Living In The Hyperreal Post Modern City Cultural Studies Essay

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Technological change in the past few decades has occurred at a pace never experienced before, and its impact has also been unprecedented. With the shift from the second industrial age to the digital age, the accelerating flows of population, materials and information within the global network have fundamentally changed conceptions about 'permanence' and 'transience'.1 As a result, cities are transforming dramatically as the emphasis on urbanism is shifting from concrete structures to more complex and flexible organisations as well as 'soft' (digital and ecological) infrastructures I. Architects and urban planners need to take into consideration wider networks carrying flows of information that now reach every part of the world and create a virtual but unified community, rather than developments relating solely to their immediate context. This idea is promoted in Collage 'City, where the notion of total urbanism is rejected in favour of analysing urban form as the fragmented, incomplete result of every attempt ever made to organise it logically.2

Georg Simmel's The Metropolis and Mental Life (written in 1903) had been highly underrated at the time he was writing and yet a similar subject is explored by Jean Baudrillard in Simulations (written in 1983). Through this essay I will show how these two models are highly applicable to our contemporary times and to this I am adding the exploration of two active processes that shape the posturban experience: Disneyfication and McDonaldisation. Tokyo and Las Vegas may set the extreme boundaries for these, but understanding the connections between them and issues of simulacra and hyperreality starts hinting at how we produce a mental image of a place and more importantly, how we discriminate a place from a space.

Life in the modern metropolis - overstimulation and hyperreality

The first part of the essay introduces a comparative study between two theories that emerged at a difference of eighty years. Even though more than a hundred years have passed since the first of the essays has been published, they both are extremely relevant within our contemporary context. In his 1903 essay, Simmel provides one of the most incisive snapshots of life in the metropolis. The modern metropolitan individual is distinguished by a blasé attitude which is itself a product of the 'intensification of emotional life due to the swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli.'5 This engenders a certain autonomy, so that the modern individual becomes an intellectualised creature whose own disinterested circulation within the metropolis reflects the circulation of money and commodities themselves.

The blasé attitude is explained by Simmel as an 'indifference toward the distinction of things. Not in the case that they are not perceived, as in the case of mental dullness, but rather that the value of the distinction between things is experienced as meaningless.'6 This psychic mood is considered to be the reflection of a 'money economy' combined with the physiological source caused by the intensification of stimuli.

The blasé individual of Simmel's metropolis, or 'creature of the crowd', can be easily identified within the networks of Tokyo. Typically single and dweller of a one room mansion they are a sophisticated consumer that does not require a living room, dining table or a kitchen. Housed in bare concrete buildings in the city's centres, 'one room mansions' are apartments of around 20 m2 (4 1/2 tatami mats) with a maximum ceiling height of 2.1 m. They usually include a prefab bathroom and a small dining/living area, and echo the style and purpose of the Nagakin Tower. Residential living of this kind has been made possible by the development in Tokyo of a comprehensive support infrastructure: convenience stores open 24/7 (conbini) offer a wide variety of services - from hot meals, books, bill paying and laundry services, etc.7

Conbinis use a sophisticated computer-driven inventory (known as Pointed Operation System) to record and compile the sales figures for every city block, which are then used to plan marketing strategies. The system has no need for architecture, public, or commercial space, localities, communities, families, class, culture or morals. In short, it can do without any of the elements of the traditional city, for it depends on individuals who love to consume the signs of the city as well as its instant food.8

The existence of such convenience stores brings about the birth of a building type having no regard for the so-called concept of 'place'. They want to be able to melt into any location, and so the issue of 'place' is avoided. If 'place' starts to lose its aura, then the concept of 'site' must also change.9 For each convenience store shop, there is not only the physical site, but also positioned within a site on a network. If we think of the physical site as 'real', we can take the second type of site as 'virtual'.

The interconnection between the urbanist legacy of the Nagakin Tower, the typology of the 'one mansion room' and the expansion of faceless convenience stores that support the network of consumers was made possible by the expansion of the horizons of communication. Nowadays, they have extended beyond the family, escaped the limits of the city, rendered national boundaries meaningless and given us the possibility to communicate freely through virtual networks rather than use archetypal spaces for communication - the street, the market, etc.

