The City as Advertising

Anyone interested in getting a first-hand experience of the dynamics behind the transformation of global cities, should pay a visit to one of the biggest real estate exhibitions in the world – the MIPIM in Cannes.


Written by:

Davide Tommaso Ferrando

Architecture Critic

Davide Tommaso Ferrando is an architecture researcher and critic, particularly interested in the intersections between architecture, city and media. M.Arch in Advanced Architectural Design at ETSA Madrid and Ph.D in Architecture and Building Design at Politecnico di Torino, he is Post-Doc University Assistant in the Department of Architectural Theory and History at the University of Innsbruck. Co-curator of the Unfolding Pavilion and editor of the webzine 011+, his writings are published in international magazines and collective books. In 2018 he publishes with Vibok Works his first monographic essay: 'The City in the Image'.

Every year, this event gathers ‘the most influential international property players’ for four days of ‘networking, learning and transaction’, where investment opportunities are presented to an international public of developers, politicians, designers and other stakeholders.1 [1] (accessed 8 October 2017). As former FAT partner Sam Jacob writes, MIPIM is the place ‘where the mechanics of modern city-making are laid bare’. It would not exist without the construction and spreading of fictional narratives made of ‘terrible slogans, awful branding, shocking graphics’ and abject messages, that are meant to seduce visitors and lure them into speculating on the future of cities. As false as they can be, these narratives are essential for the implementation of urban development projects, given that ‘places become real through first being imagined, then being performed’.2 [2] Sam Jacob, ‘MIPIM is one big performance with the purpose of speaking cities into existence’, in Dezeen, 23 March 2017. (accessed 8 October 2017).Henri Lefebvre described, already at the end of the 1960s, how French developers presented their projects with fictional narratives that conveyed visions of a privileged and happy life spent in a miraculously transformed place:

Hence these advertisements, which are already famous and which deserve posterity because publicity itself becomes ideology. Parly II (a new development) “gives birth to a new art of living”, a “new lifestyle”. Daily life resembles a fairy tale. “Leave your coat in the cloakroom and feeling lighter, do your shopping after having left the children in the nurseries of the shopping mall, meet your friends, have a drink together at the drugstore…” Here is the fulfilled make-believe of the joy of living. Consumer society is expressed by orders: the order of these elements on the ground, the order to be happy. Here is the context, the setting, the means of your happiness. If you do not know how to grasp the happiness offered so as to make it your own – don’t insist!3 [3] Henri Lefebvre, ‘Right to the City’, in Eleonore Kofman, Elizabeth Lebas (ed.), Writings on Cities: Henri Lefebvre (Oxford & Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), p. 84.

Today, communicating such ‘success stories’ through newspaper advertisements, building-site posters, websites and short video clips has become all-important, given the extreme competitiveness that defines the property market under the joint effects of globalization and financialization. In order to stand out, developers need to resort to storytelling to produce memorable and seductive narratives capable of representing their projects differently from others, and therefore as more desirable than the rest. However, as different as these narratives may seem, they all have to speak the language of the market. So, they are all based on the same keywords and tropes, narrative structure, claims and imaginaries. In other words: they all reproduce the same idea of city.

The ongoing redevelopment of the Battersea Power Station in London is a good example. It is a 17-hectare site bought in 2012 by a consortium of Malaysian investors, where 3,400 homes, a shopping centre, hotels, offices and an arts space are being built by internationally known firms such as Gehry Partners, Wilkinson Eyre and BIG, following a masterplan by Rafael Viñoly. The project’s official website4 [4] (accessed 8 October 2017). shows a sunset view of the building site with the slogan Never Ordinary superimposed. The page offers all sorts of information about the intervention: the site’s history, the spaces for sale, the partners involved, and the ongoing events. They are illustrated with renderings that anticipate the unique character of this future urban environment, and accompanied by advertorial-style texts that further highlight the special features of the place. On the project’s YouTube channel, it is possible to watch time-lapse videos of the ongoing construction process, reportage of neighbourhood activities (read: gentrification strategies) organised by the BPS Development Company, news regarding site occupancy and some very interesting promotional clips, where all the elements that make up the vision of the project are summarised.5 [5] (accessed 8 October 2017). Simply put, this is an out-of-the-ordinary location, redesigned by out-of-the-ordinary architects, where living, working, shopping, eating, drinking, biking, going to the movies and clubbing is out-of-the-ordinary. Battersea Power Station provides a ‘Life Beyond Expectations’, so why not buy there?

