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Architecture as Spectacle

Public Space – article for e-architect by Joyce Hwang: Information + Images

Oct 4, 2011

Architecture as Spectacle: Public Space Design

Article by Joyce Hwang

Joyce Hwang is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Architecture at University at Buffalo SUNY, New York state, USA. Joyce is also Founder of Ants of the Prairie.

Joyce Hwang author of Architecture as Spectacle
image of Joyce Hwang

Architecture as Spectacle

“Spectacle” is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “something exhibited to view as unusual, notable, or entertaining; especially an eye-catching or dramatic public display.” These qualifications pointedly describe several recent architectural works, most notably the Busan Cinema Center in Busan, South Korea by Coop Himmelb(l)au. Designed and built as the home of the Busan International Film Festival, the building boasts the largest cantilevered roof in the world, with a span of 85 meters and a roof surface of 60m x 120m.

The ceiling of the giant cantilever is fashioned as a gigantic screen, equipped with LED projectors, forming a voluptuous and dynamic surface for communication, imaging, and other displays. Indeed the Busan Cinema Center is a fantastic feat and a sight to behold. It is no wonder that Wolf Prix’s lecture for the building’s inauguration is titled “The Possibility of the Impossible.”

Busan Cinema Centre, South Korea – News
Busan Cinema Center
photo © Woochang Choi Korea

As another example, the Met Building in Bangkok, Thailand by WOHA also subscribes to the notion of the spectacular, in a less overtly-technological sense. Its exterior surface is designed as a “living wall,” imagined to be covered with a screen of green vegetation. Plant-covered walls, in and of themselves, are not entirely “unusual, notable, or entertaining.” However, in the case of this 66-story residential skyscraper, the fact of seeing a towering height of vegetation suggests a different, more “dramatic public display.”

The Met Building, Thailand
RIBA Lubetkin Prize
The Met Building
photograph © Patrick Bingham-Hall

Indeed these two buildings – as large-scale, ‘eye-catching’ icons – stand as urban spectacles in our dictionary understanding of the word. But their identities as spectacles extend beyond the simple implications of a clear definition. The notion of the “spectacle,” as discussed by Guy Debord in his 1967 book Society of the Spectacle, revolves around a host of nuanced meanings and insinuations. He posits that the spectacle is a tactile result of our contemporary consumer culture, specifically the confluences of capitalism and mass media. The spectacle cannot, however, be “understood as mere visual excess” (Chapter 1, 5) but instead, embodies the very core of how society thinks and operates.

Debord states, “Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the result and the project of the dominant mode of production. It is not a mere decoration added to the real world. It is the very heart of this real society’s unreality. In all of its particular manifestations – news, propaganda, advertising, entertainment – the spectacle represents the dominant model of life” (Chapter 1, point 6).

The Busan Cinema Center resonates as a spectacle in this sense. Its core operating mission as an institution for “film culture and business in Asia” ( – and in particular as the host venue for an international film festival – is manifested in the way in which one might experience the building’s surfaces as screens for viewing moving images. The technologically-induced spectacle of its roof and ceiling subscribes quite neatly to Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 statement, “The medium is the message.” And it is no accident that the building’s opening exhibition title is “Architecture is the Media and the Media is the Message.”

Busan Cinema Center
photo © Woochang Choi Korea

While the Met Building’s agenda of residential living seems quite different – and at first somewhat unspectacular (at least compared to the agenda of a more public cinema center) – its status as a spectacle still resonates with Debord’s hypotheses. Designed with a consciousness toward environmental factors, the project boasts a series of openings through the building to draw air up vertically through the structure as a means of passive cooling. The addition of plantlife on its exterior indeed acts as another cooling layer by increasing shading conditions. Yet, despite all functionality, it could be argued that the deployment of vegetation perhaps acts more potently as a form of ‘green’ marketing.

While plant material itself is not typically considered to be the substance of “mass media,” the resolution of this project’s exterior presence suggests otherwise. The public visibility of its exterior planting scheme is completely enmeshed in the building’s logics of promoting “sustainability,” both as an architectural aspiration as well as a lifestyle.

The Met Building Bangkok
photograph © Patrick Bingham-Hall

It is at this moment when we realize that the “spectacle” is not necessarily always chained to notions of public entertainment and leisure. Rather, it is a flexible device that can operate at the level of promoting any kind of agenda, whether social, economical, cultural, or otherwise. The underlying commonality is the spectacle’s ability to push its sponsoring agenda into the realm of commodity. And indeed, the commodification of film arts and culture, in one example, and sustainable living, in another example, are alive and present in our world today.

The fact that architecture can take shape as the medium for marketing these culturally and ecologically significant agendas is certainly laudable. Yet, as Debord warns, commodification is always on the brink of swaying toward the danger of fetishism, where “the real world is replaced by a selection of images” (Chapter 2, point 36). And if the spectacle forces us to “equate goods with commodities and to equate satisfaction with a survival that expands according to its own laws,” that is, a “consumable survival,” it “may gild poverty but it cannot transcend it” (Chapter 2, point 44). Debord’s first line in his book is this: “In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation” (Chapter 1, point 1).

Thankfully – for the projects discussed and for architecture in general – the act of consciously experiencing the built world is already one way of beginning to battle the ever-present threat of permanent representation and its encroachment upon our existence.

This week’s editor is Joyce Hwang, Assistant Professor in the Department of Architecture at University at Buffalo SUNY and Founder of Ants of the Prairie.

Joyce Hwang Articles

Previous Articles for e-architect by Joyce Hwang:

Some Thoughts on the Stirling Prize Shortlist 2010 – 2010

Resisting Boredom – Jan 2011

International Architectural Designs

Other Designs shown on e-architect:

The Shard photos – exclusive to e-architect
Design: Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW)

Elbphilharmonie concert hall, Hamburg, Germany – new photos
Design: Herzog and de Meuron

Kuwait International Airport
Foster + Partners

Mies van der Rohe Awards

World Architecture Festival Awards Shortlist 2011

Pritzker Prize architects

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