Archis 2009 #1

The Spectator’s City

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Regina Bittner believes urban spaces are undergoing a visibility crisis which is causing a boom in images of the city. By looking at strategies of depicting the city as an adventure playground she argues for an interdependency between image production and post-industrial deregulation. Akin to Henri Lefebvre, Bittner suggests that the ‘use value’ of a city has been replaced by talk about and images of cities as an adventure playground.

The postindustrial structural transformation of urban spaces is accompanied by a paradox. On one hand increasing mobility, migration, outsourcing of production and services, and global media communication have made urban metropolises increasingly ambiguous. Wildly proliferating structures with unspecific qualities like suburbia, artificial urban islands or tourist cities have come into being. A consequence of this is that urban spaces are undergoing a visibility crisis. As a spatial arrangement the postindustrial city is becoming increasingly dispersed and polycentric; its indefinable qualities need to hit back by finding images that help discern a socio-spatial relationship. On the other hand, the relativization of place in a spirit of unambiguous recognizability results in intensive image production and this is essentially a direct reaction to the decreasing importance of physical space. At the same time the relationship between place and space in cities has changed. The boom in images is also a response to the altered spatial reality of the city. There is a qualitatively new usage and understanding of urban space which is informed by transnational migration movements and the influence of the flow of inter national media and communications. It is thus increasingly difficult to see places in the city as territories where cultural and social practices are clearly defined by a specific group. The coincidence of physical territory with culture and society is diminishing. In other words, the production of urban places by numerous groups occurs as a strategic occupation of territories, but this occurrence does not rely on specific localities. The increasing importance of images is not just an issue to make lost spatial connections recognizable from the outside inwards, as it were, but one that aims to secure the attention of international investors, potential residents and tourists. This striving for visibility on a global scale can be explained by the fact that big cities are becoming increasingly similar in their architecture, their consumption places and their infra structure. In addition, urban lifestyle is no longer tied to a certain physical territory: the city. At least in Western Europe the difference between rural and urban is dissolving. What makes the city unique as a place to live, what distinguishes it from its growing suburbia must be redefined. Since the whole world is present almost every where urban development must develop a distinguish able image, one that differentiates one city from another. That struggle for reputation is nowadays undertaken iconically. This article’s point of departure is the contradiction between the new importance of images in how cities are presented, perceived and developed on one hand and the reality of a polycentric, heterogeneous and physically and culturally undefined urban reality that stands often in stark contrast to uniform and homogeneous images produced to present a city on a global scale on the other. By investigating the contemporary relationship between images and cities I shall show how these interdependencies influences our current understanding of urbanity and its effect on how cities are conceptualized today.

City images
Labeled variously as ‘symbolic economy’, ‘visual consumption’ and ‘economy of attention’, the growing role of culture and images in urban development has been the subject of lengthy discussion in the field of urban research over the last fifteen years. Scholars such as Sharon Zukin and John Urry see the new, post- modern theme worlds like shopping malls and theme parks as an expression of the loss and devaluation of a place. Their approach to ‘visual consumption’ analyzes above all the symbolic character of spatial restructuring processes. Zukin explores sites of visual consumption – built symbolic worlds in the guise of artificial urban worlds of experience – and maintains that these ‘no- man’s-land of consumption’ replace established, every- day places that support a sense of self with consumable, artificial identities. The critique of this ‘symbolic economy’ is based on a rather essentialist understanding of the definition of an urban location or territory. In addition to calling into question the opposition between artificial and authentic, these scholars provide insight into the mechanism of place making via images and reveal the effects of such image-based urban renewal strategies within cities. Zukin has shown how particular cultural values condense into a visual image of an urban space in order to represent desired or even undesired social aspects.[1] German scholars built on her arguments by looking at the Sony Center on the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. It symbolizes the new center of the city which is visible (and thus consumable) from afar. This spatial symbol consolidates Berlin’s image as an international service center and a cultural metropolis. What this outlines is the symbolic definition of growth regions which are lifted up both visually and symbolically in contrast to areas of decay. Cultural theorist Michael Keith has studied similar processes in London. The Millennium Path is an integral part of production modeled along the lines of a curated exhibition. London aims to present itself as a young, stylish city with ‘Cool Britannia’ as its exhibition theme. Using Norman Foster’s Swiss Building as an example, Keith shows how this building dominates the heart of the European financial world twenty-four hours a day.[2] In recent decades parallels have been drawn between practices within visual consumption and those common to tourism. Moreover, the perception that results from tourism practices increasingly informs the spatial restructuring processes of cities. In his analysis of the ‘tourist gaze’ John Urry presents visual consumption as a defining characteristic of this practice: tourists are distinguished by their greater responsiveness to the visual elements of a city or landscape. They spend time at landmarks and capture them on photographs, postcard and film which, thanks to the ease of reproduction, allow them to be viewed again and again. The ‘tourist gaze’ is made up of a multitude of such symbols and, according to Urry, tourism consists of the consistent gathering of such symbols. Urry maintains that places visited by tourists are visually consumed and as such used up, that is, truly devalued. The tourism industry meets this need for visually recognizable signs and land- marks with postcards, travel guides and sight seeing tours: sightseeing tours of cities, for example, focus on the very places and images that are already visually familiar. The communicated image of the city is thus re- stricted to images shaped in advance and disseminated by the media. A city laid out or exhibited in this way presents itself to tourists searching for local identities and cultural differences as an ensemble of buildings which have always been there.[3]

