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Further Contemplations on the City As Theatre: Part 1

August 2, 2010

A metaphor can be drawn to describe a social phenomenon in the city: urban theater. The term is in no way a new descriptor; however, I believe we can study the characteristics and processes that contribute to urban theater. When Lewis Mumford defined the city, he spoke of it as a theater of interacting social and physical forces:

the city creates the theater and is the theater. It is in the city, the city as theater, that man’s more purposive activities are focused, and work out, through conflicting and co-operating personalities, events, groups into more significant culminations.

The city as a stage set “intensifies and underlines the gestures of the actors and the action of the play” (1).  In Richard Sennett’s Fall of Public Man, there is urgency in his tone for social complexity in cities. Particularly, the fine line between the spectator and the actor:

First the theatre shares a problem, not with society in general, but with a peculiar kind of society – the great city. The problem is one of audience – specifically how to arouse belief in one’s appearance among a milieu of strangers. Second, there can arise in a great city rules for making believable appearances before strangers that have a continuity of content with the rules governing response to the stage at the time. The audience can thus play a common role in both realms (2).

First, theater must be defined due to its complex nature as an etymological device; one, the physical space of a theater, which Greeks and Romans originally used for outdoor performances; two, the abstract space or “sphere of enactment…the theater of public life”; three, a representational medium of drama; and four, entertainment in a dramatic spectacular sense or a series of events (3).  While the discussion of spectacle prompts a broad range of topics and polemical discussions, for the purpose of this research, it must only be defined in order to fully understand its tangential relationship with theater. Spectacle is an event that is “unusual, notable, or entertaining… [an] eye-catching or dramatic public display, something that displays curiosity or contempt”, or a framing device such as spectacles/glasses (4).  For David Rockwell, spectacle is more about a sense of community, shared experience, and connecting with each other, “an empty stadium, an open field or a busy urban thoroughfare—each one a public space—undergoes an alchemic process when transformed by spectacle. A group of strangers fuses into an instant community.” (5)  Moments of urban theater can take on an actual physical typological appearance, as well as a developing into a spectacular event, but it must always have an abstract sense of being a “sphere of enactment”. A sphere of enactment sets up audience and actor relationships. The characterization of a spectacle as a framing device suits that interaction. Richard Rogers stated, “The public domain is the theatre of an urban culture. It is where citizenship is enacted; it is the glue that can bind an urban society”.(6)  The city is urban theater due to the unstructured and structured occurrences or interactions it produces.  Based upon this observation, there are many questions that must be addressed relating to architecture and design. How do architects create urban interventions or Architecture that can achieve the same level of success as the events and spontaneous public spaces? What are the rules that set up that condition.  Can planned space achieve that? I believe architects must think with a Barack Obama “yes we can” (as Bjarke Ingels suggested) attitude in order to enhance public space and for Architecture to have relevance.

(1)  “Without the social drama that comes into existence through the focusing and intensification of group activity there is not a single function performed in the city that could not be performed – and has not in fact been performed – in the open country.”  Lewis Mumford, “What is a City?”, The City Reader. London: Routledge, 1996, page 185.

(2)  Architecture becomes a frame for theatrical action, which is to say a stage set. Sennett, Richard. Fall of Public Man. New York: Norton, 1977. pages 38-39.

(3)  It is important to note that the word historically stems from visual acts- theasthai to view, from thea act of seeing “theater”.  Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. 17 December 2009 <;

(4)  “spectacle.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. 17 December 2009 <;

(5)  Rockwell, David. Spectacle. New York: Phaidon, 2006.

(6)  Richard Rogers quote in The Anxious City. Williams, Richard J. The Anxious City: English Urbanism in the Late Twentieth Century. London: Routledge, 2004, page 233.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 3, 2010 2:59 pm

    Really nice article, Daley, and it is especially nice to see some legit linkage and citations!

  2. Jonathan Massey permalink
    August 5, 2010 8:26 pm

    A compelling topic, and a big one. Some ideas:
    – Become as specific as possible about how theater can/should inform urbanism. One of my favorites along these lines is The Interventionists:
    – Ditto public space / public sphere. What are the nature of civic participation and publicness today? What are their media? How can you intervene?
    – Take a look at Evan Delli Paoli’s thesis from 2008.

  3. August 5, 2010 11:17 pm


    Nice going. It is good to see you continue your thoughts during NYC semester. I have a link I want to share with you, and a few comments!

    I also agree that it is a big topic, and one that can get marginalized easily. I will pose a few suggestions in ways I would deal with thinning it, or rather, getting to the nitty gritty in enacting a “doing” approach to architecture.

    I would start looking at laws within cities that you find APPALLING. Laws that get your blood rising. Public theatre can exist anywhere, but piggy-backing of certain regulations that are obsolete may make a larger impact, or help you find a certain loophole or direction.

    If one looks at the interventionists, the scope of their work utilizes the space of the city as a background for theater. (one way to look at it) What are their goals? They are artistically, politically, maybe semantically charged.

    Cognizant of the fact that the interventionists act in a rogue, almost anarchist fashion, not tethering themselves to any one architecture or city, maybe looking at certain code or law will help nail down certain areas within the “urban” that you want to enact change.

    I love this video.

    • timothygale permalink
      August 21, 2010 12:58 am

      This video is an awesome depiction of urban invention. Smiles.

  4. August 6, 2010 3:54 am

    Thank you all for the great advice. As Prof Massey & Gabe pointed out, there is a clear next step for me, which is specificity. I think that is why up to now I have been posting a wide variety of examples of interventions at various scales, because I don’t know exactly what I want to delve into yet. I think brainstorming/listing these interventions is helping me to see what various media is being used to demonstrate publicness. I need to form a more quantitative (as of now, it is rather subjective) argument about the actual effects of theatrical experience/social interactions is in the city. I need to answer why it is important for Architecture to mimic or enhance these theatrical interventions. Maybe I will eventually discover a different conclusion, for now, I want Architecture to have relevance. I see these social experiences – shared experience with other humans happening without much “A”rchitecture involved. I am trying to argue that we need more publicness or infrastructure for public behavior in our capital A architecture. It is sort of a landscape urbanism argument. I want seamless relationships between our buildings and the city. More function, less pretty Thom Mayne Cooper Union private architecture. Why did Mayne design a spectacle/object building if the public can’t go inside the building or even climb on the sloped columns? That is an example of a crisis in the city for me. Crisis city is about functionality & addressing issues in the city. It isn’t necessarily our city to blame, it is our culture of privateness. Thus, architecture has the power to influence us away from this obsession with complete privacy . Crisis City is also about sharing knowledge- not hiding it, that is what I am getting at with my project. Enough is enough, lets have some transparency & integrate the urban fabric into our urban architecture. Starchitecture blobs are soo 2009.

    By the way Gabe, I love that video!

  5. Doolin permalink
    November 4, 2010 1:56 pm

    Where love the work on this page!
    The image of the pedestrian theater above the traffic, where is this located?

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