Het fatale spektakel. De leefomgeving als decor / The fatal spectacle. The environment as decor

From Times Square in New York and Potsdamer Platz in Berlin to the inner city of Maastricht, from the panorama of the Utrecht city centre to the spacious beaches of Texel, from the former coking plants and gasometers in the German Ruhr to the warehouses and cranes in Rotterdam’s former harbour area, from East Holland’s Pieterpad to one’s own back garden, from the ex-urban sprawl of the Almeerderhout to the rings of canals in Amsterdam, everything seems to be slowly becoming part of an all-embracing touristic (sometimes cultural) and recreational universe of aesthetic imagination and sensual pleasure. In this sense there is hardly any fundamental difference left between the design strategies for inner cities, nature reserves and our monumental heritage on the one hand, and for the ‘vulgar’ ongoing world of shopping malls, amusement parks, theme restaurants and multifunctional fitness centres on the other. What is happening in each case is deliberate, integrated ‘imagineering’ of the physical and symbolic environment, taking into account the whole spatio-temporal universe of formal patterns. Consider in this context the use made in modern shopping malls and new suburban housing estates of shapes which refer back to the 19th-century romanticism of the urban villa, the oriental ‘exoticism’ of Roman amphitheatres and Greek temples or the neo-romanticism of the early modern arcades and crystal palaces. The difference lies at most in the purchasing power and taste preferences of the intended market segment.

Any attempt to escape from the touristic recreational universe appears hopeless right from the start. In Berlin the alternative scene rushes eastwards through the city, from Mitte to Prentzlauerberg to Friedrichshain, closely pursued by a new middle-class intent on drinking in, like an enlightened culture tourist, the Bohemian culture of metropolitan Berlin. Meanwhile Kreuzberg is beginning to look foolish and risks fading away into the fringe of the city. More generally hordes of ‘experience’ tourists drag themselves from one architectural tour de force to another, from one museum to another, from one town hall to another, from one urban renewal project to another. Not infrequently the disastrous consequence of this relentless cultural quest is that after a more than normally successful opening year the facilities are confronted by a significant fall in the number of visitors and a corresponding operational deficit. Think for example of the turbulent time experienced by the Groninger Museum or Maastricht’s Bonnefantenmuseum. In the case of Maastricht the aura of the building seems in the end to have had a compulsive influence on the way the museum’s contents are programmed (instead of vice versa). In an attempt to reactivate the flow of visitors, the archaeological collection is to be moved to other premises.
Of course none of this is new. The present-day glorification of sensual experience and hunt for aesthetic spectacle can easily be traced back to 19th-century Paris with its exotic bazaars, opulent boulevards and fanatical flâneurs, to the hallucinatory reality of world fairs in metropolises like Brussels, Paris, Berlin and London, to the spectacular entertainment in such former amusement parks as Coney Island and the New York Hippodrome, to the culture of the revue and jazz and the glamour of Hollywood films. This also explains the growth in today’s interest in the early modern period. In contrast to what an enlightened middle-class would have had the working class believe around the turn of the century, it was the city dweller himself who, from the middle of the 19th-century onwards, went in for all kinds of sensual exoticism. What is new is at most the ease with which and the degree to which these former enclaves of aesthetic pleasure can today be duplicated and enlarged into a hitherto unprecedented degree of comprehensiveness, intensity and liveliness.2 The image is becoming more real, in the sense of more obtrusive, more fascinating, more pure, more comprehensive, than reality itself. Reality is being recorded in and subjected to the idiom of the image.3
The origins of this role reversal between reality and image are not difficult to trace. [To begin with] Members of a more highly educated population have been able to develop, via the media and their own touristic activities, into ‘proto- professionals’ in the field of stage-management. The present-day ‘post-tourist’ is formogenic.4 He knows that what is put before him is a staged experience. But not surprisingly he is less interested in any authenticity which may lie behind the staging and more in the staging itself: what is the experiential value of the visual or audio-visual plot?
Second, all this is inseparable from the increasing ‘mediatizing’ of the cultural environment. The technical and institutional apparatus of the modern picture and sound industry (film and television, advertising and design, radio and music, architecture, graphic art and photography) plays an ever greater role in the design of the symbolic environment. The perception of one’s own social and physical environment is more and more guided by a complicated and increasingly transnationally organized network of institutional interests and concerns.5 It is this intermediation that makes possible an ever greater deliberately manipulable distance between the environment as immediately experienced and its representation.
Third, the digitization of information and communication (sound, image and text) also plays a role. This results in a synergy between computer companies, telecom companies, software firms, media corporations, the television business and the entertainment industry.6 Digitization makes it simpler to design and distribute more complex audio-visual decor. The area over which the imagination can range has expanded enormously, so that it now covers the full spectrum of sensory culture, from graphic art, design and architecture to film, music and entertainment.
Fourth, we are seeing an increasing global compression of the leisure and media industry. The consequences include increasing transnational and trans-sectoral competition between different components of the leisure and culture industry for the attention of the consumer, resulting in increasing ‘spectacularization’ and integration of what is on offer. Time Warner Inc. (still a little bigger than the other giant, Disney Inc.) ceased long ago to be a media concern, becoming instead a more comprehensive transnational ‘leisure conglomerate’. It produces, distributes and sells not only magazines, books, music and films but also owns or has shares in cable companies, television and radio stations (including CNN and Classic FM), video shops, cinemas, amusement parks (e.g. Movie World), toy manufacturers and retail businesses. Trading in copyrights forms a central part of its business. Time Warner’s CEO, Gerald M. Levin, keeps a strategic eye on what is going on round the world: ‘In India, the 18-24 age group will grow by 18% between 1992 and 2000, resulting in a prime entertainment-and-media-consuming population there at the turn of the century of 313.7 million’.7
Fifth, this whole process of increasing mediatization and spectacularization is being encouraged by ambitious politicians wishing to reposition their own city or region within a regionally or globally restructured network economy. The aim is to compete for companies, residents and population. Inner cities are becoming the object of forms of integrated centre management with the aim of maintaining or increasing purchasing power. Apart from this an attractive residential environment must be created for a high-quality workforce, a precondition for the attraction of knowledge-intensive branches of industry.
Sixth, spatial disconnection and re-connection is taking place between the spheres of work, care and leisure. Increasing mobility and the computerization of information and communication means that it is no longer necessary to move to where the work is. Housing and work can be considered separately. Instead housing is coming to be connected with leisure. The ‘urban’ or ‘rural’ recreational and aesthetic potential of the residential environment has become an important ingredient in the choice of somewhere to live. The residential environment has become an expression and component of the individual’s own identity and lifestyle.
Seven, because of all sorts of different types of privatization, a large number of institutions (museums, theatres, sports facilities, recreational areas) are having to search for alternative sources of income to allow them to achieve the dynamism necessary for success in the market for tourists (including culture tourists) and day trippers.
And finally, all this is supported by increasing prosperity amongst leading population groups. An increasing proportion of contemporary households nowadays live not on one income but on one and a half or even two incomes; interest rates are remaining low, returns on investment are satisfactory and discretionary income is increasing. People can go on holiday more often, go out more and put more money into equipping their own houses and residential environment (garden centres, for example, are thriving as never before).