The above briefly mentioned discourses in cultural and social geography fail to describe the interdependencies between images and urban spaces. Images have above all a structural impact on cities. And images provide a definition of what a city is supposed to be, what it supplies and what one can expect from it. City images communicate the uniqueness of a city. They portray what a city offers to its inhabitants as a particular spatial environment. Christine Boyer has investigated this interplay between the structural changes cities have historically undergone and the images used to represent them: ‘Suppose we assume three different aesthetic con- ventions represent the image of cities in the traditional, modern and contemporary time periods: These are the City as a Work of Art, the City as a Panorama, and the City of Spectacle’. Until the end of the 19th century the visual narratives of traditional urban presentation were concerned with a specific order of objects: the representative buildings. The intention of that way of picturing the city was to communicate urban, elite judgments of taste and morality. This was designed for pedagogic effect. By the beginning of the 20th century the panorama presentation had replaced former city images. The city appeared open and expansive. Instead of viewing a particular place or historically important site, the city is represented by a kaleidoscope of objects and a bird’s- eye perspective. Since the 1980s the media and electronic communication has dominated city images. Post- modern representations of the city are characterized by contrasting juxtapositions and the recombination of known images. This is intended to dissolve the differ- ence between reality and representation. Following how images represent the city through history, Boyer maintains there is a change from an educative narrative to entertainment.[4]

City Tourism
As mentioned above, the opposition between the tourist perspective as artificial and the personal perception of the inhabitants reality of the city does not explain why the experience of city dwellers is becoming increasingly similar to the ‘tourist gaze’. The flood of images in features and magazines as well as on billboards in which, for example, Berlin or Amsterdam is shown shapes how local inhabitants relate to their cities. One could maintain that even the perception of the familiar city is a result of the reading of city images. Taking Boyer’s theses that the postmodern city image is defined by entertainment into account, the generalization of tourism could constitute proof of that maintenance. The increase of city tourism in recent decades indicates a new interest in cities as places for relaxation and adventure. Travel to natural resorts and beaches has been replaced by visiting cities. Urban Spaces are becoming destinations for exotic experiences and new challenges. That matches how the tourist industry is selling cities. Instead of highlighting monuments and sights, images of urban atmosphere and lifestyle are used to represent the place. Andreas Pott has analyzed that phenomenon by investigating the mechanism of city tourism construction. According to Pott city tourism is characterized by a cultural marking of spaces. Historical importance, heterogeneity (as urbanity) and geographic specificity (seashore or mountain) are elements that together form what Pott calls a culture-space-link. City tourism could be distinguished from other practices of tourism by the fact that ‘cultural topics here are linked with spatial differentiation’. In so doing cities are mapped for tourist purposes in two directions: outwards to present an identifiable image of a place that distinguishes the site from other cities around the world, and inwards to high- light a particular structure by which the city is identified. This contains places of culture and memory, places determined by urban dynamics, or consumption places, neighborhoods with a particular lifestyle and so on. With the organization of city tourism a repertoire of themes is emerging that as a communicative and semantic frame structures the tourist practices. Those spatial codified images, ‘semantics of place’, are assembled in city walks and sightseeing tours; themes offer an historical frame of the city and its cultural diversity. A selection of places should represent the city. What are the effects of such a thematically organized perception of the city? In city tourism the city is presented to the visitor as a comprehensible and readable unit. This is accomplished via a reduction of complexity such that the troubles of everyday life – traffic, noise and stress – are ignored. Strolling around and discovering allows people to experience the city in its heterogeneity and plurality from a distance without being disturbed by the everyday troubles of urban life. Everyday commitments seem suspended. Social and cultural differences are not experienced as a burden or stressful. Quite the opposite: the city is perceived as a place for enjoyment and entertainment. Pott maintains that city tourism is accompanied by a reinterpretation of the urban way of life. City walks are not only reserved for tourists, but are also available to locals in order to experience their city from a different perspective. Images, narratives and stories allow escape from confusion and complexity; by reducing these complexities the city becomes understandable. Whereas critics of the ‘tourist gaze’ have emphasized the artificiality of tourist practices, Andreas Pott suggests another perspective of city tourism: what is important is that tourist practices reduce urban complexity by introducing a communicable and transparent narrative. What emerges are seemingly endless new narratives about the city in which every time, place and story is recombined and retold anew. Whereas in the 1980s alternative city tours focused on ‘other places’ in the city that had been ignored, excluded or neglected by the dominant tourist narratives, those enterprises are already integrated in the tourist industry in the process of ‘doing the town’.[5] These findings confirm the theses that the late modern or post-modern way of picturing the city is characterized by entertainment.

