The Media City: Media, Architecture and Urban Space


Scott McQuire

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  • Theory, Culture & Society

    Theory, Culture & Society caters for the resurgence of interest in culture within contemporary social science and the humanities. Building on the heritage of classical social theory the book series examines ways in which this tradition has been reshaped by a new generation of theorists. It also publishes theoretically informed analyses of everyday life, popular culture and new intellectual movements.

    EDITOR: Mike Featherstone, Nottingham Trent University


    Roy Boyne, University of Durham

    Mike Hepworth, University of Aberdeen

    Scott Lash, Goldsmiths College, University of London

    Roland Robertson, University of Aberdeen

    Bryan S. Turner, National University of Singapore


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    List of Illustrations

    • 2.1 Charles Marville (c1865–1868), Rue des Trois-Canettes 42
    • 2.2 Charles Marville (1877), Rue de Rivoli 43
    • 3.1 Walther Ruttmann (1927), Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (a) Urban commuters (b) Berlin street scene (c) The modern office (d) Window displays 72
    • 3.2 Dziga Vertov (1929), Man with the Movie Camera (a) The camera over the city (b) The accelerated office (c) Trams (d) Reflexive cinema – the audience at work 73
    • 5.1 Night view at the Pan-American exposition, Buffalo, New York, 1901 118
    • 5.2 Luna park at night, 1904 119
    • 6.1 Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, ‘Vectorial Elevation, Relational Architecture 4’, 1999–2004 151
    • 6.2 Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Interface from ‘Vectorial Elevation, Relational Architecture 4’, 1999–2004 152
    • 6.3 Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, ‘Body Movies, Relational Architecture 6’, 2001–06 154


    Social life in the 21st century is increasingly life lived in media cities. This statement suggests two things simultaneously. First, that the spaces and rhythms of contemporary cities are radically different to those described in classic theories of urbanism; and second, as much as the city has changed, so have media. The broad argument I unfold in this book is that the convergence of media which is increasingly mobile, instantaneous and pervasive with urban space has become a constitutive frame for a distinctive mode of social experience. Rather than treating media as something separate from the city – the medium which ‘represents’ urban phenomena by turning it into an image – I argue that the spatial experience of modern social life emerges through a complex process of co-constitution between architectural structures and urban territories, social practices and media feedback. The contemporary city is a media-architecture complex resulting from the proliferation of spatialized media platforms and the production of hybrid spatial ensembles. While this process has been underway at least since the development of technological images in the context of urban ‘modernization’ in the mid-19th century, its full implications are only coming to the fore with the extension of digital networks. In this respect, the term media city is designed to foreground the role of media technologies in the dynamic production of contemporary urban space, in Lefebvre's (1991) sense of binding affect and cognition to space.

    While terms such as ‘informational city’ or ‘digital city’ are more established, media city is my strategic choice for three related reasons. First, I think it is vital to recognize a longer and more diverse history of the mediated production of urban space than a tight concentration on contemporary ICTs enables. In other words, the ‘media city’ has been a long time in the making, and has moved through a number of different iterations in the process. Part of my argument is that distinct instantiations of modern urban space have been articulated with specific media platforms, beginning with photography in the mid-19th century, shifting to cinema in the early 20th century, and more recently to electronic and digital media. While this is by no means a linear succession in which one format simply replaces another, these broad thresholds are nevertheless useful in articulating key transformations affecting the social production of urban space. Second, my interest is more the transformation of spatial experience, rather than the economic forces shaping urbanism through corporate organization and workforce composition on which writers such as Castells, Harvey and Sassen have concentrated. For this reason, I find it more useful to think of ‘media’ as an environment in McLuhan's sense, but also to think of the city as a ‘medium’ in Kittler's (1996) sense. My particular concern here is the social relations of space and time generated in the distinctive nexus of utechnology, architecture and emergent social relationships which characterizes the modern city. Third, I want to emphasize the increasing convergence of computing and telecommunications with older media such as photography, cinema and television. This merging, which is uneven rather than monolithic, has transformed the sites and social functions of media. In the process, it has catalyzed new means of producing social space and created new forms of social agency, and these potentials are fast becoming integral dimensions of 21st-century cities.