Intermediate worlds

The most important question raised by all this is not how we can turn back or prevent this development. Any attempt at a renewed division between location and market seems a wicked, not to say dangerous, route to take.8 The antithesis between location and market presupposes a spatial and cultural immanence which is no longer tenable.9 The division implicitly maintains the promise of an authentic undivided community, purified from any influence by the false, superficial ‘Mickey Mouse world’ of global capitalism.
The wide-ranging internationalization of flows of information, goods and people has made the modern promise of a world susceptible to unequivocal planning untenable. Location and market, culture and economy, local authenticity and global consumptive culture have all become tied together in a very complex way, and any attempt at lasting division runs the risk of turning into an artificial fossilization which in time will only be possible to maintain by the use of barbed wire and surveillance cameras, or the more subtle legal and symbolic exclusion mechanisms of the ‘new urbanism’. ‘The ideal of community privileges unity over difference, thereby denying the reality and value of irreducible differences between individuals and between types of people. It threatens to reinstate the structures of exclusion which operate in ethnic and other forms of chauvinism. It is founded upon a unitary ideal of subjectivity’.10
Instead of this the task is to develop a strategy which will create a sensible way through the dilemma between on the one hand the unbridled striving for connection with the ‘space of flow’ of the ‘tourist gaze’ and on the other hand a forced glorification of the ‘space of place’ of the local community. In other words, what this is all about is the design of intermediate worlds, transit zones, which enable interesting and surprising connections to be made within and between local and global networks of economic, social and cultural development. These intermediate worlds must on the one hand offer space for local forms of representation, involvement and continuity, and on the other hand also be open and dynamic enough to give those involved the opportunity to play a productive role in the supra-local economic and cultural vitality and to attract this vitality to itself. All sorts of places in and around the city would be capable of performing this function, places ranging from public libraries, museums and public squares in the centre of the city to cultural workplaces and neighbourhood centres on its fringe. But neighbourhoods and districts and even newly developed shopping centres should be designed in such a way as to allow them to function as links between the locality and the world at large. Thus not purely and simply striving to copy shopping formulas which are already spread in their thousands over the urban landscape, but striving for interesting interspaces which will also provide room for local colour provided by local initiatives.11 The next step must be to avoid local colour being confined once more in some kind or other of subsidized reserve, but to ensure that it is provided with forms of support enabling it compete effectively with the violence of global retail business. The development of this kind of ‘politics of heterogeneity’, says Harvey, may sound hopelessly abstract and rather complicated, ‘but the idea that the Roman ‘communitas’or the medieval village can somehow be rebuilt in Bombay or Sao Paulo appears little less than absurd’.12
Hans Mommaas works in the Department of Leisure Sciences at Tilburg University. His research and educational activities take place on the cutting edge of leisure, culture and urban development.

Wonen in het groen. Geschiedenis van een ideaal / Living in a green setting. The history of an ideal