INTENT: This thesis seeks to engage the question of architect as agent of social change by interrogating architecture’s ability to capture public attention in a present moment in order to facilitate new awareness and interactions. Given the changing relationship of human subjects to physical space in the 21st century, I hold that contemporary and future architecture must employ new strategies for establishing common ground and forging connections if it is to resonate with and to empower public citizens.
“We live inside a set of relations…”
The numerous dialectic relationships in and amongst which architecture has been placed over the past decades created a Western disciplinary dependency upon binary definitions. Now academia and practitioners perpetually claim that architecture must occupy a realm “in-between,” operating at the threshold or intersection of multiple disciplines at various scales, ideologically positioning design more as “ecology” than merely the practice of building. However, while compelling, this re-conceptualization often leaves the field in ambiguous territory, failing to characterize a clear role for architecture in society. We must clearly define the specific means by which architecture can operate relationally—that is, as a synthetic manifestation of the interactive forces, elements, and contingencies that constitute contemporary public life, thus creating an identifiable common ground, an environment of potentials, to which diverse people connect.
“…there are no demonstrations in Disneyland.”
Relations, subjectivity, and ownership in the context of constructing urban identities become difficult questions when faced with the increasingly ubiquitous, even disappearing, physical spaces resulting from spreading globalization and eclipsed by information technologies. Specifically, in order to understand contemporary relationships between people, objects, and environments, we must examine notions of “place” as well as “anti-relational” public space: that of escape. Our escapist culture of consumption, in which image dominates experience and architecture is often relegated to an “image-byte,” operates using precise tools and well-honed strategies of manipulation. Through analysis of these we can better understand contemporary conditions of disengagement, cohabitation without meaningful exchange, a runaway reality.
“There is the possibility to redefine the meaning of the city as a site of confrontation and thus of coexistence.”
Understanding the stakes for creating meaningful architecture is particularly vital in addressing current trends of “urbanization.” In cities across America looking to create a new “urban character,” architects must inform design so that, rather than reinforcing the anonymity offered by appropriated images of life, spaces will allow inhabitants to connect, to take collective ownership, and to engage in social critique. The most extreme example is Las Vegas, the embodiment of American escapist culture yet a city seeking a new urban center. The challenge is to design a dynamic, multivalent place that relates to the greater city and its various users—one that takes advantage of but escapes the singular pervasive image of “Las Vegas.”
PROJECT: Las Vegas is not lacking for image but lacking for a synthetic sense of connection across the city as a whole. The city is planning to develop an “urban center,” yet current proposals seem to offer little in terms of relating to more complex contingencies of the city. Beyond creating another escapist paradise, I propose to develop a strategy for designing a common civic space that appropriates a variety of tools to encourage awareness through connection to intrinsic and external conditions of place.
SITE: The project will be positioned to operate in the “in-between” zone of an unresolved but potentially urban condition. The threshold between visitor destination and residential city provides fertile ground for intensifying relationships, and as such the site may be located either (1) along the ambiguously industrial/infrastructural strip to the West of Las Vegas Blvd, or (2) the intersection of Las Vegas Blvd with “downtown.” Either location calls for an overall plan as well as an architecture that will synthesize contingencies of context, scale, and user.
PROGRAM: The research implies a possibility of the design of space that operates contingently, upon existing and possible relationships within and outside of itself, as well as of space that offers freedom through disconnectedness. Given these two different typologies of space—for now, the “relational” and the “runaway”—the qualities, function, and subjective effects of each kind of space can be used in the formation of a new typology—recasting the global presence of the greater Las Vegas communities into a localized urban center.
One such possibility is that of a “cultural laboratory,” reversing the typical format of public space (uniquely-identifiable program inserted within a larger, boundless, generally-identifiable program) by inserting pockets of commercial/play/escape space into larger library/museum/educational spaces.
QUESTIONS for moving forward:
- How are “collective” identities formed in Las Vegas? How are the various users defined, segregated, or intermixed? What are the moments of threshold between the various users and space-types?