Similar narratives can be found behind most, if not all, development projects around the world, from New York to Miami, Bangkok to Mumbai, Paris to Moscow, with only slight variations in keywords, which often involve, apart from the inevitable commercial slogans, strategic concepts such as ‘sustainable’, ‘smart’, ‘open source’, ‘bottom-up’, ‘participatory’ and so on. Even though these narratives are based on claims of difference and uniqueness, they strictly reproduce the urban imaginary of the dominant classes and their functional and spatial organization, envisioning cities substantially made of luxury apartments, boutique shops, gourmet restaurants and lounge bars. Far from being neutral, in this sense, the idea of city that underlies these narratives is entirely dedicated to the entertainment of the wealthy bourgeoisie, where the rituals of collective consumption are repeated over and over again, portraying a lifestyle where leisure has invaded all spheres of the everyday. It is not happenstance that the developers describe Battersea Power Station not as a neighbourhood, but as a ‘destination’, thus establishing stronger connections with the tourism industry and property market than with the surrounding city.

“The urban image today is the product of a complicated relationship between the specific characters of local environments and the global imaginary of the market, in which the former reshape the latter and not the other way around.”

I would like to underline that a similar political project would not exist without the support of digital representations of urban spaces, which, in fact, play three fundamental roles in the reproduction of the commodified city. In the first place, they offer the image of the city as an added value of the project, since spectacular views (especially from high vantage points) are among the most prized features in real estate developments. Secondly, they provide projects with a local identity, and therefore with the difference they need in order to compete in the property market. Finally, they reproduce in their content the imaginary of the globalized bourgeoisie that is also the target audience, in order to seem familiar and therefore acquirable. This paradox results from the need to produce images capable of conciliating, in the very same urban environment, both local and global instances – in other words, to construct an urban image that is exotic and familiar at the same time. It brings to the fore a typical loop of the capitalist market, where, according to David Harvey,

while uniqueness and particularity are crucial to the definition of “special qualities”, the requirement of tradability means that no item can be so unique or so special as to be entirely outside the monetary calculus. […] The contradiction here is that the more easily marketable such items become the less unique and special they appear.6 [6] David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (London & New York: Verso, 2012), p. 92. (accessed 10 July 2017).

Interestingly, once the image of the city is observed from the point of view of its commodification, it becomes possible to interpret the effects of globalization on the urban environment, not in terms of its homogenization – the production of cities that all look the same would in fact hinder their exploitability on the market – but rather as a ‘geographically articulated patterning of global capitalist activities and relations’.7 [7] Ibid., p. 101. The urban image today is the product of a complicated relationship between the specific characters of local environments and the global imaginary of the market, in which the former reshape the latter and not the other way around. The problem, therefore, is not that our urban environments are losing their specificity under the pressures of the globalized property market, but that they are being Disneyfied – that is: simplified and made inauthentic – while trying to project their uniqueness on a global scale.

This projection, thanks to which cities enter the global competition to become tourist and investment destinations, happens first in the image. Mass media is used to spread promotional videos, photographic reportage, editorials, news and the like – to later affect the physical and social dimension of cities, which are forced to adapt to narratives that are primarily aimed at communicating with a global audience of buyers. Images of projects such as the Markthal Rotterdam by MVRDV or Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie by Herzog & De Meuron were circulated widely in exhibitions, magazines, newspapers and web articles, before their construction started. By doing so, they not only reinforced the position of their respective cities on the map of global destinations, but they also made their own realization possible. Slowly but systematically they colonized the imaginary of their urban communities through appealing narratives based on hyperrealistic images, and legitimized the processes of gentrification they were crucial parts of. Similarly, the renderings and video clips of Battersea Power Station function, as Rowan Moore writes regarding the recent wave of construction of London skyscrapers, as ‘lubricant for the penetration of the skyline’.8 [8] Rowan Moore, Why We Build. Power and Desire in Architecture (New York: Harper Design, 2013), p. 228.All while the city goes through one of its most severe housing crises – with skyrocketing land prices pushing low-income residents out of the centre – generated by a growing number of developments like Battersea Power Station.

 Lonely Planet recommends Rotterdam as a top destination in 2016

“Lonely Planet recommends Rotterdam as a top destination in 2016” – article in Dutch newspaper Trouw

The strategic role of the image, in the context of the contemporary processes of the commodification of the city, is even more evident in the case of Dubai, whose development during the first decade of the twenty-first century has been largely based on the continuous production of fictional narratives, aimed at catching the attention of companies, tourists and investors all over the world. By seamlessly mixing built and un-built projects (making it impossible to distinguish the present from the future state of the city) and by showing an urban environment made of ‘two-second icons’ (the Sail, the Palm, the World, etc.), the visual narratives on which the development of Dubai was based transformed its image into a globally recognizable brand. The tales of modern Dubai travelled on the internet in the form of texts, images and videos, which reached (and still reach) millions of users via websites, webzines, blogs and YouTube.

