Book review: Architecture between spectacle and use (2011)

Berrin Chatzi Chousein
(edited by Ross Wolfe)

Berrin Chatzi Chousein contacted me about a week ago inquiring if I’d be interested in publishing her review of Architecture between Spectacle and Use, edited by Anthony Vidler, on The Charnel-House. Glancing over it just superficially, I could immediately tell it pertained to the blog’s focus and broader statement of intent. Though it was a bit rough in parts, I edited it down into its present form, appearing here for the first time.

Architecture between Spectacle and Use
, a collection edited by Anthony Vidler,[1] focuses on the concepts of “spectacle” and “use” as they appear in many recent international projects and designs. It evaluates their role by situating within a broader historical context, moving on from there to consider current examples. As its title suggests, the book’s essays examine the condition of contemporary architecture in terms of factors such as “usage” and “display.” The book advances a comprehensive criticism of prevalent architectural tendencies today, going over specific examples and approaching them from different angles. In so doing, it focuses on the various contexts in which spectacle and use relate. This review primarily assesses the relationship between spectacle and use and different approaches appraised within different contents and submits a certain role of criticism about the theme of the book.

In the introduction, Vidler starts the discussion by evaluating Hal Foster’s critique of the “spectacular” Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, designed by Frank Gehry. Foster clarifies by indicating that “spectacle is an image accumulated to the point where it becomes capital,”[2] Vidler continues by citing Hal Foster’s position on contemporary architecture. He makes three general comments on Foster’s critical framework. First, he draws a comparison between Frank Loyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York and Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum. He adds that although Wright’s Manhattan Guggenheim has a formal logic based on programmatic considerations, Gehry’s museum mostly serves as a tourist attraction.[3] Secondly, Vidler mentions not only Foster’s criticisms of the “Bilbao effect” associated with Gehry, but also his criticisms of other master architects like Rem Koolhaas. Vidler’s third major point regards the way Foster approaches architecture in terms of expression. This leads Foster to characterize it in vague, underspecified terms such as “the sublime,” “the baroque,” etc.[4] The most important thing for Vidler about Foster’s critique is its emphasis on the way in which images directly serve the market economy and the limits this imposes on architects in design process, especially given their responsibility to the public.

Though Vidler explicitly criticizes some of the terms Foster uses to conduct his analysis, he implicitly reaffirms Foster’s centrality to the discussion. He accepts that architectural images are designed according to the demands of consumer society. But at the same time, he also explores some of the incidental benefits that accrue to contemporary architecture even if it has become “identical” to this society of consumption. Vidler begins by quoting the Situationist critic Guy Debord:

The problem of architecture is not to be seen from outside, nor to live inside. It is in the dialectical relationship interior and exterior, at the scale of urbanism (houses-streets) and at the scale of the house (interior-exterior).[5]

Working from this passage, Vidler explores some of the relationships that exist for Debord between an architectural “image” and its public “context.” Because the buildings that Foster chooses as his examples overwhelm their context in order to produce their “image” — which renders them “spectacular,” incapable of communicating with their surroundings — he rejects potential counterexamples. In other words, Vidler contends, Foster ignores many contemporary buildings that don’t neatly fit with his thesis. However, Vidler’s summary of the essays in Architecture between Spectacle and Use is quite scattered. The overall logic of the book’s argument, its organization and transitions, cannot be understood on its own, so he sets aside a small portion of the introduction to outline the structure of the essays.