    The book is structured around three major parts supplemented by an introduction. The introduction offers some conceptual markers for thinking about the transformation of social space in contemporary cities. The remaining chapters attempt not so much to ‘apply’ these approaches as to insinuate their logic into different historical situations. The dominant theme of Part 1 is the link between ‘big city life’ and new media at specific historical thresholds; Part 2 explores the transformation of public space, while Part 3 concerns the reconstruction of private space. Clearly these are overlapping rather than mutually distinctive orientations. While each chapter has its own trajectory and coherence, it is my hope that they establish a collective resonance capable of revealing different facets of the complex social life of modern and contemporary cities. While this book has a substantial historical focus, it is worth noting that its genesis was the spatio-temporal impact of digital media in the present. In my endeavour to theorize this condition I have been guided by a number of writers, including Georg Simmel, Siegfried Kracauer, Henri Lefebvre, Paul Virilio and Scott Lash. But the pivotal figure in this story is Walter Benjamin. Benjamin's pioneering approach to the relation between new media and big-city life developed in the 1920s and 1930s remains instructive: in particular his attention to the ambivalent political currents of what he calls phenomena ‘at the crossroads’.

    In the 1980s and into the 1990s the proliferation of digital media gave rise to a pervasive ‘cyber’ rhetoric characterized by sweeping forecasts that time and space would ‘disappear’. In Chapter 1, I contextualize this outbreak of what I call the rhetoric of the ‘annihilation of space and time’ as a recurrent reaction to the roll-out of new media technologies. However, while I want to move beyond idealistic responses to new media, I don't want to move so far beyond them that emergent phenomena generated by interactions between media and urbanism disappear into ‘the taken-for-granted’. Rather, following Benjamin's concern for phenomena ‘at the crossroads’, each chapter in the book is organized around a particular threshold in the nexus between media technology and urban form; a liminal period in which the social relations for inhabiting that space-time are not yet fully in place, but are instead subject to slippage, contradiction and contestation. My case studies include the photographing of Haussmann's ‘modernized’ Paris beginning in the 1850s (Chapter 2) and the electric lighting of urban space beginning in the 1880s (Chapter 5); the modernist glass house (Chapter 7) and the city-symphony film of the 1920s (Chapter 3); and finally the transformative effect of computers and digital media on the city (Chapter 4), public space (Chapter 6) and the private dwelling (Chapter 8) in the present. The timing of these different snapshots was chosen partly to register key socio-economic transformations across the period; namely the initial emergence of mass commodity production, the rise of the Fordist-Taylorist logic of industrial production, and the transition to a post-industrial, global information society. But assembling these different moments is primarily intended to index the emergence of the media-architecture complex: what I am calling the media city. It is also designed to sketch out the ambivalence of this new formation, stretched between utopian aspirations and mundane, if not malignant, actualities.

    Attention to ambivalence also structures the conceptual framework I develop through these case studies. In particular, ambivalence informs the concept of ‘relational space’ which I argue is the characteristic frame for the spatial experience of contemporary urban life. Relational space names the ambivalent spatial configuration which emerges as the taken-for-granted nature of social space is withdrawn in favour of the active constitution of heterogeneous spatial connections linking the intimate to the global. Relational space is the experience of subjectivity remade through the expanded demand on individuals to make life choices in the apparent absence of traditional social collectivities. The concept of relational space situates the double role that media technologies have played in the reconstruction of the city as modernity's uncanny home. A ‘crisis’ in urban space has been announced regularly since the rapid expansion of industrial cities in the second half of the 19th century. Media have been an integral part of modern urbanism, seized as a ‘solution’ to urban crisis even as they actively undermine traditional regimes of space-time. Changes in urban form that have diminished the coherence of traditional means of urban representation have also levied increased demands on technological images to ‘map’ the city, and thereby make it available to perception, cognition and action. In the mid-19th century, photography was seized as a solution to the emerging crisis of urban representation. In Chapter 2, I describe the way serial photography offered a novel means of responding to the upheavals of modern urbanism, and registering the growing contingency of modern social relationships exemplified by fleeting public encounters on the street. By the 1920s such hopes were increasingly projected onto cinema, most strikingly manifested by the flowering of the ‘city-symphony’ film. In Chapter 3, I explore the manner in which the city-symphony exemplified the growing influence of industrial production on aesthetic and cultural sensibilities. More recently, hopes for ‘mapping’ urban space have been progressively transferred to high-speed data processing and computer imaging. Chapter 4 analyses the way in which such investment repeats the paradoxical reliance on media as key spatio-temporal frameworks capable of ‘grounding’ contemporary social relations in a radically ungrounded milieu. Flows of digital data are integral to the transformation of contemporary urban space, but are also critical tools for apprehending the complex patterns and dynamic forces of contemporary urban life.