“Without images there is no consumption, without consumption there is no urban transformation: advertising is the medium, the city is the message.”

In February 2005, the world-famous tennis players Roger Federer and Andre Agassi practiced together on an improvised, 211 metre-high tennis court, built on the helipad of the Burj Al Arab Hotel, in preparation for the 13th edition of the Dubai Duty Free Men’s Open. The practice session, which was widely documented with a photographic report and a video clip that can be found on YouTube, was conceived as an advertisement not just for the tournament, but especially for the city hosting it.9 [9] (accessed 8 October 2017). In fact, the staged ‘match’ occupies only a short part of the six-minute video. The rest is organized in a series of sketches in which the two players, acting according to a semi-improvised script, point at and describe landmarks and features of Dubai, celebrating the spectacular urban image that can be observed from the helipad. Likewise, the article dedicates less space to the tennis court than to its surrounding urban environment, making the real object of the promotion immediately evident. Associating a product with someone held in high esteem, as Michael Sorkin writes, ‘is Advertising 101’10 [10] Michael Sorkin, ‘Brand Aid; or, The Lexus and the Guggenheim (Further Tales of the Notorious B.I.G.ness)’, in William S. Saunders (ed.), Commodification and Spectacle in Architecture: A Harvard Design Magazine Reader (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), p. 25., while storytelling is a widely used strategy for the construction of efficient commercial messages, because people ‘think narratively rather than argumentatively or paradigmatically’.11 [11] Arch G. Woodside, Suresh Sood, Kenneth E. Miller, ‘When Consumers and Brands Talk: Storytelling Theory and Research in Psychology and Marketing’, in Psychology & Marketing Vol. 25, no. 2, February 2008, p. 98. (accessed 21 October 2017).They unconsciously tend to re-enact the stories they are told, by providing themselves with the products that the stories are based on. The story of Federer and Agassi playing tennis on the helipad of the Burj Al Arab, in this sense, presents a perfect combination of elements capable of reinforcing the Dubai brand: top-tier figures of the global spectacle have a friendly get-together in a luxury location and marvel in front of a breath-taking urban view. The message is delivered, Dubai is the place to be.

In order to become a commodity, the city needs first to be the object of a process of narrative construction anchored in its images (past, present or future). Only images, which are produced much faster than buildings and are visible to a much wider audience, can produce the necessary transfiguration of an urban environment into a ready-to-sell product. They do so by shrinking it to a controllable size, compressing its complexity into a simpler and marketable entity, adding promotional narratives and then spreading it as a press kit around the globe. At the same time, it is evident that most of the current processes of urban transformation operate as agents of commodification of the space of the city, since they are primarily aimed at developing vast urban areas to be sold on the global property market, rather than expressing the needs and resolving the problems of local communities (hence, for example, the shortage of social housing in many contemporary cities). Since the commodification of the city would not be possible without the commercial mediation operated by its images, it is possible to claim that urban transformation has become a function of urban imagination where real estate developments are supported by apparatuses of visual narratives capable of making them real. Without images there is no consumption, without consumption there is no urban transformation: advertising is the medium, the city is the message. In the same way that fifteenth-century theatre became the analogue through which the city was understood, during the twentieth century, the capitalist market has become the cultural mediator through which the urban environment is conceived, represented and transformed. The apparent neutrality of the urban images that colonize the mass media – from magazines to TV shows, music videos to movies, web platforms to Instagram profiles – is nothing but a side-effect of our own interiorization of the ideology of capitalism. In the 1970s, Lefebvre observed how the double characterization of the capitalist city as ‘place of consumption and consumption of place’ depended on the naturalization of the language of the market by the citizen/consumer: ‘what is said and written comes before everything else: it is the world of commodities, of the language of commodities, of the glory and the extension of exchange value’.12 [12] Lefebvre, Right to the City, p. 170. Similarly, the way in which the city is represented in mass media extends the form and logic of the market into the visual sphere as well, reshaping the mentality of the contemporary subject so that also what is seen and therefore designed is ‘the world of commodities’.

“To find and occupy the other spaces, those whose images have yet to be cannibalized by the narratives of capitalism, to imagine another kind of city within them, to allow its production and to make it thrive, is thus the task that we have at hand.”

