Cities of Spectacle

Disegno #19 (2018)

Image by Matthew Williams.

“I’m just looking to see if the world has ended since we started talking,” says David Rockwell, pausing to check his mobile 45 minutes into our meeting. “Apparently it hasn’t.”

Well, that’s some good news at least, particularly given that in these imperilled times one can never really know when the world might have ended without you realising it. A careless tweet could have been wazzed into the ether, derailing the Panmunjom peace process and dooming the planet to nuclear holocaust; or else the climate might have irretrievably collapsed in a final splurge of tar sands, flooding sections of the Earth beneath rising oceans, while sentencing others to Mad Max droughts and temperatures. Amidst these reasons for pessimism, one begins to worry that it’s not so much a question of if humankind will meet its spectacular end, but which spectacular end it’s going to meet. Our only hope may be that the impending nuclear winter cancels itself out against the blast furnace of global warming, although if memory of school science lessons serves, the rapid mingling of cold and hot fronts results in… tornadoes! It’s no wonder the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock has ticked round to 11.58pm, the closest it has been to midnight since 1953, when the Americans and the Russians started detonating H-bombs. The world is going to hell!

Fortunately, however, architect Rockwell, sitting in his firm’s offices on Union Square West, New York, is remaining calm (or at least more calm than your correspondent) in the face of adversity. Despite the political and climatic spheres having long since descended into morbid spectacle, Rockwell continues to be a firm advocate for the spectacular as one of society’s most potent tools for world-building and engendering community. “In an age in which we’re so connected virtually and there’s so much technology mediating our lives, I’m interested in taking an architect’s filter and looking at larger-than-life events,” he explains. “I’m interested in the human desire to participate in something bigger than yourself.” Since founding his practice in 1984, Rockwell has developed a fascination for spectacles, complementing his architecture and interior-design work for commercial clients such as Nobu, W Hotels and Shinola with a slew of spaces for the performing arts. “Theatre is a great laboratory for looking at how design comes alive when lots of people are participating for a particular period of time,” he says. “You think why we live in cities, and it’s not to be in our own box on our own devices, but to rub against other people. I’ve always thought theatre is a playpen to research that.” In this sense, Rockwell’s notion of spectacle is theatrical, prioritising moments in which everyday existence in some sense steps outside of itself in order to “engender an alternative state” and encourage human connection.

In 2006, Rockwell codified these ideas in Spectacle: An Optimist’s Handbook, written in collaboration with the designer Bruce Mau. A paean to theatricality in the public sphere, the text examines live communal events such as Burning Man in Nevada, El Encierro in Pamplona, the Kumbh Mela in India and firework displays the world over, and praises their ability to “turbocharge the everyday” and “tap into our deepest desire to belong and to participate”. In contrast to the spectacles of Trumpism and climate collapse, Rockwell’s vision of the spectacular proposes a definition grounded in day-to-day existence. “Maybe Spectacle is actually about the design of living in the moment,” reads the concluding section of the book’s opening interview with Rockwell. Certainly, the US’s current experiments in spectacle-infused Twitter diplomacy capture something of this carpe diem spirit, albeit filtered through a uranium-tinged haze of sleaze and international loutishness mainlined into the global cortex via the early-morning flatus of a “very stable genius” president. “I’m sure you could do another book now that looks at the history of spectacle and politics, and our current chapter with our current president would yield all kinds of hopefully interesting insights to guide us in the future,” notes Rockwell, smiling impishly.

Of course, this book – or at least a pre-Trump version of it – has already been written. In 1967, Guy Debord penned The Society of the Spectacle, a landmark text that developed the Situationist notion of “the spectacle” – an account of how capital has shaped the world. Debord defined it as the layers of unreality present within society – the tentacles of mass media; the preponderance of commodities; “the separation and estrangement between man and man” generated by the reigning economic system – that have placed everyone and everything at a remove from one another, and whose “social function is the concrete manufacture of alienation”. Debord’s spectacle is both the end-game and the mechanism by which socio-economic forces have steered society’s course from industrialisation through to late capitalism, generating a worldview of images and proxies that mediates all relationships and serves as “an affirmation of appearances and an identification of all human life with appearances”.