Cities as adventure playgrounds
One of the most striking examples of recent city branding tendencies concerns urban beaches. Seen from the beach, the city becomes a sea: threatening, unpredict- able and wild. The urban beach may be a topos that fits the pictures and images currently used to promote cities. Cities such as Hamburg and Berlin are presented as vital places which in addition to their monuments, high-tech locations and museums also offer a heightening of senses. A lively nightlife, creative scenes and a multicultural atmosphere seem to be the ticket for admission into the league of cities such as New York or London. The chaotic and wild city, the urban swamp that was the subject of 19th-century ‘Großstadtkritik’ and has motivated the garden city movement is now not just part of the repertoire of branding strategies; as physical typologies urban beaches represent a shift i n the perception and use of urban spaces. Interpreting the city as a sea also means understanding it as a phenomenon of constant transformation. Berlin is one of the large German cities whose way of presenting itself, from marketing strategies to scientific analysis, has one outstanding characteristic: change. Has this unmanage- able and invisible urban quality, something that featured in discussions about the city in crisis years ago, been reassessed and declared an attraction? The city as a sea is a metaphor that reflects the structural changes urban spaces have undergone in recent decades. Cities have become highly differentiated spaces, a dynamic and centric heterogeneous plural network in motion made up of structures with different ranges and fragments of varying origin. Today cities are tied into complex spatial contexts that stretch beyond their physical confines. In this respect the city as a sea is a metaphor for which we can find parallels in the urban theoretical discussion about the city as an open system, as a ‘dynamic structure. Urban beaches are places that offer an image of constant urban change expressed through the image of the sea.[6] Yet urban beaches as metaphor and physical reality stand not only for the spatial changes cities are experiencing. These facilities can be understood as the topos of an urban model linked to particular demands made of its inhabitants. Urban beaches are ‘locations’ in various perspectives. On one hand, the existence of such locations in Berlin derives from the presence of certain creative milieus in the form of artists, cultures producers, academics as well as financial service providers, business people and managers as well as tourists. Note in this regard Richard Florida’s influential analysis in which he stated that the presence of such groups is not linked to certain architectural features, infrastructures or economic prosperity. What those people are searching for is cultural heterogeneity, the ability to be innovative and tolerant. Berlin exemplifies the fact that the innovation potential of these special features is linked to the transformation potential of certain urban spaces. This shift has been particularly evident in Berlin since the early 1990s. The open struc- ture of the city provided architects, designers and artists with an Eldorado, a biotope, in which they could occupy the space created by reunification, post-industrial structural change and Berlin’s new role as a capital city. For a short, historic moment, the city seemed to offer unlimited space and even encourage diverse, precarious enterprises. These undefined, empty spaces were used to generate a communicative practice that colored the potential of these spaces with various strategies, including alternative mappings, performances and temporary interventions. In Arch plus, Urs Füssler is quoted as saying, ‘The emphasis shifted from the city in the subjunctive to the city defined by its potential’. A situative practice had come into being which no longer focused on the generation of conceptual alternative worlds, but just looked for material for situations within them which would instigate further thought, planning and progress. Cultural entrepreneurs, architects, designers and artists competed using diverse strategies for symbolic attention: offices communicated through parties or initiated interventions in the public urban sphere and in doing so created their own com mis- sions, becoming simultaneously the catalysts, agents and designers of urban transformation. Their actions, frequently described as ‘New Situationism’, point to the impossibility of representing the city as a unified space. Their usually locally-based projects favor a subjective approach to the city, one which explores the impossibility of an objective production and interpretation of space. These protagonist groups are also tied into specific networks with international connections.[7] The specific characteristic of ‘world cities’ – a notion invented by Swedish anthropologist Ulf Hannerz – is that cultural locations materials and images are produced here that come from the city itself and resonate beyond it. At the same time those world cities demand that its protagonists are actively involved in trans- forming it. Hannerz talks of a ‘working out culture’ that does not address business people, creative milieus and knowledge producers alone: the economic and cultural practices of migrants with their transnational networks also have their cultural value enhanced in that context.[8] Again Berlin serves as an interesting case for Berlin’s image as an international city in the public mind is quite high, but this image is situated in a field of tension. On one hand urban discourse emphasizes the new quality and intensity of the city’s expansive, cross- border relationships, and on the other we have debates that discuss the life realities of immigrants with reference to urban constructs like ‘ghetto’ and ‘closed community’. This narrative dismisses and devalues the transnational character of immigrants’ social space. Ayse Caglar has argued that the narrative about the new international position of Berlin in Germany and Europe and the narrative about the living situation of the city’s immigrant residents move in opposite directions: ‘They form a clear hierarchy between the up valued transnational urban space of business and finance and the devalued space of immigrants [which] is labeled with the ghetto meta- phor and recognized at most in the framework of multiculturalism.'[9] Carnival of Culture is an example of this. In such an event the real diversity and complexity of trans- national spatial relationships in the metropolis of today is often replaced by a consumable surface of a culturally diverse city. Restaurants as well as shops with ethnic names are also part of this consumable ethnic culture in Berlin. In addition to this pattern of ethnic representation there is a second field in which ethnicity in Berlin is publicly present: the Kiez, the neighborhood where migrants are locally integrated. In that context the shadow economy of migrants is revalued as an inno va- tive potential for Berlin’s future. The cultural code of multiculturalism supports that way of integrating such that even informal practices are construed as usable parts of Berlin’s future. Yet the precarious and risky working conditions in which the most of migrants make their living are neglected. And the city’s responsibility to provide edu- cation to help change those conditions is not part of these representative practices. Tendencies to culturally revalue the migrant economy follow a general trend in how a new type of city inhabitant is created in contem- porary cities: the so-called entrepreneurial city is accompanied by a demand to transform its inhabitants’ behavior. Deregulation in public services is the outcome of the decline of the welfare state and encourages the initiative of city residents. So the city as an adventure, as a place for the heightening of senses as communicated nowadays, is embedded in an ambiguous field.