Therefore, in order to build another kind of city, first of all it is necessary to imagine another kind of city: one that is not reduced by corporate powers to a place and object of consumption, but rather one that can once again become the place of Lefebvre’s urban: ‘a place of encounters, focus of communication and information, [a] place of desire, permanent disequilibrium, seat of the dissolution of normalities and constraints, the moment of play and of the unpredictable’.13 [13] Ibid., p. 129. To think the city as the place of the urban, nevertheless, does not mean that traditional urban narratives and images have to be recovered: on the contrary, precisely because these narratives and images have been cannibalized by the capitalist market, we ought to seek a renewed sense of the urban beyond them. In this sense, unusual places such as Black Rock City, a temporary settlement of 60,000 people built every year during Burning Man in the Nevada Desert, suggest how Lefebvre’s urban, intended as the essential component of a city, can be produced in any territorial condition, as far as it can be imagined. To find and occupy the other spaces, those whose images have yet to be cannibalized by the narratives of capitalism, to imagine another kind of city within them, to allow its production and to make it thrive, is thus the task that we have at hand.

Burning Man, 2013. Author: Jennifer Morrow. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Burning Man, 2013. Author: Jennifer Morrow. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In an article dedicated to the 2011 occupation of Madrid’s Plaza del Sol by part of the indignados movement, Andrés Jaque observes how contemporary urbanism is the product of the dispute between two different and coexisting cities: ‘the city of accomplished facts’, whose form is the result of speculative processes and extensive resource consumption, and ‘a minor city, fragile and unstable, made of architectures of appropriation, and, in many cases, of illegal occupancy […] operating by reappropriation, network-making and the reinstitution of the existing’.14 [14] Andrés Jaque, ‘15M and YES WE CAMP! Controversy as urbanism’, in Domus, 20 July 2011. (accessed 27 November 2018). Just like living organisms sharing the same ecosystem, which have to move, evolve and adapt (to each other and to external conditions) in order to survive, these two cities are in a constant search for new territories, responding to all available technologies – from gentrification to social media – in the struggle for their own existence. The struggle is unequal of course, but the cycles of expansion and contraction of global finance are such that the ‘city of accomplished facts’ is ‘condemned’ to produce more space than the one it can actually fill15 [15] Rupert Neate, ‘Ghost Towers: half of new-build luxury London flats fail to sell’, in The Guardian, 26 January 2018. (accessed 27 November 2018). or control. The ‘minor city’ is thus potentially provided with an unstable reservoir of available space where to thrive: it is a political matter, whether this availability is transformed into a right or not. But where it does, the solid city of real estate suddenly melts into an ephemeral and constantly changing network of ‘in-finite places’16 [16] Encore Heureux (ed.), Infinite Places: Constructing Buildings or Places? French Pavilion, 16th International Architecture, Venice Biennale, Éditions B42, Paris 2018., where political agency is redistributed.

A walkway underneath a flyover in London, transformed into a temporary cinema by the British collective Assemble; the Torre David, an unfinished office building in Caracas, spontaneously occupied and transformed into a vertical slum by a group of citizens; a disused passageway in Paris, turned into a productive garden and communal space by the French practice Atelier d’Architecture Autogérée; an abandoned piece of public land in the periphery of Seville, rearranged into an independent cultural space by the Spanish collective Recetas Urbanas… All of these examples show how overlooked urban areas can be reimagined into ‘liminal social spaces of possibility where “something different” is not only possible, but foundational for the defining of revolutionary trajectories’, as David Harvey writes.17 [17] Harvey, Rebel Cities, p. xii. The fact that even these spaces of resistance cannot avoid being cannibalized by the dominant narratives of capitalism, and that eventually they will be absorbed by the very same urbanization processes that they are meant to counter, should not deter us. Their most precious value resides in the concrete and exemplary evidence that another idea of city is realizable. Since there is nothing we can do about it let’s restart the occupation somewhere else, transforming the whole city into an archipelago of heterotopias in motion.18 [18] Here, the word ‘archipelago’ refers to Oswald Mathias Ungers’s concept of the city as an archipelago of autonomous but interconnected islands. The word ‘heterotopia’ is used in the Lefebvrian sense of an in-between urban space charged with the potential for political agency. ‘In motion’, finally, refers to Gilles Clement’s concept of the ‘garden in motion’, which describes the way in which neglected urban areas can become the hosts of spontaneous ecologies evolving in time and, more importantly, bringing biodiversity back in the spoiled territories of which they are part.


*The above text is based on an essay first published in March 2018 by Vibok Works as part of the the chapter ‘The third city’ included in the book The City in the Image, edited by Paula V. Alvarez.

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