cities competing to become a global city and attract tourists, promote and market their culture. However; they need a landmark, an Eiffel tower for people to capture shots and share on social media. This is now the system, the routine, the “carnival[24]” on a virtual basis. One can remember the Guggenheim Bilbao case at this point and how a city was put on the map.

There is a term called the “Bilbao effect” today describing the impact of a cultural project bringing gentrification, awareness and a global cache to a still developing city. [25] As this is what Guggenheim Bilbao did to city of Bilbao in Spain. Herbert Muschamp, The New York Times architecture critic called the swelling structure a “miracle.”[26] Being a trend setter as a city resurrecting method due to the beneficial attitudes for the local economy, several cities have tried to match its success by hiring renown starchitects to design such spectacular structures.

Architectural Tourism

Using this line of perspective, the culture, and the marketing of the culture, aka tourism appears on the horizon. Looking at the architectural history, keeping the function aside, the aesthetic or the configuration of functional characteristics of a structure take its routes from the cultural background. Ancient Greek temples, Seljukid Kumbets, Japanese roofscapes etc. all have a unique characteristic, a sound of their own, an originality. Moreover; tourism today still find its livelihood with this historical culture-specific designs. The spectacle of the history is still on the stage. However; with this starchitecture also taking a lead role at the play, the cultural references in designs -although whether it is right or wrong is another debate- have decreased which can also be tied to globalization and the global culture. The race of metropoles to become a global stop of tourism the competition for hosting the festivals, Olympics, Eurovision. The capitalist order reinforcing the consumer society encourage people to visit the places, spend the money. Moreover, on the other hand, the spectator is not visiting the city just to taste the authentic taste, to hear the local music or to see the local landmarks, it is also to prove or to show a special personal life style as if no one else achieves this privilege. The spectator feeds from the cities’ need to attract people for their need to feel cool and special, and vice versa. A personalized, isolated, lonely crowd of people consuming images and a whole repainting of thousands of skins and façades by architecture. Debord also points out this spectator and consumerist society in his book “The Society of the Spectacle (1967)”[27].

The alienation of the spectator is another aspect interrelated with the enlarged lonely crowds [28]. Debord argues the spectacle being the map of this new world where the spectator does not feel at home anywhere as the spectacle is everywhere. The spectacle’s social function is the concrete manufacture of alienation[29]. This is what Debord refers to as “the weapon reinforcing the lonely crowds” for the spectacle. The more the spectator contemplates, the less he lives; the more he finds his identity in the dominant images of need, the more he gets lost in his own life and his own desires.

“[…] in global culture industry, not only the mediascape, but also the cityscape takes on intensive qualities. Architecture and urbanism become less a question of objects and volumes. Urban space becomes a space of intensities. These intensities, which are virtual, describe a certain topology. They describe a space of multimodal experience, not just that of vision, a space of virtualities and intensities that actualize themselves not as objects but as events. Thus, Bernard Tschumi speaks of 'event-architecture' (2005), while in Rem Koolhaas's Harvard Guide to Shopping (2001) architecture becomes increasingly surfaces of communication, intensities, events. Global culture industry is a matter in this sense of object-events. Our cultural objects are self-organizing systems, sometimes operationally closed, at other points emergent, singularities forming connective syntheses, at many points actualizing themselves in events. Contemporary culture - unlike that of the classical culture industry- is 'event-culture'.[30]”

While society members are going through alienation and the architecture is becoming the surface of interaction, tourism takes form with this formation. In essence, architecture can be interpreted as Vitruvius did some hundreds of years ago. Three elements of architecture, firmitas (firmness), commoditas (commodity) and venustas (delight)[31]. However, every culture held up a unique way of handling these and this formed culture where culture formed diversity and this diversity led to tourism, for the purposes of discovery. The discovery of how the other nations did what. At the point where this originality was consumed and all discovered, more originality was needed. A brand-new approach to build. The magnification, the manipulated proportions, the exaggerated scales and high-cost projects, the “wow-effect” In “Metapolis- dictionary of advanced architecture (2003)” the necessity of exploiting a city’s architectural and cultural elements with a view to attract a bunch of visitors and gradually the economic flow[32].