The first section of the book contains Kurt W. Forster’s article “Their Master’s Voice: Notes on the Architecture of Hans Scharoun’s and Frank Gehry’s Concert Halls.”[6] Forster examines some architectural works where the notion of “spectacle” and “use” work together. Most of the text is devoted to a comparison of Hans Scharoun’s Berlin Philharmonic to Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. The author contrasts these two buildings not just in terms of their “image” or appearance but also in terms of their functional properties as built objects. He starts by sketching a typology of concert halls today, replete with subtle variations, each of which possesses a different acoustic atmosphere with different ambient possibilities for making music. Forster starts by giving some background to the developments that took place in the field of music alongside rapid technological revolutions, explaining how this gave rise to “new forms of music making and different acoustical ideals.”[7] His primary example is Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House, because for Forster, the radical rethinking of the form of the concert hall started here. Utzon’s Opera House immediately constituted an urban landmark by virtue of its distinctive shape and appearance.[8] As Forster traces the history of music and architecture, he also touches on some principles of design relevant to their relation. Namely,  he mentions structural variations like parabolic or hyperbolic curvatures, such as reappeared in Le Corbusier’s Philips Pavilion. The main reason Forster discusses these design principles is to emphasize their functionality in a building. How are these buildings used? What kind of services are they meant to provide? As mentioned above, it is important to consider not only the spectacle or image of a given building, but also its functional variants. Basically, Forster compares Gehry’s and Scharoun’s concert halls in the same terms, concluding: “[G]enerally they are perceived in similar way because they are characterized according to some experimental basis and thanks to different design methods, user can experience different occasions in an unexpected ways.”[9]

A different approach to notions of spectacle and use can be found in Beatriz Colomina’s article, “Media as Modern Architecture.”[10] Colomina follows a different path of explanation, considering the role of the media in architecture — or still further, media considered as architecture. She associates visual media with architecture by raising the example of Thomas Demand, a photographer. According to the Colomina, “Demand sees media as architecture.’’[11] Beginning with a discussion of Demand’s life and media-related works, Colomina notes that Demand’s attitude toward mediated representation is very unusual; he really looks to build an image. According to Colomina, “the architecture he finds within the spectacle is completely unspectacular.”[12] Demand creates such expansive images that they begin to resemble a sort of city, a vast cityscape that almost becomes a media industry unto itself. The most important quality she attributes to Demand is his propensity to “design” the image itself. On magazine or newspaper pages, he “constructs” an architected image. The reason Colomina focuses on Demand is that his position is that his position seems to run counter to an accepted interpretation of architecture’s contemporary situation vis-à-vis media. Colomina supports this assertion by referring to statements like the following: “Modern architecture is all about the mass-media image.”[13] To further articulate this connection between mass media and architecture, she proceeds to analyze Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion as the ultimate example of modern architecture. This work showcases the role of media in promoting a culture of building, since Mies’ Pavilion was so well known for the images that were produced of it. In this respect, it was a kind of media construction. While modern architecture is known for its use of glass, concrete, and other light materials in the construction process, it also directly participates in its subsequent reception through images and display. Media such as newspapers, magazines, and so on, played a vital role in establishing modern architecture.


1 Anthony Vidler (ed) Architecture Between Spectacle and Use, (Williamstown, 2008) 240.
2 Hal Foster, ‘‘Master Builder,” in Design and Crime and Other Diatribes (London and New York: Verso, 2002), 41. This essay was first published in the London Review of Books, 23 August 2001.
3 Vidler, p. 7.
4 Vidler, p. 7.
5 Vidler, p. 7.
6 Kurt W. Forster, “Their Master’s Voice: Notes on the Architecture of Hans Scharoun’s and Frank Gehry’s Concert Halls,” ed. Anthony Vidler (Williamstown, 2008), 240.
7 Forster, p. 25.
8 Forster, p. 27.
9 Forster, p. 38.
10 Beatriz Colomina, “Media as Modern Architecture,” ed. Anthony Vidler (Williamstown, 2008), 240.
11 Colomina, p. 58.
12 Colomina, p. 58.
13 Colomina, p. 60.

About the author

Berrin C ChatziBerrin Chatzi Chousein was born in Greece and graduated from the Middle East Technical University’s department of architecture. Since 2008, she has been Country Editor at World Architecture Community, also serving as the curator of the London-based studio Studio Egret West’s exhibition series “Young British Architecture.” Chousein seminars which held at Middle East Technical University in 2012. She is also working in editorial board of the Chamber of Architects-Ankara Branch. Interested in art and design, exhibitions, urbanism, academic research, writing, and illustration. She continues her practice of architecture in Ankara.

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