Thus we observe that contemporary Tokyo seems just a confirmation of Simmel's theories formulated more than a hundred years ago - the modern individual is seen to be both a product of and a defence against the modern metropolitan existence. An individual who has to bear an enormous quantity of stimuli, from visual to acoustic to physical (people in Shinjuku crossing the street at a green traffic light resemble a combat scene depicted in an action film), must develop certain abilities to protect himself or herself. It might be easier for a foreigner as they might not be so surprised and overcome by visual inputs (possibly already known through the Japanese stereotypes promoted via television and internet), but rather by acoustic ones: advertisements through mega screens, bird-song traffic lights, the incredible noise level of a Pachinko parlour - all form zones of high interference. In such an atmosphere idiosyncrasies start appearing, from Pachinko players to Otaku to conbinis, as reactions understandable only in a specific metropolitan situation.

In terms of applying Jean Baudrillard's notions of simulacrum and hyperreality (which have also been theorised by Umberto Eco), I will not discuss their roots in the post-modern paradigm, or the negative overtones that seek to judge the present against an idealised version of the past. The purpose of introducing these theoretical aspects is solely to exemplify how theories of the past can add an extra layer of understanding present-day phenomena.

The work of Jean Baudrillard brings in 1983 a new point of view regarding life in the modern metropolis and introduces a key concept: hyperreality. The prefix 'hyper', signifying 'more than real' introduces the notion that the real is produced according to a model artificially reproduced as real, a real retouched in a 'hallucinatory resemblance' with itself.10 The real implodes on itself, and the implosion in Baudrillard's work describes a process leading to the collapse of boundaries between the real and simulations of it. Hyperreality, in which we are overloaded with simulations and images, blurs the boundaries between reality and representation and ties in with Paul Virilio's concept of the 'overexposed city', in which perceptions of time and distance have been irrevocably altered by the intrusion of new communications technology.13

The largest human crossing in an urban condition, Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, exemplifies both cases (overstimulation and hyperreality). Advertising screens surround the crossing (the buildings act only as props for the screens), creating a nonspace of both experience and representation, an elsewhere. Such nonspaces can be considered to be now constitutive of our habitual experience of urban space and create a private - public environment: the mass of people waiting to cross experiences a unique moment in time and space, where they are being addressed.

The capacity of the electronic (or LED nowadays) screen to exert the transformation of the conceptual structure of urban space resides in its operational properties as a simulation machine. Unlike billboards or other static configurations, electronic screens embody time. The form within their frame appears as temporary or temporal and therefore the simulation it produces is one of time and space rather that one of shape or appearance. As the difference between real and simulation is abolished, the two conditions mirror each other's temporal and spatial attributes as Baudrillard notes in Simulations: 'the territory no longer precedes the map, it is the map that engenders the territory.'14

Thus, the overstimulation explored by Simmel and exemplified in the consumerist patterns of Tokyo, gains a new layer of meaning through the addition of hyperreality and simulacra, in a world of little or no difference between sciencefiction and reality, between the media and the social, or between real experiences or simulated ones.

On the other hand, hyperreality solves the dilemma of 'new' cities, where the lack of any notable public spaces or monuments leads to two alternatives: either the commissioning of 'high-class' architects / starchitects to provide the city with a landmark with an implied image capital and therefore boost the local touristic market, or, the cheaper option, the transformation of the city's image by altering the experience of public spaces. This creates the need for a sustainable array of attractions which are unique to each individual destination and often sets up a focus which places the aspirations of the tourist above the needs of local inhabitants. This technique has been achieved via an innovative architectural solution in the transformation of Fremont Main Road into the Fremont Street Experience. Fremont Street was the first part of Las Vegas to be built, but the early 1990s saw competition from the larger casinos along the Strip to take trade away from the smaller casinos along Fremont Street. This was a matter of concern to the Las Vegas city authority, which was losing tax revenue to the strip (which lay outside city limits, under the jurisdiction of the State of Nevada).15

