Cityscape of the 21st Century: Between Spectacle and the Urban

Seoul Urban Art – Conference 
16-17 October 2019 (16 Oct. 16:00)

Between Spectacle and the Urban

see Korean


Global Architectural Style and the Cityscape

The metropolis began to appear in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the cities of Western nations followed by other cities throughout the rest of the world. Seoul was transformed into one of the modern metropolises during the colonial period of its history in the early 20th century. Scholars define “metropolis” as a site where people from diverse backgrounds gather and develop a variety of industries and trade or as a place where one can remain anonymous within a massive population. In the 21st century, the modern metropolis has expanded and new, larger forms of cities, such as the megalopolis and the metacity have emerged. Seoul is one of the cities that have demonstrated the changing features of the large-scale modern city.

Anthropologist James Holston comments upon the formal effects of modernist planning that inhibit traditional forms of Brazilian sociality. He describes the “reversal of figure and ground” that is produced by the massing of modernist forms on the urban landscape in Brasilia. Traditional cities create a spatial understanding of private and public space whereby the solid masses of buildings within the cityscape indicate private areas as ground, while the voids of streets and plazas create figural areas against the ground of private areas, indicating public areas. Holston notes, this relation of “ground/solid/private and figure/void/public” is reversed in modern cities. Thus, the traditional means of being able to cognize private and public realm of action are disabled. Instead, each architecture competes for attention, each immortalizes its creator, and each celebrates the ‘beauty of the speedway’ leading people and machines to apparently limitless horizons.

Seoul, as in the case of cities in Brazil, has undergone a contracted rendition of modernization and urbanization, and demonstrated similar shifts in its cityscape. In the traditional cityscape, the private realm constituted the majority of the land, which created the background of the city, while relegating the empty spaces to the public realm, which became the figure of the city space. On the other hand, in the modern city, high-rise buildings competitively occupy the overall city space, embodying the figure of the city while public spaces are consigned to the background. That is, the traditional designation of the private space as the background and public space as the figure has been reversed in the modern metropolis.

Such a spatial reversal became more significant at the turn of the 21st century. As the global economy became predominant throughout the world, the new economic system infiltrated the cultural realm, including architecture and urban planning. In the field of architecture, so-called starchitects (e.g. Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Renzo Piano and Norman Forster etc.) emerged and their architectural styles spread throughout the global market. Art and architectural design critic Hal Foster defines these forms of architecture as the “global style,” which is even more significant in the cities of developing countries as they are tackling a rapid transition into smart cities based on digital technology and using this transition as a critical tactic in heightening the brand value of the city. In the case of Seoul, Dongdaemun Design Plaza, designed by Zaha Hadid, and Seoullo 7017, designed by MVRDV, are landmark landscape/architectural designs representative of the global style. The building of these landscape/architectural designs is a cultural-economic phenomenon interconnected with the increase in the brand value of the city—a phenomenon taking place at a junction where the city’s economic demand and the design corporation’s cultural-economic demand meet.

Likewise, landmark architecture emerged as “the face of the city” while other elements of the city receded to the background. These architectural designs, or the face of the city, include both public institutions and private corporations, and the same is true of the background of the city; thus, it is difficult to dichotomize the characteristics of the two parts (i.e. face/private vs. background/public). Nevertheless, since a majority of the landmark architecture executed in the global style are constructed using private capital, we can generally say that massive private capital, in the form of architecture, has become the face of the city, while the other daily public realms have assumed the role of the background. Moreover, in a megalopolis like Seoul where large-scale apartment complexes occupy the majority of the space designated for the private realm, the private spaces of individuals and corporations have risen as the dominant figure of the city, while leaving the public spaces in between private structures. In addition, the city government often facilitates urban planning and development with the figures at the center; therefore, the public spaces left behind feature unorganized forms scattered around disparate parts of the city.