- What constitutes a meaningful encounter between them? How can one best use design here to create and transition between poignant thresholds, drawing attention, creating awareness, conversation, interaction?
- What does this mean for making a common ground—enabling connection, ownership, empowerment?
 Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” (1967), 23.
 Michael Sorkin, “Introduction,” Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992), xv.
 Pier Vittorio Aureli. “Toward the Archipelago: Defining the Political and the Formal in Architecture,” Log 11 (Winter 2008), 119.
“We live inside a set of relations…”
--Michel Foucault. "Of Other Spaces."
"...there are no demonstrations in Disneyland."
--Michael Sorkin. "Introduction: Variations on a Theme Park."
“Returning from a trip, I hear the question, ‘Do you have photographs?’ far more often than ‘Do you have stories or observations?’”
--Mitchell Scwarzer. "Architecture and Mass Tourism" in Architourism.
“These undigested, unedited narratives fuel a queasy sense of ourselves as liminal creatures with no boundaries, while conversely promoting privatized anxieties about increased isolation and personal insignificance in the urban spaces we inhabit."
--Alan Marcus and Dietrich Neumann. Visualizing the City.
“There is the possibility to redefine the meaning of the city as a site of confrontation and thus of coexistence.”
--Pier Vittorio Aureli. "Toward the Archipelago: Defining the Political and the Formal in Architecture" in Log 11.
This thesis deals with the question of subjectivity, connection, and ownership in the context of constructing urban identities. Specifically, I am looking at the construction of “urban center” in Las Vegas, a city that takes American consumer culture to its utmost extreme, a city not lacking for image but lacking for a synthetic sense of connection across the city as a whole.
For this exercise, I would like to experiment with program, testing different combinations of the following general categories of space (these terms have yet to be fully defined and may change). Can the advantages and characteristics of one be used to leverage the other?
- Contingent (Relational) -
These are spaces that make connections to the “contingencies” of a particular condition—to all of the various aspects that make a particular environment specific. Not simply contextual, which might imply simply copying or mimicking existing conditions, these spaces reveal relationships between conditions of the environment, built form, and those that use it.
While these spaces might be based in relativity, they offer a rootedness to their particular condition. They utilize physicality and bodily sense as well as mental association to draw connections and make new awareness.
The subject then becomes more conscious of the self as well as the communities to which he or she is tied. Each person can feel a sense of belonging and ownership over the space, establishing a continuity between person and community and environment that may be empowering.
- Runaway -
These are spaces of escape—the market-driven spaces of play that are prevalent throughout American cities and reach new extremes of play in Las Vegas. They might be described as non-relational, disconnected from any exterior conditions and infinite, offering no physical, temporal, or historical boundaries. Rather than having some unique identity in and of themselves, identity is defined by the players in the space.
These spaces operate according to the market, driven by subtle consumer changes that are meant to be representative of all users. They are dominated by image and visual reception. Because these spaces dissociate man from “architecture,” instead orienting him according to commodities, these spaces rely upon psychological strategies as much as the phenomenological strategies of suppressing environmental specificities.
Thus the subject is cast in a predetermined role, one that is temporary, acknowledged as fake, and as such liberating. The subject has the freedom of both disconnection from the “real” world and of anonymity; he or she is not responsible or accountable for his or her actions or professed beliefs in these spaces. No one takes ownership over these spaces; therefore they are orphans or runaways.
All of the following speculate on some combination of “contingent” and “runaway” spaces—how one might inform and enable the other in order to recast the presence of the greater Las Vegas communities in an urban center. (In any case, I imagine my project to be one at an architectural scale placed within a larger urban scheme.)
Civic center: bus stop, formal and informal performance space, commercial/play space
This at first could be envisioned as a typical downtown space, satisfying the need for a transportation hub and using it to activate performance space and commercial space, which could also draw tourists. Pushing beyond creating simply another potentially dead or segregated (by user: different communities, tourists, etc.) civic space, I could see the commercial space acting as a gateway to the various civic spaces, serving to mix communities and de-stratify, thus creating a center that truly speaks to Las Vegas as a whole.