Taking Christine Boyer’s differentiation of how cities have been depicted over recent centuries into account, one of the remarkable features of the post-modern age is that cities are represented as places of entertainment. The similarities to how tourism communicates cities have been discussed. Tourist sociology has figured out that those mechanisms of place-making via place semantics operate not only with regard to leisure practices. The way cities are presented within the tourist industry as places to heighten the senses has overwhelmed the general perception of cities. By looking at certain strategies of depicting the city as an adventure playground I have maintained that there is an interdependency between image production and postindustrial deregulation: ‘The city as a place of opportunities’ is an expression of the postindustrial transformation of the city into an entrepreneurial locale; this has repercussions for urban dwellers who consider themselves ‘entrepreneurial selves’. The urban beach could be read as a metaphor for that tendency. Yet the city as an unbounded space of opportunities is accompanied by the constant demand for self activation. Like the sea, seeing from the beach lures someone to new adventures uncertain and risky though they might be. The ‘flirting with hybridity’ in which migrant practices are integrated, those ways of imagining and representing the city nowadays, seems to have replaced the fact that cities are still places in which people make their living. Highlighting creative and vivid urbanity is less talking about the everyday efforts and difficulties of living in a contemporary metropolis. Here issues of social and economic existence are crucial and questions of accessibility to spaces and fair distribution of urban resources must be raised. One gets the impression that the ‘use value’ (Henri Lefebvre) of the city, an issue urban movements have constantly claimed, has been replaced by talk about and images of cities as an adventure playground.