“According to the World Tourism Organization (WTO), tourism is the world's largest growth industry with no signs of slowing down in the 21st century. Tourism has the power to transform reality and can become a legitimate, resourceful and efficient way to qualitatively change contexts. Yet, mass tourism contains within its looming danger of the voracious consumption of places and cultures. It also has the potential to plant the seeds of its own destruction before benefits are harvested[33].” Kelly Shannon

To Sum Up

Tourism keeps being the routine breaker, the momentarily carnival, the revival of the extinct grotesque, it keeps the money flowing, the economy intact and the capitalistic, consumeristic order strong. For this purpose and in this everlasting cycle, it finds new sources to depend on ever and ever again. Under the scope of this discourse, architecture finds a neat place under the spot as it has been one of the main sources for tourism to grow. Once it was the perfection seeking, the perfect proportions, detailed craftsmanship, power shows with glorification of the structures. Within time this means of attraction evolve into strong axis oriented city plans, landmarks at the squares and plazas and the whelm of the dictatorship influences on everything including design in various scales. After that the height contest arose. The highest building, the strongest economy the terrifying smothering over scaled towers until the point where building height wasn’t something interesting anymore. Throughout the history there were always some starchitects, some anonymous. They weren’t named starchitects maybe because being an alien wasn’t frowned upon back then, or visiting some place new wasn’t something that much desirable leading the buildings to be designed for other purposes. Today, starchitects are equipped with the technology. Not only the digital fabrication or using medias capes but also the high-tech engineering that lets pushing the limits of physics. There are surfaces. Amorphic, folded, organic, metallic or transparent surfaces, now. Turning into a spectacle, enabling the commodification. The meaning gets flushed or evacuated. Less is more, less is a bore, form follows function, or the opposite, an everlasting shift in opinions or architectural behavior keeping the interest alive, the foreign amused and the nation proud. Keeping the money flow. The new way of configuring surfaces, of architecture. What is the building for, to look at, or to feel at? Is it the solid, or the void?

“Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space”

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe


The lectures with Professor Levent Soysal in the course City And Spectacle in Kadir Has Unviersity takes full credit for the brainstorms and the idea generation behind this article. Therefore the essential reference to be mentioned here is dear Mr. Soysal and his classes. This course was taken as a part for my masters degree in the university.

[1] This will be detailed in following pages.

[2] Gausa, M. (2003). The Metapolis dictionary of advanced architecture: city, technology and society in the information age. Barcelona: Actar, pg.122.

[3] Wolfe, Ross (2014, May 16). Architecture and its image. Retrieved May 18, 2017, from https://thecharnelhouse.org/2014/05/16/architecture-and-its-image/ (article)

[4] Foster, H. (2009). Vision and visuality. Seattle: Bay Press, Pgs. ix-xiv. (Vision and Visuality)

[5] Foster, H. (2011). The art-architecture complex. London: Verso, Pg. xii. (The Art-Architecture Complex) ; Wolfe, Ross (article)

[6] Wolfe, Ross (article)

[7] Foster, pg.234 (The Art-Architecture Complex)

[8] Foster, H. (2003). Design & crime. Milano: Postmedia books, Pg. 41. (Design and Crime)

[9] Hartoonian, G. (2013). Architecture and Spectacle: a critique. London, England: Ashgate Publishing Pg. 47.; Wolfe, Ross (article)

[10] Hartoonian, pgs.233-254

[11] Benjamin, W. Paris: Capital of the Nineteenth Century, Metropolis Center and Symbol of Our Times, New York University Press, New York, pg. 50. (Paris)

[12] Benjamin, p.49 (Paris)

[13] Hartoonian

[14] Hartoonian, p.255-256

[15] Benjamin, p.53 (Paris)

[16] Benjamin, p. 54 (Paris)

[17] Benjamin, p. 46 (Paris)

[18] Benjamin, W. (2007). Reflections: essays, aphorisms, autobiographical writings, A Berlin Chronicle, New York: Schocken Books, pg.3.

[19] Benjamin, p. 25 (Berlin)

[20] Simmel, G. Metropolis and mental life, Metropolis Center and Symbol of Our Times, New York: New York University Press, pgs. 31-45.

[21] Benjamin, p. 52 (Paris)

[22] Simmel, p.35

[23] Simmel, p.35

[24] Bachtin, M. M. (2009). Rabelais and his world. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[25] Edelson, Zachary: (2015, January 27). Michael Sorkin On The Guggenheim, Museum Culture, and "The Next Helsinki" Competition. Retrieved May 19, 2017, from http://www.archdaily.com/591932/michael-sorkin-on-the-guggenheim-museum-culture-and-the-next-helsinki-competition

[26] Muschamp, Herbert: “The Miracle in Bilbao,” The New York Times, 7 September 1997.

[27] Debord, G. (2002). The Society of the Spectacle. Canberra: Hobgoblin Press.

[28] Debord, p.11 (item 30)

[29] Debord, p.11 (item 32)

[30] Lash, S., & Lury, C. (2007). Global culture industry: the mediation of things. Cambridge: Polity Press, pg.15

[31] Pollio, Vitruvius: Vitruvius: the ten books on architecture, Place of publication not identified: Hardpress Publishing, 2012.

[32] Guallart, V. (2003). The Metapolis dictionary of advanced architecture: city, technology and society in the information age. Barcelona: Actar, pg.632.

[33] Metapolis, p.632

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