    The second and third sections of the book dealing with public space and private space respectively are each organized around chapters contrasting key modern and contemporary phenomena. Chapter 5 concerns the impact of electric lighting in producing a fluid and ephemeral urban space, while Chapter 6 explores current trajectories towards ‘performative’ space underpinned by public screens, mobile media and interactive networks. Chapter 7 delves into the revolutionary political ambitions invested in modernist glass construction, while the final chapter explores the contradictory psycho-social forces mobilized by the transposition of the modern desire for ‘openness’ onto the contemporary digitally networked home.

    My ambition in this book is to suggest new ways of discerning the ‘logic’ expressed by the transformation of the industrial city of factory production into the media city of pervasive communication flows. The imbrication of media and urban space does not produce a one-way street of negative effects, but a complex series of possibilities and potentials whose outcomes are not yet wholly given. If the ambivalence of relational space is partly the result of the erosion of the certitudes of an earlier era of progress, its positive face is the increased demand to discriminate between differences, and to understand phenomena in terms of relations between different positions or states which are not mutually exclusive. Ambivalence in this sense is not indecision, lack of certainty or the weakening of moral fibre, but recognition that the complexity of intricately related, cascading consequences render all choices problematic in some way or to some degree. Ambivalence is the predicament of contemporary social life in the media city.

    This is the critical paradox of the media city which informs my starting point in this book: as much as developments in telematics have been constitutive of the ‘crisis’ of urban space, they are also an essential part of any meaningful response to that crisis. In many respects, the media city of the digital age is currently ‘at the crossroads’. The image of digital ‘flow’ as the harbinger of new freedom is everywhere contradicted by the pervasive use of digital technologies for enhanced forms of instrumental mastery over space. Yet, alongside the trajectory epitomized by the extension of panopticism in the name of state surveillance and corporate practice, other possibilities remain. My aim in this book is to provide a critical political analysis of the new social spaces created by the imbrication of media platforms and urban terrains. This might help to identify some of the fault lines which would enable the media city to be reconstructed on more inclusive terms and thereby realize the promises so often made in its name.


    Some books get written faster than others. This has been a slow book about a process of acceleration. I first began to develop the idea around 1998, although substantial work didn't begin until 2004. Along the way I have been sidetracked by a number of things – other research projects, other books, a couple of new jobs, the birth of two children, the death of my much-loved father. This extended genesis has allowed me to observe the intensification of the process I began thinking about. It also means I owe thanks to many people who have helped with this project en route. In particular, I would like to acknowledge Peter Lyssiotis and Don Miller with whom I began watching city films so many years ago. I would also like to thank students and staff at various seminars and conferences where parts of this work has been rehearsed, including Victoria Lynn for the ‘Space Odysseys’ symposium at Art Gallery of New South Wales and ‘Deep Space’ at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image; Colin Langridge at the Hobart Art School, University of Tasmania; Suzie Attiwill and Pia Ednie-Brown at RMIT University; John Hutnyk at Goldsmiths College; James Donald at the University of New South Wales; Mirjam Struppek and Geert Lovink for the ‘Urban Screens’ conference in Amsterdam. Thanks also to Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, David Shephard and Eva Riehl for permission to reproduce images. Extended passages are reprinted by permission of the publisher from WALTER BENJAMIN: SELECTED WRITINGS, VOLUME 4, 1938–40, edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, translated by Edmund Jephcott and Others, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 2003 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. I owe a significant debt to my colleagues and postgraduate students from the University of Melbourne. I am especially grateful to Meredith Martin for her unstinting, good-humoured and innovative research assistance, and to Nikos Papastergiadis with whom I have shared so many things. Thanks also to Mike Featherstone for his interest in this project from the beginning. Some parts of this research has appeared in earlier versions in the Space Odysseys exhibition catalogue, Cultural Studies Review, Scan, Space and Culture, and First Monday. Funding from the Australian Research Council has assisted this project, as has study leave provided by the University of Melbourne. On a personal level, my deep gratitude to the Brunswick mothers, especially Bec, Mary-Anne and Maja who pitched in when desperately needed. Special thanks to my mother for her extraordinarily generous practical support in caring for Lachie and Alistair. My biggest hugs go to Lachie and Alistair who have immeasurably enriched this journey. And finally, to my darling Sarah, who has lived with this project through all its stages – this book is dedicated to you.

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