The spectacle emerged when social relations were bastardised into consumer relations (an “evident degradation of being into having”), which further putrefied into appearing so that “everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation”. In a more imagistic sense, the spectacle is a kind of sociological fatberg: a lumpen clot forged from the flushed-away condom, cotton bud and cooking fat cast-offs of consumerism, accrued until it has blocked society’s vital passageways with enough bung to render any genuine movement impossible. Society is now slumbering under this blanket of passivity and atomisation sent drifting down upon us by the muck spreader of the spectacle. To quote Will Self, Debord’s text feels familiar simply because it “so accurately describes the shit we’re still in”. Debord’s spectacle remains the greatest show in town. It’s the Global Shitshow!

The spectacle is not the same as a spectacle (so keep a weather eye on those definite and indefinite articles!), but there is a vital interplay between the two, which works out to interesting effect in Rockwell’s practice. Whereas Debord lamented society’s “vulgarised pseudo-festivals” as “parodies” of true forms of expression and communion (and here Debord’s target seems broad – theatre, cinema, sporting events and national holidays are all, to his mind, handmaidens of the spectacle), Rockwell insists upon their status as genuine outpourings of social feeling and as valid entry points to more lasting and everyday forms of interaction. Central to Rockwell’s design work, therefore, is the idea that one possible route out of the torpor of the spectacle (or, at least out of the social alienation and communal disconnect that attend it) is through the frisson of spectacles. “When you go to the movies, part of what you talk about before and after, the conversations around the movie, is not just about the object,” he says. “It’s about the backstory and the richness of the human lives that are part of it.”

It is in this spirit that, within the bowels of his Union Square offices, Rockwell has set up a dedicated set-design division – a grotto of maquettes and miniature stages from which have emerged beautifully intricate sets for plays and films such as Kinky Boots, Team America, Hairspray and Catch Me If You Can. The studio has also developed the staging for the 81st and 82nd Academy Awards. Meanwhile, Rockwell’s team of architects have designed a host of temporary and permanent theatre spaces, the most recent of which is a spring 2018 renovation of the 106-year-old Hayes Theater on Broadway for Second Stage Theater. The project saw Rockwell’s team not only restyle the venue – the smallest of its kind on Broadway – but also upgrade its systems. “The last show before Second Stage acquired the space was Rock of Ages, which just tore the crap out of this theatre – beer stains all over the place,” says project architect Michael Fischer. “You could definitely see that this is a theatre that’s seen the years go by and sometimes it’s very difficult and far more expensive to work with spaces like that. For example, it had a tonne of asbestos in it.” In this sense, theatre work is curiously lacking in spectacle – it is more a matter of logistics and basic functioning. “We completely re-did the AC system, rebuilt the electrical system, created new counterweight rigging,” says Fischer. “It’s the kind of stuff that you don’t really see, but which makes audience members comfortable.” This emphasis on essential operations aside, however, Rockwell is concerned with engendering sumptuousness within his designs. “I think ‘neutral’ stands in for not taking a position a lot of times,” he says, with Fischer adding that “one of the problems with black-box theatres is they’re trying to be [places] where anything can happen, which sometimes means nothing can happen particularly well.”

