With new urban spatial products proliferating globally, subsequent forms of advertising these products have emerged to lure in global investment. But what are the selling points? In her video collage, architect Keller Easterling pieces together the strange tropes and idealizations characterizing these sellable traits raising questions as to who or what these cities of the future are for.
Promotional videos for the world’s instant cities invariably begin with a view of Earth from outer space. Any number of different musical themes ‒ canned trumpet fanfare, synthesized operatic overture, or something appropriate to the thundering hooves of an American Western film ‒ accompany a drop from the stratosphere to locate a new center of the Earth. A more sentimental, perhaps ethnically inflected romance theme continues as a field of digital skyscrapers sprout from the ground. A deep-voiced movie-trailer lists, in broken English, all the requisite features of twenty-first century urbanism: free-zone status, no taxes, cheap labor, no unions, streamlined customs, and deregulation of labor and environmental law. A Star Wars-style flyover swoops through the cartoon skylines, industrial areas, container ports, identical villas, and resorts.
The videos make magnificent claims of global connectivity or World City urbanity enjoyed by doughy human figures rhythmically waddling along boulevards or plowing forward stone-faced in a speedboat. Other videos advertise their logistical apparatus by thoroughly inspecting back-office spaces, factories, and storage facilities to a theme like “It’s a Feelin’” from Flashdance. Persuaded by these new urban trends, even a totalitarian regime like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, creates an ecstatic version of the video form that shifts rapidly, almost frantically, through a number of up-tempo musical themes ‒ a synthesized harp or run on the piano keys transition between organ polkas, patriotic marches, high-pitched accordion jigs, emotional lullabies, and waltzes. And most all of the videos from any country end with glowing sunsets, bursting hearts, confetti, or a pan back into the stratosphere past fireworks and orbiting satellites, perhaps to the theme from the film Titanic.
This sort of video has become a standard offering in the global confidence game of urban development. Subtitles often appear in the language of the intended investor, and the animations break occasionally to run footage of actual people gathering around conference rooms and hotel ballrooms enthusiastically investing in the cartoon scenes that have just been playing. Urbanism as a service industry provides not only entire cities according to repeatable formulas but also rendering of urban porn ‒ that is a routine, repetitive, even tedious fantasy. This porn is a strange reflection of the utopias of the design disciplines. The most serious utopias ‒ portraying perfect arrangements that transcend politics with totalizing solutions ‒ are comedy and kitsch from the instant they emerge. While relatively powerless as the one and only prescription of designers, as part of a rolling set of lies and garden-variety fictions, they are wildly contagious.