Architecture in the Society of Spectacle: Modernism Challenge in the City and Urban Area

This paper has been presented in the 15th Asian Congress of Architects (Arcasia Bali) at Bali Nusa Dua Convention, Bali on 30th October 2012.


Our societies and cities are growing in the realm of visual culture these days under the development of new technologies. It brings our daily life into the society which emphasizing on the visual sense; the society which drawn by consumerism and makes way for commodification in every aspects of life. The society that sees their life is merely a representation of fragmented images under the power of capitalism and states. As the result, the trend to build ‘spectacular architecture’ with its shape and images is happening everywhere especially in Asia and Middle East’s cities.

Therefore, it is interesting to review the position of architecture and architects within the concept of “The Society of Spectacle” as developed by French philosopher, Guy Debord, in his book “La Société du Spectacle” (1960). The aim of this paper is to investigate the trend of the ‘spectacle’ abundance and its impact on architectural design nowadays. Also, to questioning how an architect will design a space in the city with these phenomena in the society which might changes our perception and conception of space.


  • Has the concept of ‘spectacle’ been changed through the time? What can we learn from the history of empires and states?
  • Does the city need ‘spectacle’ in ‘spectacular ways’ in order to survive and liveable?
  • Is ‘spectacle abundance’ bad? How is the effect to the society, community, culture, and locality?
  • Can the spectacle gain a ‘productive’ dimension and becoming an agent of social, cultural and political changes?
  • And how should architect design the built environment under the pressure of spectacle? How to make balance? How can we use this concept to reverse the situation and achieve better built environment?

Key words

Spectacle, image – representation, unity – separation, territorial – identity, consumerism, production – commodity social relation, culture, history.


Our societies and cities are growing in the realm of visual culture these days under the development of new technologies. It brings our daily life into the society which emphasizing on the visual sense; the society which drawn by consumerism and makes way for commodification in every aspects of life. The society that sees their life is merely a representation of fragmented images under the power of capitalism and states. As the result, the trend to build ‘spectacular architecture’ with its unique shapes and images is happening everywhere especially in Asia and Middle East’s cities. The increasing development in those regions especially the interest in high-rise and spectacular design has heightened the need for deeper evaluation and studies on the trend with its impact.

Guy Debord, French philosopher, through his book “La Société du spectacle” (1960) analysed this trend and developed the concept of “The Society of Spectacle”. The concept tries to explain the background, meaning and the impact of the ‘spectacle’ which still valid and even becomes more important as the world grows more connected in information and economic. Debord was the prominent figure in the revolutionary group of thinkers, Situationist International, founded on 1957. They developed experimental topics of study, such as unitary urbanism and psychogeography with ultimately highly significant book of Guy Debord as the most famous of it.

Although considerable research has been devoted to the theme of ‘Spectacle and Architecture’, rather less attention has been paid to the issue of its challenges and position within the local culture and history. Concerning the abundance spectacle, modern cities are facing challenges causing them to lose their locality & heritage wealth which the creation of new spectacle creates another separation between social classes. Thus, several issues are raised in the discussion such as whether the concept of ‘spectacle’ has been changed through the time and what we can learn from the history of empires and states. It is also important to ask about the importance of ‘spectacle’ for the city itself whether it is good or bad and how it affects the society, community and culture. In the end, it is interesting to review the position of architecture and architects within this framework especially in modern era and technology.

The aim of this essay is to investigate the trend of the ‘spectacle’ abundance and its impact on architectural design nowadays. This essay examines the different type of spectacle applied in cities and how it is applied from decades ago until modern day. Also, to questioning how an architect will design a space in the city with these phenomena in the society which might changes our perception and conception of space. The research for this essay is conducted through literature investigation and comparison of case studies. The book of Guy Debord becomes the main source to understand the topic with extension to the group of Situationist International with its ‘ideal city’ as input to the discussion.

The remainder of this essay is divided into several sections, firstly begins with the investigation on the thoughts behind the notion of ‘The Society of Spectacle’ to provide a solid and good understanding of the topic’s background. Only two issues will be assessed which related to commodity and social relation. Secondly, the essay will examine the spectacle’s conditions in the past and present time along with their architecture conditions with Rome, Dubai and China as the cases. Third, it continues to evaluate the relevance of architecture and spectacle itself including the position of the architect in building a city with localism, culture and history as issues. In the end, it will try to suggest alternate uses of spectacle’s concept in a rapid changing modern society to shape the city.


This chapter will elucidate the term of spectacle and its meaning according to Guy Debord as the basis for our discussion in the next chapters. The ‘spectacle’ here will be evaluated in the relationship to the notions of commodity – consumerism and unity – separation as indicated through his book.

2.1 On Commodity and Consumerism

Regardless the common meaning of spectacle as refers to show, display, event, performance, representation, or view, here the notion of spectacle as described by Debord is more related to the political and economic or mode of production as the result of capitalism. Spectacle is not only understood as decoration and beautification to the object but also it is both the result and the goal of the production system. Moreover, spectacle dominates all aspect of society’s life with manifestations such as news, propaganda, advertising and entertainment which represent the constant presence domination of those systems. As highlighted by Debord that ‘‘the spectacle is rooted in the economy of abundance, and the products of that economy ultimately tend to dominate the spectacular market” (Debord 2006, 16). Debord states that the commodity acts as spectacle itself.