The Hayes was designed to bear out an alternative ideology. The auditorium is a snug seashell, whose seats have been upholstered with an iridescent coral-pink fabric that shifts tone and lustre as you move around it, while the theatre’s original baroque detailing has been coated with a layer of white paint, such that its neo-Georgian angels, garlands and curlicues recede into the territory of texture. Elsewhere, the walls are decorated with a pixelated, gradating blue reproduction of ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’, a tapestry taken from the 18th-century artist François Boucher’s The Loves of the Gods series. “If you don’t like blue, you’ll be in big trouble,” says Rockwell, “but I think the reality is that there’s no safety in neutrality[…] and the colour and detail and richness and seduction are all part of the theatre experience.” Reproductions of Boucher’s tapestries hung on the theatre’s walls when it opened 1912, its designer Winthrop Ames having commissioned a local theatre workshops to recreate them after seeing the originals at the Met. The contemporary Hayes, then, is emblazoned with a representation of a representation of a representation. It is a space which you suspect would have mightily vexed Debord: a site for spectacles, ensconced within the bourgeois enclave of Broadway, just off the LED-lined throne room of the spectacle itself – Times Square. “As culture becomes completely commodified it tends to become the star commodity of spectacular society,” wrote Debord. “When art[…] paints its world in dazzling colours, a moment of life has grown old.”

For Rockwell, however, the appeal of working with theatre spaces is somewhat Debordian. “I walked into a new building recently which had the full checklist of what one thinks of when one thinks of timeless design,” he says. “Timelessness is talked about a lot in architecture, but timeliness is more overlooked, whereas in theatre that’s the whole point because it doesn’t exist unless you’re there in real-time with all the other people.” Here, one might detect traces of Debord’s treatment of time, and its notion of “historical movement” having been replaced by a “history that is everywhere simultaneously the same” – the envelopment of social memory by the numbing pseudopodia of the spectacle. Whereas Debord took the unreality of spectacles and their ilk to have proliferated until they had become the daily bread of modern society (prompting a kind of ubiquitous overdose that enabled the subsequent catatonia of the spectacle), Rockwell sees the spectacular as a kind of seasoning that enlivens otherwise thin gruel, and which can place renewed emphasis on direct interaction. “We live and breathe in coming eyeball-to-eyeball with other human beings,” says Rockwell. “I remember my first trip to New York City, where what I was struck by wasn’t the New York most people see from the air, which is neat and Cartesian, but this messy, vital, changeable ground plan. [Similarly,] what I find interesting about the theatrical is not looking theatrical, but behaving theatrically. As architects, we’re interested in spaces where disparate people rub up against each other and engage, and spectacle is a very zoomed-in version of that. It’s a supercharged version of people sharing some experience over a condensed period of time in a way that takes you outside of yourself. It’s clear to us as a studio that the theatre work makes our architecture better, and the architecture makes the theatre work better.”

One project on which this ethos has come to bear is Imagination Playground, a proposal for the design of playgrounds that launched in July 2010 at Burling Slip, New York, and is now expanding worldwide. In contrast to the fixed equipment of most comparable spaces, Imagination Playground was developed around a series of archetypal foam blocks, cogs and rods – objects that owe an aesthetic and functional debt to pool noodles and floats. These forms do not prescribe a set behaviour, but are instead intended to be flung around, remixed, assembled and disassembled with all the wild, puddle-duck summer fury of children splashing through municipal pools. “It’s about permissiveness, which is not often at the top of the list of programme requirements [in architecture],” says Rockwell. “Sometimes if you design a space and try and put everything in, there’s no room for spontaneity. There are phenomenal playgrounds in the city with great equipment, for instance, but a lot of them seem very prescribed and linear in terms of play value. When we did our first test play-date [with Imagination Playground], we didn’t know what the kids were going to do. [First of all] they took the noodles and hit each other, then they settled down to build individual things. Then, 15 or 20 minutes into it, they looked at what they had created and what others had created, and wondered ‘Can I link mine into yours?’ That only happened because there was a space for it.”