Housing: mixed apartments and condos marketed toward different communities of Las Vegas
Currently, luxury condo towers and affordable housing occupy completely separate spheres in the valley, one oriented wholly toward the economic center (the Strip) and they other pushed away. The interaction of escapist housing (second- and third-homes) with apartments meant to establish community among more permanent residents could offer many opportunities for creating a more holistic vision and character of Las Vegas on one site. The revenue from one could potentially benefit and support community-oriented spaces for the other, and integrating the two in public areas/circulation could provide new opportunities for interaction, both between inhabitants and between people and their environment, throughout the project.
Cultural laboratory: library/museum/educational spaces with pockets of commercial/play
This could be a reversal of the established mode of design throughout Las Vegas, which are pockets of specific/relational/uniquely-identified program within the larger boundless realm of runaway spaces. Perhaps the architecture of those runaway spaces could actually inform a larger architecture of place for the community. Reversing the typical format, for example, the play spaces could be contained as nodes within a larger field of contingent space, allowing
(1) the runaway space to interact with, enrich, educate, and enliven the contingent space, and
(2) the otherwise usually captive contingent space to connect to exterior conditions and modes of operation in the Las Vegas valley.
In any case, it seems appropriate to more closely analyze the qualities, function, and subjective effects of each kind of space (i.e., the powerful freedoms of play space), using those factors considered advantageous in the formation of a new typology of designed space in Las Vegas.
[Charlie Koolhaas on curating the Shenzhen and Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture. December 2007.]
Shenzhen has a particular attitude to time which is unique
it was built in an instant
it was a political symbol and invention and has influenced the economy of the world in a very short time period
it’s expiring because the reasons for its creation are no longer as relevant to its continued existence - they are building new shenzhens everywhere.
Shenzhen has very little emotional significance - most people who live there see the city as a temporary but neccessary step on the road to a better life.
This is unlike London or Paris that survive on sentiment and nostalgia.
I watched the film blow up for the first time recently and realised that so much of london and so many londoners are trying to recapture that creative energy that London had in the sixties and seventies - they dress the same, create the same art, have the same conversations at parties.
London is constantly reliving things - i myself go to ‘back to 95’ raves - i’m nostalgic for 12 years ago.
Shenzhen on the other hand is unique as a city because it is not repeating itself. In fact it is currently searching for new models and activities.
This is the reason for the biennale in Shenzhen in the first place – it’s a source of information - commissioned by the government for the citizens of the city. It’s about alternatives and possibilities.
Shenzhen (and China more generally) is not fixed and as it changes certain trends and activities inevitably disappear so people are more open to this idea of ‘expiration’.
You could trace this different attitude to change back to the origins of ancient eastern philosophy.
LaoTzu said people ‘move towards the place of death...because they want to create an increase of their lives’. His philosophy and of course much of eastern philosophy is all about accepting life cycles. Using these life-cycles for self-improvement.
In the UK and the US the governments like to keep us in fear. But in China it’s in the government’s interest to keep its people feeling positive, to keep people flowing and fluid.
it has very little infrastructure so could potentially be dismantled in a couple of months and rebuilt somewhere else
thats the whole idea behind the CoER
it kind of envisions a light temporary city like Shenzhen
that measures its own necessity and then adapts perfectly to changing needs
therefore eliminating waste
and accepting death
OK, there seems to be two models, or two possibilities, of a city that embraces expiration: a wasteful, exploitative one, and a more organic, ecological one
no one in Europe wants to admit that a city will only last 30 years
therefore they build heavy buildings in order to create value and real estate
but in china people buy houses knowing they will fall apart in 5 years
but you are always seeing things as opposites
i dont see that at all
we are suggesting different models of reinvention
that fit different places
of course it would be ridiculous to be ‘against’ masterplanning - because it has created incredible cities that have gone on to contain incredibly inventive human activity
it’s not about a dualistic spilt between organic or planned
it’s about both happening at the same time - inevitably
ma said in his manifesto that living in a city was like being a curator
because you have to take care of and making a living from these cultural monuments that we live with yet we never have ownership over them or really create them
presence-emptiness | real-abstract | singular-universal | formal-informal | figure-ground | object-field | order-chaos | topdown-bottomup | birth-death | whole-aggregation | urban-rural | imposed-natural | overpowering-picturesque | more-less | additive-reductive | right-left | static-transient | facticity-fiction | everyone-one | objective-subjective | grandeur-intimacy | event-everyday | direct-detour | structured-chance | narrative-happening | consumable-intangible | image-feeling
Contemporary culture presents new, and as such relatively unexamined, ways for people to engage one another as well as their surroundings. Technology enables greater connectivity across greater distances and shorter attention spans. Yet at the same time, the face-to-face interaction remains an essential part of human life. Regardless of the mode of experience, popular culture has created a need to reassess our relationships, both to people and to our environment, through the lens of society at large.