Here, we need to take heed of the fact that the architecture itself is transforming into a work of art. In other words, architectural design demonstrates its aspiration for the visual arts by transforming into a spectacle. According to Hal Foster, the global market economy has influenced both the production processes and style of 21st-century architecture, reviving the city by creating spectacular monuments, while crossing the border between the spatial and visual arts. Meanwhile, we also need to focus on the trend of the spatialization of visual art, which first appeared in Western art in the late 1960s, particularly when minimalism converged with conceptual art. This tendency has continued to this day. The spatialization of the visual arts is significant in painting and film as well as in sculpture; sculpture, fundamentally the spatial art, competes with architecture, which is becoming more and more visual or more of a visual art.


The Urban: The Space of Social Mediation

Public space refers to the space where people/citizens of all echelons have free access and where chance meetings between people take place. Urban theorist Henri Lefebvre reconstructed the concept of “the city” into that of “the urban”; here, the formless urban morphed into “space.” What once had a definable form now became relatively formless, became planetary and everywhere. Moreover, to give “the urban” and the urban “space” social power, we need to build a “public space” where people’s voluntary and chance encounters occur based on non-separation and non-segregation.

The encounter is like a twinkling, radiant constellation, an expression of a plurality of participants who conjoin within an open forum. For Lefebvre, the whole political utility of a concept is not that it should correspond with reality but that it enables us to experiment with reality, that it helps us to glimpse another reality—a virtual reality that is there, somewhere, waiting to be born inside us, between us. Politics of the encounter is required not for the city per se; rather it is about democracy in times of unbridled neoliberal capitalist crisis. The Arab Spring (2010), the Occupy Movement that first arose on Wall Street in New York (2011), the Umbrella Movement of Hong Kong (2014) and the Candle Revolution of South Korea (2016) are the epitomic incidents that have demonstrated how the public space functions as a platform for the politics of the encounter.

For urbanist Andy Merrifield, development is not about buildings; it is about lives and people. We might say that the spatial question is about a “landscape of affect,” an emotional landscape in which people express themselves in action: through activity, through collective hustle. That way the physical and social landscape around them is a substance of their own everyday lives. In short, what creates space and place, and ultimately constitutes the urban, are the people, the encounters and dialog between people, and their expressions of affection and action.

In this context, we need to redefine not a public space that is collectively owned and managed by the state but a public space that is collectively managed by the people, irrespective of who actually owns it. The public realm must somehow be expressive of the people, expressive of their common notions. From this standpoint, when something is “public,” its channels for common expression remain open, negotiable, debatable and political in the sense that they witness people encountering other people—recognizing one’s self-identity and socially positioning oneself in the urban space. In the urban realm these public expressions will be more loudly heard and intensely felt.

People’s encounters, debates, negotiations and all these processes make the public space. Then, can space become an instrument to encourage people’s encounters, debates and negotiations? How can public art contribute to the creation of the urban in this context? If a government body or an institution has to construct a public space and install public art, it must make the public establishment function as a space and an aesthetic apparatus that encourages people’s encounters, debates and negotiations. Such a practice could accomplish the urban, provide a social space that ultimately builds and maintains the democracy, and construct a physical space that brings the social space to fruition. The same is true of the installation of art works in public spaces.

In the changed cityscape of the 21st century, we need to reconsider the art in public space in terms of the relationship between the art piece and spectacularized architecture. We also need to re-examine the purpose of public art-related policies under the consideration of the citizens’ heightened cultural mind. While most public art-related policies are designed to allot a certain portion of land to the public as the capitalist’s social responsibility and contribution to the society, the substantial purpose must be the accomplishment of the public based on the urban, focusing on the construction of a democratic space that allows for people’s encounters, debates and negotiations.



Buchli, Victor. An Anthropology of Architecture. London: Bloomsbury, 2015 (2013).
Foster, Hal. The Art-Architecture Complex. New York: Verso, 2013.
Holston, James. The Modernist City: An Anthropological Critique of Brasília. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.
Lefebvre, Henri. The Right to the City, 1968.
_____________. The Urban Revolution, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003 (1970)
Low, Setha. Behind the Gates: Life, Security and the Pursuit of Happiness in Fortress America, London: Routledge, 2003.
Merrifield, Andy. The Politics of Encounter: Urban Theory and Protest under Planetary Urbanization. GA: University of Georgia Press, 2013.
Simon, Jonathan. “The Ideological Effects of Actuarial Practices,” Law and Society Review, 22/4 (1988), pp. 771-800.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: