The Synthetic City: Preface

It is difficult to pinpoint the beginnings of the break in the evolution of the open-ended, spontaneously built American city, the urban realm as a product of small, incremental real estate decisions, a continually evolving, uncontrolled form within the gridiron whose lack of coordination between the parts generated the ultimate statement of American individualism and free enterprise. And it is equally hard to define exactly when the “synthetic” city— the city as a product of large-scale real estate ventures by corporate giants, special districts which coordinate and direct development within prescribed guidelines, controlled effects shaped by popular culture and new technologies, and the framing and commodification of virtually all commercial and cultural production—ultimately took its place. While not a single turning point, there are a series of threshold events that mark the way.

The Synthetic City: Excursions Into the Real-Not Real

One of the fundamental shifts in the 20th century has been the challenge to authenticity—the replacement of the real, based in direct observation i.e., the actual thing—with products and events that are shifted into the realm of representation, fantasy, and the artificial. We are able to observe through lenses that magnify the invisible, expose the hidden, deepen the color, freeze the moving, crop the continuous, and conceal the extraneous. The possibilities of mechanical reproduction take the unique and make it ubiquitous, removing all vestiges of the object’s originality, materiality, and aura.1 Art, literature, theater, film and other arts analyze and transform experience and objects through a wide variety of devices based in pictorial illusion, abstraction, fragmentation, superimposition, montage, deconstruction, and other techniques which remove us further from the temporal and spatial settings of real experience. The entertainment and advertising industries exert a powerful influence on culture, which have given us new worlds, dreams, and fantasies that offer compelling alternatives to the existing traditions, codes, and places of our daily lives.

Orchestrating the Synthetic: Principles and Techniques

The critical ingredient for the production of the synthetic city is the possibility of control, the orchestration of intent, effects, and associations that establish qualities of order and design. The issue of control has tended towards a polarization of two conditions: One has lead to the precise and static organizations of repetitive structures, in which all components relate to a singular, comprehensive idea. This can be found in the Urban Renewal projects of the 1950s, as well as any number of more recently planned large-scale urban projects.1 The other, and more typical of the nature and qualities of the American city, is an almost total lack of control, where through the mechanisms of private development, the 20th century city is a result of individual
sites built independently, if not randomly over time, which results in a broad, if not chaotic range of the new and renovated, foreground and background, mixed functions, types, sizes, materials, and styles arbitrarily positioned on the real estate game board.

Duchamp, Appropriation, and the Architecture of the Synthetic

A significant source for understanding the manifestations of the synthetic in architecture and the city are a number of artists who over the last 10-15 years have dealt specifically with the problem of appropriation, or the simulation of an original object, either through means of replication or re-contextualization. These experiments in art , influenced by the “Readymade” experiments of Marcel Duchamp, serve as a precursor to phenomena that are similarly influencing recent developments in architecture and the evolution of the city. The paper analyzes four devices currently in use: Media Overlay, Narrative Framing, Disguised Combinations, and Programmatic Hybrids, focusing on design strategies based in the orchestration of synthetic programs and the selection of desired effects, rather than the invention of new forms or typologies.

The Beautybar: Hybrid Programs in the Synthetic City

At the turn of the millennium there sprouted up a series of so-called theme-based bars and clubs in New York, one of the most notorious called “Beautybar” located on east 14th Street in the East Village, originally owned and conceived by Deb Parker.1 The Beautybar took what was an actual, functioning beauty salon, and turns it into a bar, while leaving the original salon physically intact.Remaining in place are hair dryers, sinks, price lists, and miscellaneous paraphernalia of the original beauty salon, mixed with bottles of liquor, glasses, and the other paraphernalia required for a functioning bar.

The Marginal Site: Interventions Into The Voided Context

The city has tended to be subject to one of two forms of evolution; it either undergoes continual transformation and adjustment subject to the economic fluctuation, technological advancements, the shifting status of institutions, changing modes of living and work, and many other manifestations of modern culture. Or, parts of the city have been legislated to be preserved and endure in the original historic fabric, thus denying the influence of external forces. The former type of change is one of direct translation, in which the city becomes a referential index, or physical manifestation of external causes; the other is marked by resistance, in that the context establishes a rigid, immutable structure which suppresses any expression of cultural transformation or desire.

Lines of Resistance: Possibilities of Interference and Control in the Global City

The development of the synthetic city is based on an evolution of cultural and economic forces that have been with us for some time. The phenomena of new communication technologies, the rise and centralization of giant multi-national corporations and global economies, the privatization of public space, the powerful, pervasive forces of popular culture and mass media can be traced back to the explosion of post-war consumerism and economies during the 1950’s. But the ability to exploit ever increasing technological capabilities and accessible global markets have enlarged the influence and power of the giant players in the marketplace as never before, to the extent that private corporations have replaced public institutions as the dominant determinants of culture and city form.

Las Vegas Transformed Part I: The Triumph of the Synthetic City

The redevelopment of the Las Vegas Strip over the last two decades once again posits another model for the new American City. The last time that could be said was the 1960’s, when Las Vegas was discovered by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown to be emblematic of newly evolving tendencies in urban development. Las Vegas wasn’t the only place that celebrated the phenomenon of the evolving culture of the automobile, the commercial strip, pop entertainment, and the dreams of the suburban lifestyle. But no where else were their manifestations so overt, brash, exaggerated, and entertaining, where it all came together with such flair and confidence, as if we already knew where we were heading, and never had to look back.1 Without apologies or embarrassment, the neon signs, casinos, wedding chapels, drive-ins and entertainment extravaganzas, the sheer audacity of it all, were what the masses wanted to visit in its unadulterated state, not to be diluted.

Las Vegas Transformed Part II: The New American City

Control was the underlying aspiration of many of the urban design experiments of the 20th century, which promised efficiency, order, connections, and choice. It was thought that the only way it could be achieved was through the mandates of a public authority, or some agency of the city, to make sure that all the individual parts could be coordinated, and perform the way they were supposed to. This meant that the land itself had to be owned by the municipality, and then leased or sold to private developers, so that that all kinds of building limitations and rules could be imposed. This is the way that many of the large-scale urban renewal housing projects were developed in the United States in the 1950’s, as well as large public projects in Europe. These projects sometimes took on the scale of new towns, and had more than a passing resemblance to urban development throughout Scandinavian and Eastern European countries all based in the common denominator of land being owned, controlled and developed through municipal control.

Potsdamer Platz: The Blurring of the Historic City

The recent construction of Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz represents more than the completion of Europe’s largest single construction project in the last thirty years. Its realization in fact exemplifies a new form of urban development that marks a decisive shift in the form and process of urbanization. It defines the triumph of the synthetic city—a totally controlled environment, conceived and executed at a giant scale, realized in less than a decade, in which every activity, function, building, and image is preconceived to create an idealized fragment of urbanity. The development of the project was based on a complex interaction of public and corporate interests, and exemplifies the dominant role of privatization, the selective framing of historical events and artifacts, current tendencies of re-representation, and the forces of popular culture and entertainment to define the new terms of urban culture.