In order to understand cultural interaction and engagement, we must understand ourselves and our environments. To begin, “absolutes” are not relevant. The human being is, like all creatures, perpetually remaking itself in every aspect: our bodies regenerate cells, our senses and organs constantly recalibrate according to varying input, and our minds are continuously adapting our understandings of self and the world around us as information is processed. Other constructions of life—from social groups the built environment—are likewise perpetually in process. A static definition will never adequately capture such entities; rather an understanding of ongoing relationships is necessary to begin to define almost any aspect of our human civilization.
Despite this, Architecture has been in the past frequently positioned in terms of dialectic relationships. This, particularly Western, dependence upon binary definitions was helpful in characterizing certain aspects of the discipline but at the same time incredibly limiting, forcing design to define itself in terms of one or another pole.
Now academia and practitioners are more often trending toward the claim that Architecture must occupy a realm “in-between,” operating at the intersection of multiple disciplines at various scales. Theories of design as “ecology” are emergent (In Art—a discipline with fewers constraints and so perhaps always a fewer steps ahead of Architecture—Sanford Kwinter suggests the emergence of a “New Synthesis.”). However, while compelling, this re-conceptualization often leaves the field in ambiguous territory, glossing over this idea of “in-between” and so failing to characterize a clear role for architecture in society.
Returning to the idea that understanding ongoing processes and relationships is integral to understanding ourselves, the “in-between” then must capture these relationships between one entity and another. If architects are trying to pursue, reveal, manifest new cultural “truths”—to continue to posit the designed built environment as fundamental and necessary—then Architecture must operate and be understood according to the interactive elements, forces, and contingencies, the limits and possibilities, that constitute contemporary life. It must explore the meeting of people and of people with the environment.
“Man’s allotted place was in any case never at the center but in a middling region, on a kind of spherical shoreline where matter and spirit met--the surface of the earth.... Anthropocentricity...had less to do with man’s geometric centrality than with his being in the middle of a nexus of communications between extreme states.”
--Robin Evans, The Projective Cast
This thesis deals with the question of subjectivity, connection, and ownership in increasingly ubiquitous, or disappearing, physical spaces. Specifically I would like to explore the different perceptions of space held by the “resident” and by the “visitor,” analyzing historical perceptions and interactions of these two characters in order to better understand contemporary subjectivities and interrelations between people, objects, and environments. As such, one thread of research is the analysis of the tourist’s consumption of the surrounding environment.
M. Christine Boyer’s 1992 essay, “Cities for Sale: Merchandising History at South Street Seaport” was published as part of series of essays exploring the transformation of America’s cities and public life at the end of the twentieth century. The essay focuses on the “just looking” tourist-consumer culture in a historically distinct, festival marketplace in Manhattan.
Given that the essay was written around fifteen years ago, it offers a venue for historical analysis in prelude to contemporary, increasingly extreme conditions of tourism and consumption. I would like to examine specifically Boyer’s characterization of the tourist’s purely visual, image-based connection to the environment, in terms of reception and empathy, as well as the implications that this mode of consumption has in altering the nature of public space and interaction.
