2001 MMLA
Globalization and the Image

Ute Lehrer
SUNY Buffalo


The Spectacularization of the Building Process: Berlin, Potsdamer Platz


Please do not copy, quote or circulate without author's permission.

"As the indispensable packaging for things produced as they are now produced, as a general gloss on the rationality of the system, and as the advanced economic sector directly responsible for the manufacture of an ever-growing mass of image-objects, the spectacle is the chief product of present-day society."
Guy Debord, 1994, p.16

The current discourse of the city as image is one of 'city fathers,' developers, and politicians trying to increase revenue from mass tourism, conventions, and office or commercial rents. Central to this new kind of urban politics are aesthetic spaces for cultural consumption, megastores and blockbuster museal events, festivals, and spectacles of all kinds, all intended to lure the new species of city tourist, the urban vacationer or metropolitan marathoner who have replaced the older model of the leisurely flaneur."
Andreas Huyssen, 1997

This paper examines the relationship between image production and the building process of large-scale projects in today's world, a world that is defined by simultaneous processes of globalization and localization. While construction sites in themselves always had some fascination in the imaginary of the spectator, it is the building process that has changed under the impact of globalization. It is no longer only about how to erect buildings and how to advertise the outcome in order to be competitive on a global market place, but it is also about selling the process. In other words it is not only about the idea and the product but also about the process in between. I call this new phenomenon the "spectacularization of the building process."

Image production takes place on a number of levels, ranging from the publicly funded press offices of city departments to the privately owned public relation agencies of the investors. This already established form of boosterism has now evolved into a coordinated effort of turning cities into spectacles and the urban experience into image consumption. This is particularly true for large-scale projects, where it is difficult (for both the specialist and the non-specialist) to imagine the future shape of new built environments and their impact on the urban fabric.

As the case to be studied I will use Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, which was redeveloped as an office and entertainment complex over the past ten years. After the fall of the Wall, the hegemonic powers in Berlin created images of a city that presented the future bright and clear: Berlin was expected to become a major player within the global economy, a global city, a service metropolis; a bridge between East and West; the old/new Capital city of the reunified Germany. The transformation of the built environment, they believed, was one of the means to this end; hence, architecture was supposed to work as a catalyst for Berlin's search for its new identity. Within a very short period of time the inner city turned into one major construction site, with Potsdamer Platz as the most spectacular of them all. I argue that this mega-project was key in Berlin's search for a new identity, and that the spectacularization of the building process was central in the attempt to appropriate Potsdamer Platz as (a) the new center of Berlin and (b) as a symbol of Berlin's role on a global scale. In this process is not only the size of a project that leaves a physical imprint in the global production of images but it is also the speed and the assertiveness with which images are produced long before the building is able to speak for itself.

There is a clear relationship between the image of a city and the construction process of large-scale projects. By image production I mean the images produced in cities and by cities in a period of globalization. Images, as they are understood here, include three -- overlapping and communicating -- levels of visual, symbolic and metaphorical products and processes: firstly, the "image of a city" (Lynch, 1970); secondly, images produced through and in the built environment (Sudjic, 1992); and thirdly, contested images of everyday life (Lefebvre, 1991; Deutsche, 1996).

At the core of this understanding is the assumption that the production of images has to be understood as a process through which members of society make sense of their individual worlds and of each other's discursive and visual contributions to the general process of communication in society (Habermas, 1979; Young, 1990). Images are treated as parts of the "materiality of the urban" (Prigge, 1988), as substantial elements in the three pronged spatiality people encounter in cities (perceived, conceived and lived; Lefebvre, 1991) and in no way as mere smoke-screens in front of some "real" reality. In particular, my research approach is indebted to work on the special significance of image production in the most recent period of urban restructuring and globalization (Beauregard, 1991, 1994; Duncan and Ley, 1993; Haila, 1997; Harvey, 1989; King, 1996, Knox, 1993; Shields, 1996; Sorkin, 1992; Storper, 1995; Watson and Gibson, 1995; Zukin, 1991, 1995, 1996).

In Berlin, I reflect on the production of the image of the "service metropolis" and capital city between 1989 and 1998, which I consider the local version of attempting to key the city into the global interurban competition accelerated by global city formation (Sassen, 1991; 1994; Friedmann, 1986, 1995; Friedmann and Wolff, 1982; Knox and Taylor, 1995; King, 1990). By using Potsdamer Platz Berlin as the case to be studied I specifically analyze the built environment as expressive of an imagery meant to help Berlin (re)gain global status. Potsdamer Platz is an exemplary case, I submit, where building processes of a large-scale project help to redefine the identity of a city in the global economy.

1) Image production/production of images

The image of a city is produced by the geographical setting, by its built environment and by the people using this physical space; it is the combination of the three that makes one city distinct from the other. The image of a city can change significantly with the transformation of its physical environment. Because of their sheer size, large-scale projects usually play a much stronger role in shifting a city's image than any other physical transformations.

