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An office tower that looks like a gherkin. A cheese grater. A pair of pants. Why does contemporary architecture look so strange?
Black and white image of London skyline

“Today successful cities, young or old, attract smart, entrepreneurial people, in part, by being urban theme parks.” – Edward Glaeser

You might have seen them huddled in London’s skyline. In your fast-changing hometown, peeking between the cranes. On travel advertisements of beckoning cities. And you might have caught the most recent addition to the parade on social media recently: a skyscraper in China with the world’s tallest man-made waterfall on its side.

A drone image of the Liebian International Building in Guiyang with a waterfall down its façade.
The Liebian International Building in Guiyang has a 108m tall waterfall on its façade. – image © Getty Images

Welcome to the Age of Spectacle

Novelty architecture, or absurdly attention-grabbing structures are becoming more and more common in today’s cityscapes. London is full of them: along with the Gherkin, there is the Shard, the Walkie-Talkie, the Cheese Grater, and so on.

This trend is spreading from the bustling metropolitans to the small but ambitious towns in the past decade. And it is not just the “iconic” buildings. There are houses, libraries, offices all over the world competing for attention, from Turkey to China, Hong Kong, the UAE, Spain…

Such buildings, which were once rare and the exceptions among the more regular and understated structures, has become commonplace recently. It seems like each building rears its head, taller and more ostentatious than the one before, in a race to outdo each other. Form doesn’t follow function any more; the form is the only function.

Ironically, it is the view from these tall structures that are the most valuable. There is a joke in Paris that the best view of the city is from the monolithic Montparnasse Tower, because you can’t see the building itself when you are standing on it.

An evening view of the Montparnasse building with the dome of Les Invalides and the classical urban texture around it
The Montparnasse Tower in Paris. – image © Michal Krakowiak/Getty Images

Tom Dyckhoff discusses the birth, causes and consequences of this trend in his wonderful book The Age of Spectacle, as the architectural texture and heritage of our cities are getting dulled under the blinding sparkle of “spectacle” architecture.

“Architecture is about communication. The building has to communicate to an incredible range of people, and you have to communicate to an incredible range of people to get it built.” – Daniel Libeskind

So, what does today’s architecture communicate to us?

The Wowhaus Movement

The new age of spectacle, which Dyckhoff brands as Wowhaus, uses the architecture as another form of media. Functionality under the skin is pushed to the background; it’s what is on the outside that counts. The buildings themselves are expected to self-promote with their eccentric or “spectacular” qualities, marketing themselves to the world. The more famous the building becomes, the more profitable it is for the investors, and the city over all.

“It is an architecture of weightless sheen and spectacular, contorting visual imagery that encapsulates perfectly our postmodern age of nomadism, globalisation, individual freedom, short-term employment contracts, digital information, corporate power and fast-flowing streams of international finance through which our lives are now ruled.” – Tom Dyckhoff

And a vicious cycle is born, where the buildings compete for the wow-factor and the attention of the media, who in turn publish these astonishing projects to get more readers. And the more astonishing the project, the more clicks it generates, which means a wider audience for the building and more money for the media outlet.

The result is a new wave of clickbait architecture.

An aerial view of the CMG Headquarters building shaped like a 3 dimensional cranked loop
The CMG Headquarters in Beijing by OMA. The building is hard to miss with its impressive gravity-defying feats. – image © OMA

Follow the Money

There are many causes that have contributed to the rise of the age of spectacle. But the main cause is easy to track. Just follow the money.

As the government funds were impacted by the economic crises that took place around the world in the last decade, there has been a shift of power from the public to the private. Private investors have become more involved in the urban renewal developments as an aftermath of low government funding. As Dyckhoff suggests, cities, after all, need investments to stay alive. And to attract the property developers, some rules would need to bent to their advantage.

With more freedom to build as they pleased, the investors and developers have reshaped the city to its full profitable potential. Architecture has been treated as a commodity, to be produced and marketed according to what the consumers wanted.

“The gentrifiers of the city wanted an architecture of diversity, intensity liveliness. Architecture was a free market now, and consumer was king. And the consumer wanted to be wowed.” – Tom Dyckhoff

A City Worth Investing In

As the cityscapes morphed into brandscapes, the city and the developers have profited. Tom Dyckhoff states, perhaps in a cynical manner, that culture has become public relations.

Architecture is commonly used to change, to reinforce or to enhance the marketed image of a city. As a result, the city and its culture are sold like a product piece by piece, square metre by square metre, in a bid to attract more visitors, and more importantly, investors.

Night time image of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao with its curving facades.
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao has completely revitalised and saved the economically declining city, coining the term “The Bilbao Effect.” – image © CC BY-SA 4.0

However, cities would have to distinguish themselves to compete for new investments. And “iconic” or spectacle-oriented architecture is a quick way to draw attention to a city’s image on a global scale. Not only would it be an international calling card for the city, being more recognised around the world, but it would also show off its new investments in an economic and political light. New developments are seen as a sign of a strong economy and financial capability (although many of these spectacles are funded by foreign investors). They signal for a city worth investing in.

The Human Factor

Wowhaus architecture is clearly profitable to the economic powerhouses. But what does it mean for the relationship between a city and its habitants? How does it affect the common man, living and working in the city, building a life for himself in this shifting brandscape?

The new age of spectacle architecture is the manifestation of consumer capitalism. Form comes before the function in a bid to sell ideals to the public. Architecture gives an identity to its occupants, as well as the city they occupy. And the new flashy architecture is an expert at marketing the promise of a better, more luxurious, convenient and comfortable life. A beacon of elevated life quality. And by choosing to be apart of the brandscape, the consumer distinguishes himself as part of the brand’s associated qualities.

However, one of the biggest social impacts that come with consumer-driven development is gentrification. The lower-class locals, who perhaps have lived in these neighbourhoods for generations, are pushed out to the margins of the city, as the land they leave behind is transformed into what the “consumers with money to spend” want. The profile of the habitants of a city change drastically.

As a result, the city is transformed anew, visually, socially and culturally.

Future of the Spectacle City

What is architecture if not designed for its users?

In a consumer-driven world, where the buildings have become a business, the gap between architecture and its users grows wider. The new approach confuses the admirer with the inhabitant, leading to almost impractical but eye-catching structures.

If architecture is used to promote culture, it shouldn’t be the only factor in a city’s identity. The city should encourage the culture first within its own habitants, before relying on the built environment to imbue that ideal. However today, function, feasibility and the needs of the users are almost at the background, while profitability and spectacle are in the front row.

There is a growing need to create architecture that speaks and engages with its users, and not just visually. Perhaps, in a fast developing world, architecture should no longer be a one-sided conversation from the architect to its users. As in many domains, the users should slowly become more involved with the process of creating their own environments.

“We should not be passive spectators. We should take part, and be transformed through the experience. We should be given the power to make our own places, our own towns and cities, our architecture.” – Tom Dyckhoff

Finally, there is pushback to the spectacle city. The rise of the novelty architecture has recently created a reactionary movement: “anti-iconic” architecture. Architects, the public, planning committees and governments have started to slow their consumer-hungry, spectacle-oriented frenzy. China, famous for its many unusual shaped structures, has recently declared an end to “weird architecture”, which “sacrifices artistic and moral value in favour of commercial gain.”

But for now, the global age of spectacle continues to dazzle us with its impossibly high towers, curious shapes, and impressive feats.

“Architecture, as we have known it, is dead. Long live architecture.” – Tom Dyckhoff

Reading Recommendation

The Age of Spectacle: Adventures in Architecture and the 21st Century City by Tom Dyckhoff


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