A visual, text, sound montage pulls apart the official website of the Salone del Mobile, reinterpreting mainstream design media in a satirical comment on the rhetoric and disinformation of commodity culture and consumption.
Tourism has contributed to dissolving boundaries between production and consumption. Happenings that were once peripheral, seasonal, complementary, exceptional, exotic, marginal or borderline illegal are becoming part of an endless catalogue of tourist experiences. Sand, snow, city, countryside, space travel, faith, health, poverty, birth and death have become well-compartmentalised market niches in the ever-growing realm of tourism. Leisure is becoming a global ideology, motivated by pleasure-turned-profit-turned-political interests.
Design is an essential ally to tourism, as alongside changing physical space within the city, it constructs the basis for a new perception of reality itself. The colonization of public space by tourism is particularly relevant because by tradition, this was the place of politics within the city. This transformation contributed to turning politics into spectacle and citizens into spectators. The aestheticisation of the public sphere (through commoditization, simplification and compression) has a cause and affect reaction: public space is affected by politics, which in turn affects language and perception.
When transported from the seaside or mountains to the city, tourism changes social-economic relations alongside the materiality of the city itself. The ascent of tourism can be mapped through the case study of New York City, primarily the evolution of Times Square since 1975. Nowhere was the result of New York’s transformation into a touristic and business-oriented “global city” more dramatic than in Times Square. Located in the center of Manhattan, the site, whose name derives from the famous newspaper The New York Times, is an organic eccentricity. How has tourism conquered the public space of the city, thus conquering the minds of people?
WELCOME TO ‘FEAR CITY’
In 1975, New York City is near bankruptcy. Drastic cuts to municipal spending including welfare, public services and city employment are made, creating an environment of abject precarity and paranoia. Communities within the city are in various states of decay. After peaking in 1964-65, due to the World’s Fair, tourism is rapidly decreasing and stagnating. Times Square’s once fantastic cinemas and theatres are being ripped down for office buildings or left to fall into disrepair, screening cheesy second-rate films and pornography1. Austerity is enforced, and in airports out-of-work policemen greet tourists with sensationalist skull-emblazoned ‘Fear City’ pamphlets, proclaiming “Until things change, stay away from New York City if you possibly can.”2 A dystopian reality shrouds the city.
FIRST, WE TAKE MANHATTAN
Fast forward to the following year, when ambitious 28-year-old businessman Donald Trump closes his first major deal. With social housing construction stopped, due to lack of public funding, Trump’s attention shifts to the devaluated inner city real estate market. He aims to buy and rebuild an old 2,000-room hotel on 42nd Street, right next to Grand Central Terminal, property of the nearly bankrupted Penn Central. Construction of the Hyatt Hotel3 begins three years later, a mere ten minutes from Times Square.
ALL YOU NEED IS ♥
In an incredible turnaround, by the late 70’s, the city is booming. Real estate, deluxe hotels, restaurants, Broadway and nightlife begin to thrive. The miraculous recovery of the city, although true, takes place much more in newspapers pages, in TV and on movie screens than in the streets. Austerity gives place to ostentation, unemployment turns into opportunity, and chaos becomes frenzy. Key to this change in public perception, is the radical shift in mainstream media and entertainment’s representation of the city; a phenomena best seen through director Martin Scorsese’s films Taxi Driver, filmed in 1976, and the rather more hopeful New York, New York in 1977.
Pivotal to this shift, was Milton Glazer’s design ‘I Love New York (I ♥ NY)’, commissioned by the New York State Department of Commerce in 1977. Simultaneously a logo, slogan and brand, in one year the campaign boosted the number of visitors to NYC by 56,7%. The city’s elite, with the aid of advertising agency Wells Rich Greene who worked with Glaser on the campaign, had devised a powerful communication strategy whose central idea was to propagate a view of the city as seen through a tourist’s gaze.
AT HOME THEY FEEL LIKE TOURISTS
As of 2017, Times Square is the most visited place in the world, showing how economic and political power colluded in the creation and consequent managing of a crisis; taking it as an opportunity for economic, political and social engineering. The 1975 fiscal crisis in New York was, primarily, an urban crisis where architecture and design played a key a role, as both cause (suburbanization) and solution (touristification). In short, the remaking of Times Square as a tourism center was at the core of a neoliberal ideology.