But places and their images -- hence, their differences -- are, of course, not only a result of physical characteristics. Places are also socially constructed and carry symbolic value. Hence, places differ accordingly to their specific social relations as well as on the grounds of how people perceive these cities. Perception is based both on individual experience and cultural context. Experience and cultural context, however, are in a direct relationship to constructed images. Hence, image production, and its dispersion, is of central importance in changing the perception of places in the imaginary of people. Because of the increased time pressure in an era of globalization -- and the time lag between the idea and the final realization of large-scale projects -- it seems as if investors of large-scale projects use a strategy of intensified production and promotion of images.

The role of symbolic value of the built environment in an advanced service economy has been the subject of extensive discussions from at least the mid 1980s on (e.g. Jameson, Harvey, Sorkin, Zukin). By drawing from Bourdieu's concept of symbolic capital (1984, orig. 1973) and Debord's concept of the spectacle (1995, orig. 1967) David Harvey argues that under the regime of flexible accumulation "whole built environments became centerpieces of urban spectacle and display", and that the commercial success of these projects would be part of "urban strategies to capture consumer dollars to compensate for de-industrialization" (Harvey 1989:271). This compensation for de-industrialization also works on a different level: because built environments are centerpieces of display, cities can advertise themselves and therefore, strengthen their images as places of success. Since images of confidence and trust are important for players in the global market place, the spectacle seems to have advanced to one of the most practiced strategies for attracting investment and businesses. Therefore, not only consumer dollars can be captured by projects of urban spectacle, but also investor dollars.

As a tool of cultural analysis the landscape became prominent in which particular attention was given to the landscape as being a container of different social relations. While Harvey was formost interested in the (Creation and destruction of the capitalist landscape) creative destruction of the built environment and the circuit of (cultural) capital, and while Jameson argued that "architecture is the symbol of capitalism" (in Zukin, 1991: 260), Zukin put this on its heads by saying "architecture is the capital of symbolism".

More recently, Anthony King draws our attention to the symbolic functions of size and image. In his article on the skyscraper boom in Asian cities he argues that spectacular architecture is used by nations, cities, corporations and individuals with the purpose of demonstrating economic and spiritual virility as well as political and cultural power. (King 1996: 100). Due to the Asian flew this catching up with the West, as Eugene Kohn from the architectural firm Kohn Pederson Fox, calls it (Kohn in King 1996: 98), was significantly interrupted. What can be learned from the Asian example is that in the fast pace of the global economy -- yesterday's success may be today's crisis -- the production and selling of images has to take place long before the idea of the project has been materialized. Due to the nature of the real estate industry, this speeding up is even more important for an industry that notoriously is known for producing oversupply.

Flashy projects play a role as image producer not only for themselves but also for the city, and, if cleverly done, they have the effect of attracting further investment into the city. This is not really new and has been studied before -- one can think here of Sharon Zukin's book Landscapes of Power (Zukin 1991) or Susan Fainstein's book City Builders (Fainstein 1994). What is new, I want to argue, is the pace with which these images are created. Long before the physical manifestation of the buildings are poured into concrete, PR departments of the investors produce and sell images, which help to create a milieu of both stability and progress.

This image production of investors also are of interest for the over all building industry as well as for city governments. Space in a city is a commodity where both location and image count. Since real-estate investment is speculative by definition (construction needs quite some time before there is any return) and often is based on emotion more than on experience (Fainstein 1994:63-64), it is important to construct an image of a secure and solid investment. The notion of better looking cities -- what ever that means -- evokes trust in potential investors. Therefore it is to no surprise that city governments are interested in the physical improvement of the built environment. While there is a long and extensive discussion within the architectural community about "good looking architecture", city governments favor well tested formulas for an embellishments of the built environment.

In order to understand better the increased use of images by local governments I want to point to what Anne Haila calls "the politics of the global city". The competition between city governments in reaching global city status seem to have caused a new type of urban politics in which the investors have more influence and real estate investment increases in importance. While cities have been trying to attract investments in real estate for a long time, this kind of politics is different insofar as it relies on image production and the use of the media for promoting the image of the city. The consequence, according to Haila, is that "local politics focuses more and more on 'big issues' and therefore becomes symbolic politics" (Haila 1998).

2) The Built Environment and Image Production: Design jewel, large-scale project and mega-event

Today, we see more and more individual buildings and whole complexes being used as a means of bringing a city on the map of important locations. In this spatial transformation of cities three distinct approaches stand out: the design jewel; the large-scale project; and the mega-event. The design jewel usually is achieved by hiring a world-renowned architect for the design of sophisticated transportation hubs (train stations, airports) or cultural centers (museums). The buildings are wrapped into spectacular architecture and often become icons on the pilgrimage of today's city tourists. One of the best contemporary example is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, designed by the Toronto born architect Frank Gehry; with its curved shape, wrapped into a metal shiny titan façade, it attracts tens of thousands tourists to the otherwise relatively peripheral Basque region. Berlin's example might be Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum which opened without even showing any artifacts but pure and raw architecture.