Further, he outlines in his book two different models of the spectacle which are “concentrated spectacle” and “diffused spectacle”. As for the concentrated model is more influenced by political and bureaucratic aspect which it is mainly used as a technique for strengthening state hegemony and controlling power (Debord 2006, 18). It is the spectacle produced by centralized power over a dictatorial or certain political party based around an ideology. Meanwhile the diffuse model is developed over economic leverage with commodities abundances (Debord 2006, 17, McDonough 2004, 462). According to Debord, since the post-world war time the raise of global capitalism has brought these two types of spectacles into a new combination influenced by economic and political power which is the “integrated spectacle”. It represents the consumer society that has seen itself in a global spectacular market. It is a kind of spectacular of late capitalist that embodies a new, uniquely specialized form of power.

Notably, the spectacular market in the modern capitalism economy system began to take shape excessively that effecting all social life in modern world as the commodity came into significant as a power since the beginning era of industrial revolution and the discovery of mechanical reproduction techniques which the production become mass processes for a global market. Through the globalization of commodity, the world has been turned into a single large market and dominated by economic interests and as noted by Debord that the spectacle, none or less, is capital accumulated to the point that it becomes images to represent the capitalism’s goal itself (Debord 2006, 7). The spectacle consists of what Walter Benjamin identifies as signs from the system which acts as the ultimate end-products of that system and it happens when the commodity has succeeded in totally dominating social life. “Commodification is not only visible, we no longer see anything else; the world we see is the world of the commodity” (Debord 2006, 10).


Figure 1: Commodity and advertising in daily life

For this reason, it can be said that ‘spectacle’ is the way to create a spectacular representation that leads to seduction of consumerism. Society is faced with constant replacement of products propagated by all the communications media.

“The things the spectacle presents as eternal are based on change, and must change as their foundations change. This instability is the spectacle’s natural condition, but it is completely contrary to its natural inclination” (Debord 2006, 20).

This kind of spectacle is instant and instable in the way they present itself and influence over how people think and behave. The use of advertisements would be a perfect example of how using the spectacle can get people into a mindset that leads them to perceive certain needs which in reality do not exist as Margaret Crawford claims that the consumption habit influences the way we perceive the world (Elsheshtawy 2010, 172-173). The spectacle has shifting people’s attention to consumption and imagery transforming everyone into a passive spectator. In the societies where people can get what they want; what they want and needed also depends on how the values are addressed by producers through products representation. The consumerism is marked by retail or shopping center which has become significantly more present in more diverse environments than it was a decade ago. People enjoy the experience of buying and spend their time to see products even though they will not buy it. We are actually inviting, encouraging, and demanding retailers to be more involved in our lives. Look also at any major institution – museums, zoos, parks, universities, stadiums, even churches – and you will see the growing presence of retail. Even airport terminals have become major retail outlets compare to its main function. Take example the international airport in Amsterdam – Schipol or Heathrow in London, which can be said as one large city itself with lots of shops and facilities to complement its main function. Actually, as consumerism began to be part of our life, the spectacle can also become a means of maintaining control in a capitalist society.


Figure 2: Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam (source: author, 2012)

2.2 On Social Relation: Unity and Separation within Representation

Next, Debord also discussed the notion of ‘spectacle’ more broadly relating to social relationship. Here, he sees that “the spectacle is not a collection of images; it is more as a social relation between people that is mediated by images” (Debord 2006, 1). He asserts that in societies dominated by modern conditions of production, the accumulation of spectacle has turned the everyday life into a matter of visual representation (Debord 2006, 1). The spectacle has gained its influential in modern society through visual appearances with the help of the modern communication technology and it has been applied everywhere in the world in every levels and aspects of the society’s life. Indeed, it has affected the mode and type of social relationships. The spectacle is the society itself as claimed by Debord which it cannot be separated from the society as it is also serves as a means of unification (Debord 2006, 1). Actually in unity itself, there is also separation between reality and image which formed in fragmented views and able to cause delusion and false consciousness from the spectator. As a part of society, the spectacle as unification is also acts as universal separation (Debord 2006, 1).

The economic system is based on the isolation and designed to produce isolation at the same time (Nicholson-Smith 1995, 22). In one such case, as we can see from the commodity produced by the spectacular systemalso reinforcing the conditions that engender what Debord says as “lonely crowds. The spectacle produces a condition that put people in a state of unconsciousness’ through the fulfillment of social needs. As living condition is good, then the society keeps satisfied but at the same time they are in their own separate consciousness and ‘living in dream’ even though they are in social environment. The television and internet are some examples that show the ability to connect between people around the world but also nurture the alienation in the other side. People are linked in by medium that actually keeps them isolated from each other through the lack of physical interaction. This is explained by Debord in his words, “the spectacle thus reunites the separated, but it reunites them only in the separateness (Debord 2006, 6-7)”. The medium that connect people neglecting the distance and geographic boundaries is also the one that separate them in the end.

Guy Debord dislikes the consumerist society as he notes that in societies where modern modes of consumption prevail, life becomes an ‘immense accumulation of spectacles’. The spectacle as a world vision has become objectified, splitting up the world into ‘reality and image’. Within this discourse, commodification become ways to show the disconnectedness between lived reality and what is being communicated, thereby contributing to a general sense of alienation. What Debord critics, and this is crucial, is that the society of the spectacle shows an attitude of “passive acceptance”, a passivity that is triggered by the spectacle’s manner of appearing without reply, by its monopoly of appearance’ thus, the spectacle can contribute to a general sense of alienation by emphasizing the disconnectedness between observers and the material object (Elsheshtawy 2010, 135). The spectacle is, therefore, the product of a system of alienation which produces it.