In examining the South Street Seaport as a “premixed design package,” Boyer must first define the relationship of architecture to image and consumer to that image. She describes the creation of image (or spectacle, when placed in relationship to a spectator) by tracing a history of reproduction. She asserts that by using already-known symbolic codes, simulations reproducing some affect of reality could draw associations between “images and places, resemblances and meaning,” the artificial and the authentic—thus reframing urban realities and taking the place of these realities in the spectator’s mind. The visual reception of these codes then offers a chance to reestablish a base for culture and tradition by association, without containing any actual history. This works because the spectator is here assumed to be an “inattentive viewer” observing the spectacle in passing, and so Boyer arrives at an understanding of the subject in this environment as one who is “just looking.” In this superficial, visually acquisitive experience of the subject, the attraction offers “pure visibility” and reassurance, the “promise not to burden the spectator with the seriousness of reality.” Her criticism follows that because these spectacles were meant to be quickly scanned rather than analyzed, because “the pleasure of the view suspends critical judgment,” the subject is given a permissiveness to get lost in an idealized image of the past and to ignore completely any existing problems. This emphasis on visibility allows the subject to be present as a consumer, yet disengaged from any presence in a different common reality—escaping from any experience outside the limits of the spectacle or between “featured” moments.
It seems that for Boyer, the spectator is definitively the tourist, coming to visit this festival marketplace temporarily, looking to enjoy oneself guilt-free, relishing the degree of naïveté offered through a solely optical experience of a place. The author implies that a deeper “look” might reveal some genuine condition of reality to the viewer, but does not elaborate upon alternate means of experiencing this event-place. Boyer claims that the design focus in this environment is on a “theatrical” connection between the architecture of the marketplace and “the city’s historical past,” re-representing the city through precisely constructed views. Attractions appropriate styles of the desired referent in order to create a mood through which this referent is filtered and received. However, reinforcing the passive role of the subjective consciousness, this theatricality does not extend a relationship from the architecture to the spectator. Rather, through codes, associated meanings are transferred from context to commodities, and the situation enables tourists to interact only with objects as the uniqueness of place and context are completely cast away. For the tourist, this “mood” further conflates context and commodity, and a relationship to one’s environment exists only through anonymous consumption rather than through specificity.
The tourist-spectator is “the new public of the late twentieth century,” receiving the festival marketplace visually and relating to it through consumption. However, because this environment is not temporary for all those present, there should be another viewpoint revealing a less-strictly-surface experience. Were Boyer to define more specifically the communities at play in the festival marketplace, she would have to acknowledge another more ritually-visiting subject, perhaps the worker or resident of nearby Manhattan. She implies the presence of an awareness beyond that of the tourist, stating that these spectacles obscure and replace actual history in compensation for present-day failures. But rather than discuss alternate subjectivities or modes of perception, she implies that by somehow looking more deeply one would catch a glimpse of these problems, whereas one’s awareness of real urban problems may denote a different kind mode of body knowledge and feeling altogether.
Considering in this case the “resident” rather than the “tourist,” more static populations, presumably with greater the awareness of real urban problems, may have greater the love for simulation. She is perhaps hinting at these more lingering populations when she states that even cities and regions to market themselves with “imageability” as the new selling point. This is also where Boyer offers her strongest call to action, arguing that American urban regions are “disintegrating into unrelated groupings of shopping centers…and housing tracts….” These areas could be seen as in need of an “image” that will negate uprootedness and decomposition, creating place and connection. If architectural manipulation of historical or pop-culture imagery can stir nostalgia and consumption, it should by similar means be able to create unity and ownership. The question becomes one of creating new images of empowerment, rather than appropriating those of the past that serve only as filters.
In connecting to their surroundings, it is evident that a tourist’s perception is distinct from, and to some degree more liberated than, that of another figure, as it is always based on a represented image that is different than a reality. By looking at different relationships between subject and environment together, it follows that the choreographed interaction between image and subjects could emerge as a dominant factor in the formation and activation of public space. This image could use its power to distract and attract attention to more than an empty imitation of reality.
Can tourists realize their power to imbue their scene with whatever values they see fit? Can non-tourist architecture offer the same opportunities?