The second approach for putting a city on the map of important locations is the mega-event. These temporal limited events are used for the legitimization and/or the motor of structural and physical redevelopment schemes of major parts of a city and its region. While on first sight the spirit behind these projects seems to be honorable (such as the Olympics or World Exhibition ), these mega-events often turn out to have major negative impacts on the fiscal and physical landscape of an urban region (For example the tax payers of Montreal are still paying for the Olympic stadium which was built in 1976).

The third spatial transformation is a pretty straightforward attempt to compete with other cities for symbolic leadership roles. Skyscrapers and other such large-scale developments are its spatial manifestation. Large-scale projects play a dominant role in image production of cities not only because of their sheer size but also because of their impact on the urban fabric. They did not have to wait until the arrival of advanced capitalism or the development of sophisticated technologies: pyramids, amphitheaters, temples, cathedrals are all witnesses of earlier logistical masterpieces. There is also nothing radically new about the fact that large-scale projects redefine the identity of cities. New York and Chicago had an ongoing competition for being home for the tallest skyscraper in the early years of the last century (van Leeuwen 1986; Willis 1995). More recently, Anthony King draws our attention to the high-rise building boom in Asia where, he argues, that the skyscraper is used as the symbolic form for "catching up" with the West (King 1997). [After September 11, 2001, however, it is highly unlikely that skyscrapers will continue to be used as a template for representing success, wealth, and leadership.]

Outcome was spectacular

Process is spectacularized
Speed/assertiveness of image production is accelerated
City governments use image for their competitiveness

What is new about large-scale projects is that it is not only the object, i.e. the built environment that is used in the competition between cities but also the building process as such. This means that it is no longer only the outcome that is spectacular or that the building is opened with a grand fanfare, but also that the process to achieve this goal becomes a spectacle in itself. In addition, the speed and the assertiveness of image production and construction are accelerated. Further, city governments are using these images in enhancing their competitiveness within a global market place. In underlining its significance, I want to call this new type of strategy of creating place the "spectacularization of the building process".

Potsdamer Platz in Berlin is a good example of such a spectacularization of the building process where all kinds of strategies have been used to draw attention to the construction site and its future (see below).

All three approaches share the goal to make a particular city more competitive on a global stage, and by doing so, not only attract tourists to a specific location (and therefore increased profits in tourism industry), but also to attract other forms of investment (particularly those that would contribute to job creation) which would have a more stable and long term impact on a city: relocation of established firms, opening of branches or subsidiaries, start-up businesses, and so on. The line between the three different approaches is rather blurry: one can find architectural jewels in form of skyscrapers, and large-scale projects such as sports stadiums, are at the core of mega-events.

All these three ways of image production - design jewel, large-scale project, and mega event -- found its way into the redevelopment scheme of Potsdamer Platz. As being called Europe's largest construction site, there is certainly no doubt that Potsdamer Platz is a large-scale project. With its bag filled with some of the regular world-renowned architects (Piano, Rogers, Moneo, Isozaki, Jahn), Potsdamer Platz also worked as a design jewel - even if those big name architects did not deliver the same kind of spectacular architecture that a Guggenheim in Bilbao creates, nor the way that Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum is celebrated by its uniqueness. Because of the spectacularization of the building process, Potsdamer Platz also can be read as a mega-event, where the activities and the processes of construction sites are celebrated and aesthetized (as described in more detail below).

3) Spectacularization of building process

3.1 reconstruction of history
--creation of a myth: buzzing, happening place; place of modern/cosmopolitan life
--omission of part of the history: nazi past etc.

3.2 intensified production of images:
--Traffic light (also refers to reconstruction of history)

3.3 hands-on strategy
--on site performances
--'construction summer' (Schaustelle Berlin)

3.4 use of superlatives
--largest European construction site
--environment 'friendly'
--construction technology : divers for pouring foundations.

4) Conclusion

What is new about today's large-scale projects? In this paper I argued that privately financed large scale projects are increasingly used in redefining roles and identities of cities. This redefinition of cities is important in the strengthening of a city's locational advantage over other cities in the competition for attracting an increasingly mobile capital. Since speed is relevant for the success in a global market place, the time gap between the idea to built something new and relevant for helping to redefine the identity of the city and its physical manifestation, has been overcome by the production of images around the building process. Therefore mega-projects have become reality long before they are cast into stone. This is mainly done through what I call the spectacularization of the building process, where a concerted effort of image production between investors, local politicians and bureaucrats as well as other city boosters (e.g. local media) takes place.