Architect Jon Jerde was given the responsibility of transforming Fremont Street and it had been decided that pedestrianising the downtown area would not be enough - it would have to be turned into an 'Experience'. As a consequence, Fremont Street was roofed over, collectivising the individual casinos and transforming the street into a virtual interior. Norman Klein refers to this as 'malling the space'.16 (HOS 192) As dusk falls, the spectacle begins - the barrel roof starts giving its performance, providing a ceiling show, electronic, pre-programmed, timetabled and viewed like a cinema screening. As Jean Baudrillard seems to have predicted in his 1986 essay America: 'When one sees Las Vegas at dusk rise whole from the desert in the radiance of advertising, and return to the desert when dawn breaks, one sees that advertising is not what brightens or decorates the walls; it is what effaces the walls, effaces the streets, the facade, and plunges us into this stupefied, hyperreal euphoria.'17

The Post-Urban experience: Disneyfication and McDonaldisation

The second part of the essay deals with the two active processes that cities undergo - Disneyfication and McDonaldisation. These processes tie in with the previous concepts I have explored - overstimulation and issues of hyperreality - and after a brief introduction into the complex mechanisms behind those processes I will come back to the previous examples I have used - Shibuya Crossing and Fremont Street Experience. These two examples represent only the surface of the phenomena and are probably two of the most obvious case studies. Nonetheless, by using these as starting points, we can speculate further and question how our own familiar examples of urban experience can be traced back to these examples.

The post-urban experience is not considered to be a direct synonym for the post-modern or post-industrial, but an outcome of the combined effect produced by such forces of change such as gentrification, globalisation, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism and post-Fordism. As Anthony King argues in Re-presentingCities, increasingly the city figures in the social imaginary more as 'representation than as material reality, understood through mediated urban experience and vicarious encounter and, in academia, constructed as discourse.'18 The post-urban city is not what it is, but what it is made out to be. VI Cities are being promoted through a variety of tactics such as undertaking Olympic bids, new tourist attractions, promoting the city as a film location or a location for a world summit. This can be easily observed in the way cities need to constantly update their famous 'landmarks' in order to secure a constant flow of visitors that return more than once. Again, a few obvious examples of such places are Times Square in New York, Picadilly Circus or Fremont Street and they show how cities have to employ their own brand of special effects in order to live up to their projected mental images. These efforts of capturing and branding a city's unique selling point are summarised by Rem Koolhaas as 'part of an iterative cycle of intertextual referencing between the city and its image, whose goal is to create the 'citiest city', where the throbbing heart of the capital is momentarily and simultaneously glimpsed on screen and 'for real', self-consciously designed to maximise its seductive potential.'20

The two active processes in the emergence of post-urban space - Mc- Donaldisation and Disneyfication - set up this urban loop of simulated spaces developed by entertainment developers in the attempt of capitalising the mental image of a place.21

The case of Disney architecture, like the architecture of films to which it is so close, is summarised by Robert Venturi in the following statement: 'Disney World is nearer to what people really want than what architects have ever given them.'22 Whether one considers his idea correct or not, it still embodies a half truth. Disney epitomises the culture industry's tremendous capacity wof creating mythical figures and the most effective simulacra of real 'places'. The architecture, like all the other forms of delightful simulation, is a piece in the vast marketing strategies of the archetypal postindustrial corporation.23 At the same time, Disney's world of paid entertainment proves that most people pay attention not to architecture, but to the fantastic images and associations it connotes. The viewers do not relate either to each other or to the architecture by habit or use rather by the imaginary bonds of spectacle.

The Disney landscape provides a multimedia experience representing a tourist attraction and a symbolically desirable lifestyle. This is a 'public' culture, where social interactions occur within a security regime in which there is no violence - presenting in symbolic and imaginary form the pleasurable aspects of urban life while removing the fear.24 Disney World, through its spatial control andstimulating / simulated visual culture, is the new model for creating public space (principles that are also echoed in shopping malls).