Subsequently, the spectacle is the ‘bad dream’ of a modern society, according to Debord, as it provides the illusion from the fragmented representation expresses nothing more than the goal of the spectacle producer. This spectacle producer presents the ‘show’ to the world and becoming superior to it which enact the separation gap. This separation takes place along with the spectacle itself and in every creation of new spectacle; it creates another separation between social classes. The separation classes also reflect and rooted from the specialization in professions and power. Most significantly, it can be seen from the condition of worker or producer and the product they produce which eliminate any direct contact between them by the domination of the power holder of the system which the more intense and increase the production, the more widen the gap (Debord 2006, 6). Consequently, they become passive in the social relationship as they feel the alienation of space and social contact in society. As they keep consume and accept the representation of the product produced by the system without any critical resistant, they become deeply fall into delusional stage which deny their own existence and desires. They self-representations are not their own anymore, it belongs to the system who represents it to them. As consumer, we live in a condition where reality cannot be separated from illusions. It is triggered by the commodity as part of abundance spectacle. We based our perception and understanding on images where the “reality” of the product is unimportant (Saunders 2005, 54). Debord said “the spectator does not feel at home anywhere, because the spectacle is everywhere” (Debord 2006, 7). It takes over the ‘space’ out of the society which the power and separation system find their hegemony above the spectators through the accumulation of the commodity and through the representational images they sell back to the ones who produce it.


Figure 3: People in cinema, image cover of Debord’s book

In examining his concept on the society of the spectacle, Debord’s focus is on the mass media, though he also extends this to the built environment. One characteristic of the spectacle, as Debord informs us, is its capacity to move beyond borders – diffusion, or what he calls ‘the integrated spectacle’. This is the integrated spectacle, as mentioned above, which has imposed globally’ (Elsheshtawy 2010, 201). Considering some arguments about the ‘spectacular development’ as fakeness, he argues that this is a natural outcome of capitalism, which ‘builds a fake version of everything’ (Elsheshtawy 2010, 135). He concerned about the trend for spectacular, the superlative and the meaning of authenticity. However, as pointed out by Debord, “the spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies” (Debord 2006, 1). It goes beyond that therefore, in order to understand the architecture in the spectacle realm, we must look back at the histories and examples from the past; the raised of the cities under political and economic issues.


The first part of this chapter will learn from the history of old cities and the use of ‘spectacle’ technique of states to maintain its controlling power, in this case is the city of Rome and its first emperor, Augustus. The second part will continue our examining process to the modern cities and its public spaces. The aim of this chapter is to develop the arguments and vocabularies, to mark the important facts the use and role of spectacle in order to investigate it further for our discussion in next chapter.

3.1 Learning from Empires and States: Historical Form of the Spectacle

Debord describes that “the spectacle is the culmination of ideology because it fully exposes and manifests the essence of all ideological systems: the impoverishment, enslavement and negation of real life” (Debord 2006, 67). It represents the expression of the unity – separation and as he pointed out further that the spectacle preserves the ideological features of both materialism and idealism through its realization in reality which conceives the world as representation and fulfilled the ideologies’ realization in the form of spectacle itself. The realization is fulfilled through the technical mediation of signs and signals – which ultimately materialize an abstract ideal. He discussed the matter of spectacle on territorial and power of politics where the state monopoly over the representation. As our example of the city of Rome which becomes an image itself.

Richard Beacham shows that in Rome the concept of spectacle was used extensively with the ‘shows’ of power from the ruling class society. Through both the event and building, they provided the medium for ruler and elites to shape their ‘planned images’ to the public. Those spectacle sent messages of patronage, wealth, popularity, and military power to their audiences. Before the reign of Augustus, numerous monuments were erected and events were held by powerful and rich citizens or military generals as the memorial for their victorious conquerors in the far land which through the display of those spectacles they tried to impress and gain support from the Rome citizens. However, those magnificent architectural works in the capital failed to transform Rome significantly, on the contrary; once Augustus ruled and made the concentrated political system under him, the transformation of Rome’s urban image began directed and coordinated (Galinsky 2007, 235).

Augustus who reigned from 27 BC until 14AD, used the ‘effect’ of spectacle in order to maintain his dictatorship in Roman Empire. He always held his victory celebration annually which the procession would go through the city’s road where statue of the emperor and empress was displayed in prominent public space. His images always represented in a younger, strong, athletic and charismatic. Besides that he also associated himself with the mythological images merging into storytelling to strengthen it. Under his government, his closest advisor and general, Agrippa repaired public buildings, built streets, enlarged aqueduct system and built monuments. He presented games for Rome’s residents and decorated the city with sculpture. Those efforts were made simultaneously to win popular support for his patron. The intention was to enhance people’s familiarity to the emperor in order to maintain his ruling power. The importance of spectacle became obvious and placed in the first priority ‘theatrically’ which embedded in every aspect of public life during Augustus’s time. The city itself became the ‘theatrical city’ offering spectacles where the intention was to celebrate the power and achievement of the emperor. In this case, the construction of new theaters and amphitheaters showed this intention along with large urban projects which were consciously designed to display public performances.

In Romans’ cities, the glory, power and superiority were represented by large size objects and rich materials expansively, whereas in the Republican city only a few buildings had employed those luxurious materials so that the emperor claimed, “I found Rome of mud brick, I leave to you a city of marble” (Galinsky 2007, 254). As Diane Favro pointed out that Augustus, cleverly integrated the extensive use of the luxurious materials and rich ornamented decorations to conveyed a message of wealth and superiority within well-accepted traditions throughout the city which physically manifested a new age but still respectful of the past (Galinsky 2007, 254).

Equally important to note that the notable buildings and the richness of materials and decorations helped the citizens navigate the complex cityscape of Rome. They oriented themselves by recognizing the notable urban features; as planned carefully by Augustus by exploiting urban ordering such as landmarks, nodes, districts, paths, and edges which has been analyzed by Kevin Lynch in his book “The Image of the City” (1960). Here, as we learned the urban lay-out from Rome, Augustus always ensured landmark status by selecting highly visible sites such as the Mausoleum Augustum towering above the flat Campus Martius and the Temple of Apollo atop the Palatine Hill were visible from great distances which notably, none of Augustan landmark assumed a dominant position and they scattered throughout the city (Galinsky 2007, 255). Likewise, Augustus also shaped the nodes with many concentrated attractions which were formed by placing interrelated significant public buildings. “He reinforced the northwest/southwest axis defined laterally by the two huge basilicas, surmounted with a golden statue of him (Galinsky 2007, 255)”. Carefully choreographed narrative pathways provided another urban ordering device. Ancient observers identified conceptual linkages between urban components encountered while moving through the city. Buildings were built to reinforce different messages and purposes from repeated images, verbal signage, forms, and materials into cohesive narratives. As noted by Karl Galinsky that “Augustus and his architects scripted narratives by siting buildings along select urban paths” (Galinsky 2007, 258).

Above all, on an urban scale the Rome expanded significantly in size and beautification which signaled the city’s elevated status and importance in the region as Augustus gained the absolute power over the senate. However, as showed by Diane E. E Kleiner that actually Augustan art and architecture were not purely rooted from Romans’ traditions but partly inspired by such diverse civilizations as Ptolemaic Egypt, Classical and Hellenistic Greece, yet what it derived from these was merged into an entirely new creation (Galinsky 2007, 197). Indeed, Rome became the ‘Rome’ as we know because it was developed through carefully crafted urban images which the old urban centers were transformed into the new ones by interaction and learning process with eastern cities such as Antioch, Alexandria, and Pergamon who gained world-class status based upon both their importance in politics and commerce, and their urban environments (Galinsky 2007, 234). Rome took on the eminence of leading cities in the region through its trades and conquests thus, transformed and adapted it into their own. The concepts from those cities were adopted as the Romans needed a ‘proven’ model to improve and developed their own uninspiring and uncoordinated-planned cities. “Internationalism became nationalism as colorful difference was subsumed in a collective Roman identity Galinsky 2007, 228)”.


Figure 4: Augustus’ projects in Rome (source: Galinsky, 2007)

3.2 Spectacular Abundance in Modern Cities and Its Public Spaces Nowadays

Next, our dicussion on the spectacle will be directed to the modern cities especially in Asia with Dubai and cities in China as the case studies. Here, the most obvious motive that generates the development of cities is all started with desire, competition, and rivalry amongst the cities. Even cities with substantive history are not immune to this race and begin applying the notions of theming and commodification in their urban planning (Elsheshtawy 2010, 201). Moreover, in order for the city to be noticed and grows, it employs the ‘device of the spectacle’. Particularly, spectacle is used by the city or country to launch its national image and promotion, therefore, it engages in ‘images’ creation as indicated by Ute Lehrer that the production of images accompanying the project (Elsheshtawy 2010, 134). Most significantly, the phenomenon of spectacular developments based on the construction of megaprojects is occurred for the reason to foster more the economic growth and attract foreign capital investments. This tendency began to take its example from the case of Bilbao, later known as Guggenheim effect – the development of one city based on specularization of urban space.

Dubai is probably the most ‘aggressive’ city to be named which using the “spectacle” as a way of making itself recognizably and appealing on the global map. In Dubai, the spectacle is to anticipate the decrease of its oil production in the future. The vision was initiated by the Syeikh, as the leader of Dubai to change the main national income from oil to other resources with the idea to create Dubai into a hub for travelers, center for world shoppers and leisure activities. Dubai is built from nothing; majority of its area is vast dessert with beautiful coastal line. Therefore, the idea was coined by attempts to maximize what they have such as the creation of islands to resemble local images like palm island. Also many extravaganza projects were built by transferring the objects or ideas which do not have by the city itself such as the indoor snow area in dessert. All the spectacular development serves one specific purpose which is creating an instantly recognizable symbol for Dubai.

In the same way, China, along with its emerging economic power, the government felt that it is the time for China to show and represents its development trough objects of gigantic towers and buildings that can reinforce the hegemony of power symbolism and so on. The development is taking place not only in major cities but also in rural area. Take a look at Beijing as the capital; we will notice that it has embarked on one of the largest building campaign the world has ever seen, replacing acres of centuries-old neighborhoods by a series of spectacular architectural buildings. Similarly in the case of Shanghai which through the selection of it as the host city for World Expo. In the short period of time, the abundance of spectacle was forced into the city. The selection as host for the big worldwide events confirmed the desire of the Chinese government to display itself to the world and gain position as a new influential country. It marked the cooperation of the elite political ruler with the rising economic entrepreneurs. Another interesting point to know that in China, as the power is centralized in one small group of elite party which the government officials are appointed and assessed for promotion on the basis of political loyalty, economic performance and achievement thus these officials tend to ‘race’ to increase the performances of their works by creating high visibility physical projects rather than on social behalf. These efforts are not only to enhance the city’s economic performance in the global competition by attracting international tourists and foreign investors; it also strove to restore China’s international image and to legitimize the power of China’s ruling elite.

Moreover, through World Expo they want to show the nation’s development, pride and culture. Also, it emphasizes the exchange value of commodity which gathering it in one place and one time for instant spectacles. Thus, many efforts were made to provide these goals. For example of this instant spectacle was shown in the Danish pavilion for World Expo in Shanghai 2010 which it temporary relocated the national famous image ‘the Mermaid’ in Copenhagen to the pavilion and replaced it in the original place with the big screen live on internet which showed the mermaid in the exhibition. This kind of spectacle was trying to replace the reality with illusion of present and impression which sometimes does not show the real condition in the city and society.


Figure 5: Dubai in 1990


Figure 6: Dubai in 2011


Figure 7: Dubai in 2011

Indeed, a city that is seemingly defined by spectacle nevertheless also contains less spectacular space and its own problems. For instance, in the case of Dubai with its luxurious seven star hotel, Burj Al Arab, it is likely most residents of Dubai have never, nor will ever, enter it but somehow it has become a symbol for the city. The design and its luxury discouraged people from entering and keep them just standing and admire at a distance. There are also a lot of urban area which less developed or have distinct conditions compare to the other ‘spectacular and luxurious’ parts of the city such as the residential area for the workers. The impression of the city evokes the sense of alienation and disconnectivity from one function to others. The same case happens also in most of Beijing’s Olympic projects which disconnected from their surroundings and exaggerates the scale of their settings. The site’s choice also reflects the political intention which by strengthening of the imperial axis of the old palace, as the symbolic and privileged space of imperial power, then it reflects a desire of the elite to position itself in the lineage of past dynasties. It has remodeled the capital city to their image and replaces it with new ‘spectacular’ building. Moreover, the spectacular development and representational images also left the forgotten urban space hidden from our view. These spaces sometimes in form of temporal and spaces that were formed by condition because people have no choice and cannot gain access to the space they need. As Elsheshtawy argues that the spectacle in itself is not harmful to anybody but becomes a problem when there is a lack of choice; when developments are increasingly geared to a specific segment of society; thereby excluding a large poor population. Here the spectacle is not just a way to induce passivity in the populations or a tool of domination, but is used to mark, to segregate people along socio-economic lines (Elsheshtawy 2010, 201). Actually, great cities are by their very nature integrative – the spectacular co-exists with the informal, and city residents have the choice to move between these two worlds.


Figure 8: Pavillions in Shanghai World Expo 2010


Figure 9: Forgotten space in city (source: Elsheshtawy, 2010)

As a concluding remark for this chapter, there are several points that we learned from history and the development of the cities. One of the chief roles of the spectacle is to maximize the visibility of the state. The state depends upon physical embodiments to make its existence manifest. As the most visible expression of cultural and civic values, and the central element in the construction of urban space, architecture thus plays a central role in reinforcing the pervasive presence of the state in everyday life. Spectacular architecture becomes a participant in the machinery of power, and both mirrors, complements and enhances other forms of the spectacle. Spectacle is used as the manufacturing of power and social control as in Rome as well as territorial identity. In the case of modern cities especially since the world war, the reason is also dominated by economic interest. The two models of spectacle of Guy Debord is combined which resulting the borders and boundaries have been crossed and architects have found the perfect patrons and environments to implementing their ideas. In the end, the conception of the spectacle contains the same idea though it transformed by the time according to the dominance of economics interest rather than dictatorial and political hegemony.


Discussions above lead us to the important question on the spectacle in architecture nowadays and our profession in the globalization era to shape our cities and spaces. Considering the facts that our everyday life is surrounded by the omnipresence of retailing and advertisement’s images which mainly shaped by modern shopping mall causing the society to lose their place by privatization of public space in terms of economic interest.

This chapter attempts to identify and discuss the spectacle’s impact on the modern architectural design especially related to the local culture and history. Also, it will discuss the possibilities for architects in designing the cities and buildings using that concept while not making a more complex conflict.

4.1 Spectacular Spectacle in Architecture

With regards to the case studies above where we infer that the spectacle and cities have unique relationship and cannot be separated therefore, as highlighted by Anthony D. King when he introduces term ‘architectural spectacle’ in his book ‘Spaces of Global Cultures’ (2004), which can be explained as buildings which “mediate the meaning of the nation to the gazes of the world” (Elsheshtawy 2010, 136), there is a growing trend in which high-end architecture is used as a tool for self-promotion. China and Dubai’s attempts show this trend and their efforts to embrace modernity using ‘spectacular’ architecture as a primary means of achieving this. Historically, the spectacular architecture was come in form with ‘height’ as a statement of power such as seen in religious buildings or perhaps we can refer to Egypt’s great pyramids as the first example and continue to churches in Medieval and Renaissance time. In fact, the obsession with height is not faded over the ages instead global big cities nowadays are characterized by a skyline of high-rise buildings as the manifestation architecture of capitalism and power. Spectacular architecture with high-rise is now valued for its advertising power of capitalism and its ability to brand the urban skyline and is considered vital to enhance the prestige and desirability of place.


Figure 10: Modern city skyline (source:

Indeed, it is not only the high-rise buildings that mark the scenery of the cities but also the high-end mega projects that come with shapes and forms we never imagine few decades before. Developers and architects are trying so hard to produce a design that can be a new signature in the region sometimes with the made-up beauty. However considering the trend, it is true that human’s nature to have a high regard for aesthetic as well as beautifully designed architecture but we also need to be critical in accepting it and questioning its implications especially when the work is simply replicating mass culture’s trend.

As mentioned in the previous chapter, the spectacle was used historically to serve certain purposes through many manifestations such as architecture’s representation. Consequently, the excessive spectacular shapes and image’s adoration in architectural culture has trapped the discourse of architecture within the logic of aesthetic, thus, the relationship between ‘imagery’ and architecture is crucial to be understood. Unfortunately, architecture becomes the product of mass production with no originality or even lost its exclusivity as what had been indicated by Walter Benjamin with his ‘auratic’ work of art in the mechanical modern reproduction methods. We lose sense of space and scale sensitivity through the reproduction itself. But most importantly, this tense relationship between architecture and everyday mass imagery is exacerbated by commercial interests where the influence of a rising mass culture underlies all the architectural positions on the city.

As seen in the cases of Dubai and China above, through the transformation of architecture into a device for spectacularization therefore a “predatory and colonization of open space” occurs where public space is commodified for very private consumption. Even now as the museum, the library or other public space – find it ever more difficult to retain autonomy in the dominance of economic interest (Saunders 2005, 35). The imagery of consumerism has entered a level of mass reproduction and mass deployment, and undeniable the technology and mass media helped spread it. Lara Shrijver through her book admitted that ‘this phenomenon, based on recognizable imagery (thus also transcending cultural boundaries) also contributed to the homogenization of public space’ (Shrijver 2009, 46-48) and intervene the autonomy of it which caused the modern cities to suffer cultural transformations in perception of space and time because of it. As well, they are experiencing a constant shock by the present of large amount spectacle instantly which have been forced from one side to the society. Hence, it raises the question whether the city needs ‘spectacle’ in order to survive and develop. Above all, spectacle must from and return to local society, community and culture, not only dictated by the politician and capitalist.


Figure 11: Piccadilly Lights in London (source: author, 2011)

To continue, we can see that the process of boundary erosion is happening everywhere not only in the issue of the country’s borders but also in the matter of local customs and traditions. The old boundary lines began to lose it bond and true nature. In architecture discourse, the global architectural transformation is also change the design approaches, which it evokes the debate on the issue that architectural form is no longer be bound by local traditions and cultural differences, but merely by visual and the influence of consumerism. Architecture became less a cultural expression that contained a tradition within it. Localism is now artificiality translated by attaching merely ‘representational’ objects with its meaning is just rationalized to fit into the design. The form is thus sometimes determined by the representation of symbolism since the spectacle is taking the place as sign and image win over the real use value. As Lara Shrijver suggests that the symbolic content of the sign should be given full attention in architecture, and that the ‘substance’ or spatial content behind it is in essence irrelevant, or at least less relevant (Shrijver 2009, 179). We also know that postmodernism introduces the billboard as a valid element of architectural design and reintroduces a symbolism of architectural form that was hidden in modernism (Shrijver 2009, 154). Therefore, following Ventury’s argument in his Learning from Las Vegas, ornament in his opinion becomes central, and everything else is irrelevant which the spectacle is achieved by the manipulation of its surface appearance. This correlates with the position of the Situationist International, which also signaled that sign and substance were separated as one of the fundamental problem of the society of the spectacle (Shrijver 2009, 180). Even so, it must be carefully considered as there is tendency to rationalize superficially this symbolic and attachment to the local culture as what happened in The Burj Dubai Tower. It tries to justify its contextualization and localism by relating the plan of the building to the flower in the dessert after the design has already finished in the sake of marketing. In the end, architecture becomes merely representational in the age of the image.

Nowadays, spectacular projects are proposed through exaggeration and focus on superlatives such as the tallest, the biggest irrespective of any relation to local context. It is not supported by strong solid foundation – through public participation, institutional development and social debates resulting in lack of attachment of the people in the city. It evokes the lost sense of authentic culture and identity. The city is reworking the symbolism or imagery of the original and creating a new image which this new image, in turn, becomes in it a point of reference, a Debordian spectacle (Elsheshtawy 2010, 262). Copying symbols from other cultures is not a new phenomenon, it has been occurring throughout history. But perhaps the new type of commercialization which is happening right now sets apart the city that is still maintained its identities regardless the invasion from the ‘spectacle’ and the city that adopt entirely the trend.

Regarding the attachment to local history and culture, the spectacle can be used as a method for paralyzing history and memory and also suppressing any history based on historical time which represents a false consciousness of time. Spectacular time is the illusorily lived time of a constantly changing reality (Debord 2006, 51) and as a result, people experience a disconnected life with reality even with its own past which they misunderstood and forgotten their own local wisdom because they have absorbed the spectacle excessively. It transfers the images which becomes common and uncritically accepted by the society. The spectacle thus, creates new kind of ‘culture’ to its spectators.


Figure 12: Floorplans and section of the Burj Dubai Tower
(source: Elsheshtawy, 2010)

Debord insists that the spectacle has influenced almost everything in modern society and has absolute control over production, over perception, and especially over the shape. In modern cities which adopt this concept, advertising and commercial forces have taken the lead in the making of modern spectacle. The symbols and images are spreading instantly and easily resulting in lack of value and appreciation to it. Concerning the way the spectacular architecture, as mentioned by King above, to spread and invading the society’s spaces therefore I suggest the term of “spectacular blindness”. This spectacular blindness will happen gradually along with the rapid development of buildings that merely concern with the aesthetic and ‘wow’ effect from them. Here, based on our discussion so far, I am considering that by the abundances of the images and spectacle today which is constructed easily by the modern technology, people accept too much of it and in the end they become common objects. It has no effect anymore as they can get the others instantly. People are wandering through buildings, plazas and cities without any excitement anymore as same architecture appears everywhere. Public spaces in the city are no longer places of people with narrative experience, but now they are constructed through instantly fragmented spectacles which try to overcome each other. Spectacular becomes not spectacular for some people which they do not see the position and critical points of it in order to be named spectacular architecture, as it will produce what Henry Bergson’s Matter and Memory saws as the “standardized and denatured” perception of masses (McDonough 2004, 459-460).

I also want to highlight that our society nowadays is also a ‘society of curiosity’, which this is caused by the possibilities offered by the modern technologies. Because of it, then people tend to pursue and to know everything they want. This desire triggers people to travel, to see and to experience new places and new objects. Thus it creates a never ending loop of spectacle and society’s needs provided by capitalist which captures this opportunities to create ‘spectacle’ for the society. Today this loop is like a parable of chicken and egg; who comes first and who comes last.

4.2 Modernism Challenge in the City and Urban Area: How Can We Shape A New City in the Society of Spectacle?

To continue, as states by Michael Benedikt that our environment has become ever more commoditized, ever more the subject of short-term investment, income generation, and resale rather than of lifelong dwelling or long-term city making (Saunders 2005, 11). By employing the global devices of urban capitalism which have been implemented elsewhere, a new global urbanity is created. As the increases of travel and communication, the city becomes not only a physical object but also now related to the global village with the digital community and other virtual construction of community which might cause a diminished sense of community. Hence, what kind of built environment can we expect within the boundaries of the global community? One should be concerned is the sprawl of spectacle just as the Romans transferred their town planning, engineering, and architecture to the whole Mediterranean world, nowadays this sprawl is led by the media (Saunders 2005, 2).

Nowadays, architect is always under pressure from their stakeholders to produce different and ‘spectacular’ design to fulfill the needs of consumer and sales. Thus, this demand creates a trend that design is produced only to evoke the effect of “wow” while ignoring the rest impact later. It is the characteristic of the modern spectacle to produce the surprise effect in its appearances (McDonough 2004, 463). As architects in the positions to design and creates environments, it can be said they responsible to the popular taste of the free market, for this reason, Kevin Ervin Kelley states that “we designers are not really producing what people need; we are producing what they want” (Saunders 2005, 47). Architects are designers of perception through image making. In a sense, they are designing the consumers themselves. Actually, architect itself cannot be kept from the influence of economic and commodity. They sell ideas as commodity and in different ways architecture has become a brand in itself in a spectacle realm. One example can be seen when a famous architect becomes a ‘comical’ stars in visual.


Figure 13: Rem Koolhaas in TV show ‘Simpsons’

Next, realized or not we can see that in China as the development of spectacular architecture became intensive moved by its economic power, there was tension between local and foreign architects. Local architects felt excluded from the getting the ‘prestigious’ projects and accused foreign architects using China as an experimental ground to test new techniques and realize their own artistic ambitions (Broudenhoux, p.9). Thus, many of them tried to adopt a more critical design approach that closely rooted in their culture while move towards modernity as the rest of the world does as self-conscious resistance to the spectacle’s abundances in their country. By focusing on small-scale, place-specific, and locally grounded projects, these designers are creating a new identity for Chinese design, a truly contemporary architectural language that retains a degree of continuity with the existing urban fabric without falling into the traps of nostalgia and localism (Broudehoux 2010, 10). Thus learning from that experience, it is interesting to see where the architect should stand in this ‘turmoil’ time and in what way they should shape the new urban area in the society of spectacle.



Figure 14: New Academy of Art in Hang Zhou by 2012 Pritzker Award winner, Wang Shu (source:

Generally, there is always a struggle between tradition and innovation, which is the basic theme of internal cultural development in historical societies, innovation always wins. But for cultural innovation is different as it is generated by nothing other than the total historical movement – a movement which, in becoming conscious of itself as whole, tends to go beyond its own cultural presuppositions and thus to move forward the suppression of all separations (Debord 2006, 57). If the city is developed based on it then it can be a base foundation in the struggle tense against the dominance of capitalism power interest. Urbanism – “city planning” – as claimed by Debord, is capitalism’s method for taking over the natural and human environment by providing the foundation for the deployment of capitalism separation (Debord 2006, 53-54). Therefore, there must be a way to make a balance position between city planning influenced by economic interest and city planning with consideration to the local society and history.

