In our globalized culture, cities have increasingly transformed into large-scale exhibition spaces, amplifying a trend that had its origin with the Parisian Arcades in the nineteenth century and that has since moved from inside the building to the built environment as a whole. The origin of the current state of affairs, as Walter Benjamin already noted in the 1930s, lay in the display culture developed in luxury shops under steel-supported glass roofs of the Parisian Arcades. In this system of “visual merchandizing” before passers-by the Arcades worked like enclosed theatres: people could enter those shopping spaces and stroll along the display windows in passages protected from bad weather, that sported gas lighting with the familiar haze of nineteenth-century stages. This created a space of experience in which theatricality became a central mode of operation, generating a phantasmagoria of desire and placing the consumer in the role of an audience.
In the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, department stores adapted the strategy of using architecture to create a stage. Taking advantage of the new glass and steel technology, they moved from encased stone structures to creating, initially only on the lower floors, glass facades that helped blur the boundaries between inside and outside space and turn the street into an auditorium from which the goods could be observed. Erich Mendelsohn’s designs for the Schocken department stores in the first half of the twentieth century were instrumental in creating street level glass designs that shaped an urban theatre and, at the same time, fluid buildings with rounded corners that reinforced the spectacle of commercial culture.
The amorphousness of the contemporary mega-city has amplified the operations of the original exhibition space of the Arcades. In this space of experience architecture becomes both a stage for displaying goods and a display object, if not set design, in its own right. This tendency to turn the shopping environment simultaneously into a stage and an urban set piece has spread everywhere since the 1960s. The quantity and quality of the exhibition space has changed substantially as cities have expanded exponentially along railways, highways, and airport networks. Strategies of looking, creating narratives, role playing, and performing have been transferred to building types such as factories and office buildings whose original incarnations were foremost functional.
The vastness and fluidity of this contemporary exhibition space requires more nuanced and performative approaches to staging both local and global values. This has triggered what one might call an “architectural arms race.” Signature pieces by, for example, Foster, Gehry, or Libeskind become display pieces for competing ideas and performative strategies. Thanks to both technological advancement and the global culture in which cities compete to become desirable sites for global corporations, public officials, city governments, and affluent individuals built attractive set designs to compete for visibility in the global market place.
The international economy has produced a global exhibition space filled with the work of star-architects who develop signature architectural language and maintain offices in multiple countries. In this global context, buildings need not only function as theatres, hotels, or factories but must deploy strategies of performance to create a successful image and function as attraction in the context of global competition. To be sure, Zaha Hadid’s factory for the German car maker BMW must be capable of producing cars; however, the building’s reference to Kasimir Malevich’s constructivism (and his friend’s Meyerhold’s constructivist theatre) not only speaks a performative language but also provides a culturally sophisticated image for the luxury car maker.
As travel and tourism have become the global equivalent of strolling, urban culture has been turned into an exhibition space with performativity as its central mode of operation. Inside the global megacity, the Arcades experience, interior and limited, has spread, been reincarnated in shopping destinations, but also unfolded as cities themselves have become a new form of museum and trade show. While paintings by van Gogh or Velasquez can be gathered in a single place, one must travel the world to experience the work of Foster, Piano, and Gehry. Consumer-voyagers move through a global exhibition space of buildings curated by cities, banks, and affluent individuals in search of an experience of culture.