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"The Age of Spectacle: Tom Dyckhoff" - A book review

The Age of Spectacle, Adventures in Architecture and the 21st century city

Author: Tom Dyckhoff

Publisher: Penguin Random House UK

Pages: 378

‘The postmodern battle of architectural styles has been won by the architecture best able to communicate in this age of instantaneous global communication, the one that is the most visible, the most thrilling, the most profitable. Welcome to the Wowhaus.’ The above rather dramatic and sardonic extract from the book’s Introduction, spells out the tone that the book is setting itself up for.

The author, an architecture critic, in a very characteristic British commenting way, draws us in to his initial teenage infatuation with post-modernism and brings to life the more complex idea that is the 21st century city of today, in a way that would seem familiar to us when we look around at our own skylines.

We get to witness as the author, who has grown up alongside this age of rising law defying, dystopian architecture, makes his way from the whirlwind of the spectacle of rapidly developing internet, billboards and advertising to the more mighty shopping malls and Olympic arenas, as the drivers of our physical cities. The book is sharp, to the point, and at times brutal with its take on the rise of iconic cities and the place of, or rather its frequently misplaced inhabitants.

It fleetingly moves around the globe but mostly keeps flipping between the two sides of the Atlantic Ocean, with the focus on the gentrification of London’s various neighborhoods on one side and the result of America’s growing consumerism on its major cities on the other; and we get a front row view of this transformation, put together in as succinct a way as possible.

The book rather than dwelling on the architectural aspect of these iconic structures makes us sympathize with it, as it shows us how architecture is majorly a culmination of the various haphazard urban planning schemes, world’s egotistic politics, global economic policies including emergence of capitalist societies and most importantly opportunistic city planners and developers that inherently dictate so much of what we see around us.

The most entertaining and upbeat parts though include the ones where we get to peek through the psyche and even a day in the life of the ‘starchitects’ as they have come to be known today. These instances in the book may be few and far in between but they get you to interact with the ‘royals’ of today’s architectural world, and possibly apprehend how they strive to strike a balance between the public sentiments and end users, and the more grimy behind the door scenes of private urban developers and public institutions to build these icons of modern history. There can be a whole another book filled with these rather amusing informal conversations that the author has had with them and I am sure that book would sell like hot buns.

The narrative, which is mostly pragmatic, whenever starts getting too heavy with its own informative jargon, resuscitates itself back to life with these rather honest unrestrained responses that the author has noted down himself, of the general public at the shape of their immediate environs, and is promptly back on its feet. These in fact tell us more about how architecture is perceived first hand by its users and stakeholders.

As you close the book having read the utopian dream paired with a dreary warning of the immediate future that the author has shared in the epilogue, you can’t help but feel like you’re part of a slow apocalypse that is set in motion. It leads you to ask the more legitimate questions as architects and members of the fraternity about what our priorities should be going forward in this era of the modern age city, with its mind numbingly replicated ‘wowhaus’ architecture across the globe, and if this new ‘normal’ should continue to affect our cities.

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