Overload/Absence: the collapse of space to surface in representations of urban space


Session Title:

  • Public Spaces (Papers)

Presentation Title:

  • Overload/Absence: the collapse of space to surface in representations of urban space



  • As public space in historically urbanist centers like New York City is diminished through gentrification and privatization, it is paradoxically ‘enlivened’ by the introduction of large‑screen moving images, digital advertising and other mediazation. This is an environment of alternating over-stimulation and anonymity, in which one navigates public spaces dense with video monitors and giant advertisements while beyond the explicit media zones the streetscape is increasingly generic and narcotic. The hyperactive and featureless landscapes, seemingly opposites, both prioritize the skin of architecture: each is the manifestation of an intense preoccupation with surface, demonstrated in the activation of surface by light and moving images on billboards and screens or in the ubiquitous grids of glass and metal that wrap contemporary buildings. Drawing upon Marc Augé’s ideas of ‘non‑space’ in his book Non‑places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, this paper will look at the way surface supplants space and visuality dominates function in urban spaces of circulation, consumption and communication, as well as in visual culture and art. This paper examines aspects of this reduction to surface which include: a diminution of sense of history and local place as elements of vernacular architecture are replaced with more uniform (and international) visual codes; the design of skyscrapers for visual effect and iconic presence in the skyline as opposed to on‑site neighborhood context, function and social integration at street level; the practice of demolishing architecturally important historical buildings save for isolated fragments that frame new construction in a poorly‑related mash‑up of old and new; the rising culture of the romance of ruins (sometimes referred to as ‘ruin porn’) that elevates the destruction of the recent past and aestheticizes decay; the dystopian and utopian 3D renderings of urban environments in video games and real estate promotion that are mirror images of one another; and the use of surface in images by media artists searching for     alternative ways of representing urban space (or in Augé’s words, ‘finding beauty in non‑place’). Using New York City as an example of an older city in evolutionary transformation, the paper will also contrast this established paradigm of urbanism with an emergent city like Dubai, where rather than displacing the past, the architecture of surface has been introduced into a ‘tabula rasa’ environment that is unconstrained by historicism or gradualism. This paper proposes that artists responding to the phenomena of non‑place need not subscribe to an aesthetics that simply documents and concedes the alienation resulting from a disruptive change in visual environment. Fragments of visual incident, variation in material surfaces, analysis and extraction of underlying pattern of the landscape both visual and social, can be used to reformulate a vision of     urban space that explores its essential dynamism and acknowledges its constant evolution and reinvention while avoiding the tropes of utopian longing and dystopian dread.