Rockwell’s next project is an attempt to graft this approach onto New York’s built environment. The Shed, executed in partnership with Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is a 18,600sqm arts venue in west Manhattan, scheduled to open in 2019 as part of the wider Hudson Yards project – a $25bn private-sector development aiming to convert 28 acres of rail yards and industrial hinterland into a cultural, commercial and residential destination (a term which would probably have given Debord an ulcer). It has been designed as a permanent six-storey building, to which the architects have attached a gleaming ETFE-clad shell that perches above the structure like a beetle’s carapace. Using an adaptation of the gantry-crane technology common in shipping ports, this shell can telescope out from the building to cover an adjoining plaza, creating a multipurpose 37m-tall, column-free hall. It’s a kind of private-sector, shreds and patches reanimation of some of the formal properties of the Fun Palace, an unbuilt 1964 schema by the architect Cedric Price and theatre producer Joan Littlewood. Advocating radical programmatic and architectural fluidity, it was designed as an unenclosed steel lattice, serviced by gantry cranes that perpetually built, demolished and rebuilt spaces within the grid according to its users’ whims. Rather than serve a traditional architectural ideal, the Fun Palace was intended to prompt those who interacted with it to “wake to a critical awareness of reality” and “start practising an art new to most of us – living.”

The Fun Palace sought to address “the general trend towards isolation [within urbanism]” described in The Society of the Spectacle and instead enable, to further quote Debord, a fragmented society to “unify itself by re-appropriating the powers that have been alienated for it”. Certainly, Price and Littlewood’s proposal seems a rare example of an architectural development that Debord might have deemed encouraging; more generally, he saw urbanism as “capitalism’s method for taking over the natural and human environment” and engendering a “conspicuous petrification of life”. No doubt he would have recognised this tendency in the developers behind Hudson Yard’s promise to martial some of “the world’s most iconic retail brands and leading companies” to create “a new neighborhood for the NEXT GENERATION”. Commercialism aside, however, Rockwell is optimistic that the elements of Prician adaptability present in The Shed’s design may nonetheless help engender genuine social connections within the wider development. “When I was studying, I spent quite a bit of time wondering about what Cedric Price was thinking,” says Rockwell. “Permanence is terrific as an outcome, but as a goal, it’s kind of stifling. What surprised me in the research for Spectacle was how much the resonance of an experience depends on its set-up and take-down, because spectacles are very much about process. In theatre, you do a massive amount of planning to hopefully have these few spontaneous moments [and] The Shed’s interesting because it’s performative in that way. If you look at the conditions which invite artists to work, [you want to] give them tools and ways to change things. Flexibility, morphability, and changeability in structural and temporal experiences are the underpinnings of spectacle.”

What, however, are the current underpinnings of the spectacle, a piece of critical apparatus that remains worryingly relevant? Debord’s spectacle was set out in 1967, but its description of “the shit we’re still in” remains as valid an analysis of society as Price’s 1964 proposal remains a call to arms for architecture. The spectacle is a world in which our only true connections are to the myriad commodities and commodified ideologies that wage war for our attention, and in which the spectacle reigns as “the epic poem of this struggle, a struggle that no fall of Troy can bring to an end.” But while the world may still be faced with Debord’s diagnosis of an Aegean stables’ worth of Homeric horseshit being forced down society’s gullet, it is Rockwell’s contention that architecture might be wise to adopt more of the ephemeral traits of spectacle. In this way, our built environment may help break the spell of “the empire of modern passivity”. It is only through the moments of social participation encouraged by spectacles, he argues, that the all-pervasiveness of the existing order might be challenged. “One of the things one tends to want to hear from architects is absolutes, whereas we’re much more interested in not being defined by a box of absolutes,” he says. “You go up on a stage, look at an audience, and it’s pure potential. I think the way in which I would see that affecting public spaces is for those spaces to not be so autocratic. We need spaces that invite changeability or which distribute power, although of course it’s very hard to draw a generality like that. If you’re looking to unlock the answer as to how to make better public spaces with a view towards performance and theatre, then I don’t know the answer to that – beyond that is what we’re engaged in trying to do.”