For Situationist, in the city of power and capital the spectacle was merely a manufactured wonderment, a hype that concealed real processes of exploitation (Saddler 1998, 17). They believe in the possibility of a cultural sphere outside the spectacle of economic and politics and in that case they can find a way out of the spectacle’s domination with it. They proposed a concept, Unitary Urbanism, which acknowledges no boundaries; it aims to form a unitary environment in which separations such as work – leisure or public – private will finally be dissolved (Saddler 1998, 25). Along with it Raoul Vaneigem claimed that the ideal urbanism is the projection in space of a social hierarchy without conflict (Saddler 1998, 16), where the planning represents the harmony between cities stakeholders. Above all, unitary urbanism rejected the idealistic quest for fixed forms and permanent solutions that had been the basis of traditional town planning (Saddler 1998, 120). It recommended the society’s participation to reshapes its local surroundings. Debort suggests, “In the city of unitary urbanism, urban dynamics would no longer be driven by capital and bureaucracy, but by participation” (Saddler 1998, 117). Situationist’s unitary urbanism was a vision of the unification of space and architecture with the social body, and with the individual body as well (Saddler 1998, 118) where everyone can continually be engaged in transforming their own environment. As in Debord’s 1961 film critique de la séparation had explained, “Until the environment is collectively dominated, there will be no individuals – only specters haunting the things anarchically presented to them by others (Saddler 1998, 97). The society must take more action and responsibility on theirs.

Le Corbusier proposed a separation of functions in a clean and neat city representing the modern city where everything is in order and planned, however, this kind of city does not include people’s participation in determining what they supposed to have and get. The planning and decision is come from one side, top to down. Thus, Levebvre and the Situationist saw the traditional city with its diversity and culture as a possibility to offer as they both agree to return to ‘traditional spaces’ in the city as it is more meaningful (Shrijver 2009, 58).


Figure 15: Le Corbusier’s proposed city (Source: Schrijver, 2009)

The Situationist considered that unitary urbanism should never abandon the existing city in favor of new territory (Saddler 1998, 121). They were equally aware of the ability of the planner to rewrite the meaning of the city through procedures of erasure as well as construction (Saddler 1998, 99). Erasure of the signs of urban memory can happen whenever there is lack of attachment to the city and participation from the local community. Therefore, the existing city with its historical memory and culture must be preserved and to be learned from. Despite Walter Benjamin’s distinction between the auratic original and the mechanically reproduced copy seems as “irrelevant in today’s discourse”, however in our discussion on the society of the spectacle, the aura of the local culture and history is still needed in order to design a better environment to the city and its residents. Thus, as architect, we should consider that we design an everyday ‘lived space’, as indicated by Lefebvre, for people with their sensibility and perception where the space becomes part of the everyday spatial experience of a community. Certainly, architecture must eliminate the gap of this separation by trying to produce designs which connecting segregated parties in societies, reminds and engaging community with its own culture and history.


In concluding this paper, there are several points can be inferred. In any case, the concept of spectacle contains the same idea through the time but it will adapt and evolve according to the dominance of economics interest or dictatorial and political hegemony. In the modern world now, those motives are fuse and create a ‘powerful’ kind of spectacle that dominate almost all aspect of city’s life through it is most apparent representation such as high-rise buildings, malls and mega-scale projects. In modern society now as Debord calls ‘the society of spectacle’ or as I suggest with ‘the society of curiosity’, economic dominance is inevitable which helped by the development technology, our society becomes more complex and demanding. We learn from history and experience of cities that the ‘spectacle’ has the positive and negative sides which in fact depend on how it is used and translated. Thus, we cannot make judgment on spectacle hastily. The city needs ‘spectacular architecture’ to develop itself but at the same time it must consider also the existing city with its historical memory and culture which must be preserved and to be learned from. The exclusion of this important point will lead the city into a ‘soulless’ city with lack of identity and sense of belonging from the community. The spectacular development must gain the productive dimension to enhance the quality of life rather than aesthetics matter only. It must avoid an imposed symbolism and go beyond it which it can be an agent for social, cultural and political changes. Otherwise, the entire ‘spectacular’ become less spectacular in the crowd or in the state of ‘spectacular blindness’.

This paper has shown through its discussion that there is nothing to be afraid of and nothing needs to be rejected in the trend of spectacular architecture nowadays as long as we, architect, have the sensibility and firm stance in expressing our idea of design without neglecting local culture and history. This paper becomes important to build awareness in the middle of spectacle abundance in our society so that architecture can lead the way to a better built environment to be built and becomes an answer for the modernism challenges through the time.

With consideration of this paper’s discussion and conclusion, it must be recognized that there is still much future research and development to be done in this topic area. The discussion of modern spectacular architecture with its challenges brings another important issue of its later stage. It is interesting to investigate issue on the continuity and usage of the ‘spectacular’ buildings over the time as they would operate, function and represent the image as expected or otherwise be a ‘boomerang’ to the city and community.



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Online Journal

Broudehoux, Anne-Marie. “Spectacular Beijing: The Conspicuous Construction of an Olympic Metropolis.” University of Quebec, Montreal, Journal of Urban Affairs, Volume 29, Number 4, pages 383–399 (2007)

Broudehoux, Anne-Marie. “Images of Power: Architectures of the Integrated Spectacle at the Beijing Olympics.” Journal of Architectural Education. Volume 63, Issue 2, pages 52–62 (March 2010),

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Online PDF version:

Hubbert, Jennifer. “Spectacular Productions: Community and Commodity in the Beijing Olympics.” City & Society Volume 22, Issue 1, pages 119–142 (June 2010),