Capitalism within urbanization is mirrored by the infinite expansion and renovation of cities. In the 1960’s, cities were the backdrop alongside a focal point of protests. Protesters criticized the mechanized fordist city of the post-war, the “global concept of space” and the link described by Lefebvre “(…) between industrialization and urbanization, between workplaces and dwelling spaces.”4 Modernism was to blame for “the worldwide, homogeneous and monotonous architecture of the state, whether capitalist or socialist”5. According to architect Rem Koolhaas, “…dissatisfaction with the contemporary city has not led to the development of a credible alternative; it has, on the contrary, inspired only more refined ways of articulating dissatisfaction.”6 Although fair, this critique of modernism’s errors failed to create a credible alternative but succeed in creating a nihilist and existential anguish that rendered action impossible. A rejection of urbanism by modernism left architects and designers with no tools to comprehend or change the city.
This rejection created a void, soon filled by an inflation of architecture that masqueraded contradictions through image. Taking advantage of this conceptual void, the local government of New York seized the opportunity to present a neoliberal city model which, by setting tourism at its core, targeted hedonistic aspirations, profit dreams of businessmen and politicians desire to control. Propagated by clever design and marketing campaigns utilizing language, such as the ‘I Love New York’ slogan, this led to a blurry image for an alternative city, based on subjective qualities like imagination, variety, pleasure, unpredictability and individual freedom. Times Square has become the ultimate embodiment of an aestheticization of the public sphere and three contemporary design projects seem to embrace this.
In Jürgen Meyer’s XXX Times Square With Love, three pink x-shaped urban loungers, the history of the site is compressed into a sign, contemplation is turned into virtual connection and experiencing the city is reduced to a hashtag: #tsqxxx
As for Perkins Eastman TKTS Booth, an iconic LED illuminated glass amphitheater with a Broadway ticket booth inside, the scale of the design seems unable to compete with the hugeness of surrounding media devices. Public architecture is shrunk to a domestic scale and the amphitheater becomes a mere couch in front of a giant TV.
A similar sense of disappearance takes place in Snøhetta’s Times Square Reconstruction, in 2010 a discreet high-tech minimalist pedestrianization of Times Square. The ten long granite benches work as electrical sockets, the dark pre-cast concrete pavers works as black carpet and the embedded nickel-sized steel discs work like guiding lights.
The incapability of design to change Times Squares in 2017, is perhaps because this critical crossroads in the city has become less of a physical space and more of an “information space”. The media anesthetization of Times Square for the sake of revenue driven and tourist means, has transformed it into“(…)a aesthetic hallucination of reality”7. Much like Ray and Charles Eames’s Glimpses of the USA, which could be seen as a crossover between the multiscreen ‘Situation Room’ and a circus-like “multiplicity of simultaneous experiences”8, in an ironic twist, Times Square could be seen as being transformed into a living room where the television is always on.
Fundamental to the acceleration of consumption; spectacle has in itself become space. All three projects either reinforce this condition of public space turned spectacle space. As Manfredo Tafuri wrote, “(…)the desire to communicate no longer exists; architecture is dissolved into a deconstructed system of ephemeral signals. In place of communication, there is a flux of information; in place of architecture as language, there is an attempt to reduce it to a mass medium, without any ideological residues; in place of an anxious effort to restructure the urban system, there is a disenchanted acceptance of reality(…)”9. In the three projects, what one sees is an attempt to convey space with the technology that obliterates it in the first place. It seems as if the only residue of utopianism in public space design is to connect it to “the internet of things”. The empire of mobility, an obsession with security and an omnipresence of consumer oriented frame of mind, which Carlos Garcia Vasquez10 points out as the three major causes of the demise of public space, are addressed through the embrace and the incorporation of technology. The project’s materiality reflects this, as even granite becomes electrical. Times Square is an archetype of “Smart Public Space” for a “Smart City”, a public space that just the city that will, if not betray us11,at least deceive us__
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Rui Gilman is an architect based in Porto, Portugal. He is currently working on his PHD in Architecture at Faculdade de Arquitectura da Universidade do Porto (FAUP) with the research topic Heritage and Tourism: the ephemeral and perennial, exploring the relations between heritage conservation and mass tourism.