On the other hand, McDonalds operates, as George Ritzer's analysis has shown, through four main strategies - efficiency, predictability, calculability and control - providing the cosy familiarity and creating a preference towards know quantities.25 Going back to the Fremont Street Experience example, we can see how the four traits of McDonaldisation surface: it brings large numbers of people, who might otherwise have stayed in the hotel-casinos farther up the Strip, to frequent casinos on Fremont Street and through the spaced timing of the LED shows (a 2004 addition) supplies - like traffic lights - controlled waves of gamblers to the casinos. This architectural intervention shows another way in which the post-urban experience adopts cinematic tactics in order to compete with its own cinematic Döppelganger. At the same time, in eliminating the risk of the unpredictable in the quality, quantity and timing, the consumer must turn elsewhere in order to experience surprise or to regain an element of the unexpected, and this is where the Disney effect fills the gap.26 The subject of theming can be discussed - since the cinematic experience is controlled by software, it is not a fixed structural effect and hence, the 'shows' can be adjusted to suit the theme of the moment. This Disneylike approach also serves as an increase of merchandise sales (where else, but at the Fremont Street Experience Store).

When Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour visited with their students in the early 1970s, Las Vegas was a city of adult entertainment, nocturnal in habit and to be experienced from the car. By the end of the 1970s, the market for gambling alone was saturated and Las Vegas had to reinvent itself as a resort aimed more at families, providing daytime entertainment and pedestrian-orientated. As a result, the frontal car parks have been replaced with roller coasters, pirate ships, pyramids or simulacra of entire cities - New York, Paris, and Venice - from the decorated shed to the duck.27 This change has been noted in collection of essays by Robert Venturi, Iconography and Electronics upon a Generic Architecture, where he states that 'the Strip is no longer a linear settlement within the desert, it is a boulevard in an urban setting. The Disneyfied Boulevard provides a three-dimensional, theatre-like experience for the pedestrian, with evocative imagery for role playing, a total departure from the car orientated iconography of the Canonised Strip.'28 The development of Las Vegas is summarised in the same article as from: 'the Strip to the Boulevard; urban sprawl to urban density; parking lot to front yard; asphalt plain to Romantic garden; the decorated shed to the duck; electric to electronic; neon to pixel; electrographic to scenographic; pop culture to gentrification; perception of the driver to perception of the walker; strip to mall; mall to edge city.'29

A walk down either the Strip / Boulevard or Fremont Street is similar to a walk down Disneyland's Main Street - the only difference is that the theatrical events along their length are designed to entertain and lure people into the different casinos, which perhaps masks the real danger of losing money by gambling.

Separating between place and space

This essay has analysed so far the ways in which the patterns we experience the urban environment through can be traced back to theoretical aspects of psychological or economical processes. This adds another layer to our understanding of how we form a mental image of a place and how the struggle for survival on an international market led to urban places searching for a comparative advantage through the acquisition of symbolic capital. If modern theory regarded time as the dynamic field of social change, contemporary times have moved the emphasis onto the discrimination between space and place as socio-cultural constructions, with the latter marked by embedded human emotional investment and identification. As an example, Japanese cities, including Tokyo, have no tradition of large urban spaces such as the squares, plazas or piazzas of European cities, around which civic and religious buildings are positioned to form an open but well-defined public space. Public activities in Japan were held in Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines and, more importantly on the streets. As discussed previously, due to land prices and ever-changing life styles, the homes of most people are extremely small. Hence, the often narrow and labyrinthian streets have become extensions of the living space and places where much of the daily life unfolds. The crowded streets are sites of various events and activities - trading, socialising, entertainment, festivals, and the place where 'momentary communities' permanently unfold. At the same time, we have explored the somewhat dangerous connotations of the street as urban place in the case of Fremont Street - where the naive and playful imagery of the experience acts as a double-edged sword as it masks the potential danger of gambling.

As a conclusion, this essay questions whether our surrounding spaces (such as the street) can be reclaimed as an archetype of urban place rather than mere public space. This has to take into account economical issues of branding and marketing, sociological issues such as the safety of contested spaces or the interrelation of gender, ethnicity, class and power, as well as the unavoidable impact of the spaceless place'30 formed by the invisible virtual networks.