Dieter Hassenpflug

Atopias - The challenge of imagineering

1When sociologists attempt to describe the present societal situation, which is, after all, their occupation, they are inevitably confronted with the phenomenon of the disappearance of places. They are destroyed, eliminated, abandoned, ignored or reshaped. What is this thing being handled with so much disrespect? What is this thing we call a place?

2Places are spaces that give the people who inhabit, visit and use them an identity. They are perceived by these people as a part of themselves. Places are spaces that keep our memories of history alive, making the present visible and thereby open for the future. Places are spaces with atmosphere. They touch us, we enter into an emotional relationship with them, we even identify with them. They can evoke approval or criticism, bring joy or pain. But they never leave us indifferent. We live with places as with our own bodies. When we are healthy or when things are going well, we're not aware of them. Places can provide a stage for the great, the sublime, the dignified, the spectacular, but they can also be the scene of the small, the transparent, the simple, the every day, in other words, spaces of the 'middle-range.' Small is beautiful. They are, however, always characterized by a stable stock of signs and symbols which make each place unique. Places accompany the people who have something to do with them through shorter or longer spans of their lives and contribute in part to the meaning of these lives. In this respect, places are spaces of closeness, security and belonging. In the German language there is a word for this (although it has been terribly abused in recent German history) - the word 'Heimat.'

3Against this background no one would argue that for example the city of Weimar (where I work and where the Goethe-Institute recently opened an institute for international cultural exchange) depicts a space which possesses the qualities of a place. This small city has character, atmosphere, individuality and significance. One's senses must really be dulled if one is not taken in by its physical-structural charm. It is less works of great architecture that impresses one, it is more the ensemble of houses, alleyways, squares, vistas and parks. Weimar is unmistakable. At the same time, this small city constitutes a coherent, legible space. This legibility has its basis in part in what is called the Old-European city.

4This model, which at some times more, at other times less has shaped the cityscapes of Europe, was in the ideal case characterized by a mix of functions and differentiations between private and public spaces; by dense, unified buildings in small parcels and organic floor plans that conform to the typography; by an accentuation of sacred and profane buildings; and by an articulated separation from the surrounding countryside, once symbolized by clearly defined town walls. The texture of the old bourgeois city, supplemented by additions and extensions made during the succeeding stylistic epochs (from the Renaissance to the Gründerzeit, the years of rapid industrial expansion in Germany), lend these places an urban flair, the likes of which we find nowhere else. The public spaces are filled with life, provide images, surprises, possibilities for encounters in abundance, give the urban virtues of curiosity, openness, tolerance and individuality every thinkable chance.

5As I said at the beginning, however, places today are a highly endangered species. With their mazes of narrow spaces and alleys, their variety and intractability, their sensibility and unmistakability, their corporate and bourgeois self-portrayal, the old cities are only a nuisance in today's turbo-society. They are simply too slow. Thus they are accelerated, straightened, standardized, cleared out. Their structures are freed from one another and separated according to their function, completely dismantled and then assembled anew. The previously integrated uses such as living, working, relaxing and consuming, are separated from one another and each assigned to their own territory. Under this fordistic treatment, streets are transformed into mono-functional traffic routes, squares into parking lots, the lively organized house fronts into smooth, sterile and cold facades. Cities become machines. The public places once populated by the young and old, the poor and rich, the bohemian and conventional, the locals and strangers mutate into efficient functional spaces. They can no longer serve as places of regional, republican and cosmopolitan civility. The city as polls ceases to exist.

6The old idea of space as characterized by city and country, intensity and extensity also disappears. The city falls apart and pours into the surrounding countryside. Business parks, single-family housing developments, traffic routes, shopping centers and recreational facilities push their way into the environs. Extenuated, confused, torn borders arise, chaotic structures of space, collage-like landscapes spoiled by development. The places once identifiable as either urban or rural forfeit their singularity. They lose their local color and their regional fund of memories, their habits and customs, their rites and styles. A semiotically empty, indecipherable city-country-continuum is formed - a space without qualities.

7The loss of qualities of place describes, however, only one side of fordistic modernization. The other concerns the overcoming of space (and time) itself. Through high-speed traffic systems, distances shrink and the availability of physical space increases. New media technologies open placeless, virtual communication spaces, rendering the existing, built arenas of public life superfluous. Under the pressure of economic globalization and mechanization, of growing mobility and permanent acceleration, places transform themselves - to borrow a term from Marc Augé - into non-places. What is meant here are efficient, fast spaces with a high turnover of people and goods, lacking however any sense of character and meaning. We meanwhile encounter these characterless spaces of power and efficiency all over the world. They transform every place into a 'global place'. In the global world, places become more and more similar to one another, until they can no longer be distinguished from one another. As a consequence, the ties that bond people to places dissolve.

8This development, however, can be seen from another viewpoint: What has been diagnosed as the 'disappearance of places' is in reality only a form of a new invention of space. Basically, we are dealing with two opposing processes: places disappear, and they reappear! They return in an altered form and function. Apparently, the loss of the qualities of place is experienced as a lack of something. A need for places develops. This need is translated into a demand, which is answered with a corresponding supply. A market for places - and with this an accompanying 'place industry' comes into being.

9What type of places are these? What do they look like? How are they equipped? In the attempt to answer these questions, one comes across a particular type of place, which in and through itself represents the suggested contradiction between place and non-place. Places are produced which deny themselves as places, placeless places.

10But what is a placeless place? Well, it is a fiction or fantasy of a place, a kind of fata morgana. Placeless places are spaces that visually reproduce, anywhere in the world, qualities from arbitrary, imaginary or real worlds. They are physical, constructed, three-dimensional fictions.

11The most important raw material for the manufacture of these placeless places is ideal nature: it is mined from those deposits of the imagination which we know as fairy tales, novels, comics, painting, photographs, films and television programs. Just look at Disney World for an example of this. It is important to note here, especially in light of the future of our cities, that 'place industry' also makes use of images and pictures from real places, prominent buildings, streets and squares for example, the canals of Amsterdam, Saint Mark's Square in Venice. Even entire city ensembles or parts of landscapes are prospected for this raw material. Think about Disney World again, for example the 'Main Street' concept. A type of cultural mining industry develops, which instead of iron and coal, exploits pictures of spectacular nature scenes and attractive cultural details. The products of this branch are non-places which clothe themselves in the garments of place. I refer to these places as atopias, in order to highlight their close but complicated relationship to utopias.

12The distinction between atopias and utopias refers to the difference between reality and possibility. Utopias are places which exist nowhere (only in the imagination). They are pure possibility and therefore a force for changing reality. They represent the eros of the political. Atopias, in contrast, are realized non-places with fictional qualities. They are simultaneously real and placeless. They are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Whereas utopias, the stuff of which dreams are made, produce images of a better life in an imaginary world, atopias unfold themselves in the here and now. They are available and materially present and at the same time without any connection to place, location and region. They are the topological expression of the fact that in today's world, everything is everywhere at the same time. They are the socio-spatial harbingers of a very powerful but superficial society that is enslaved by pictures.

13With this term, sociology is reacting to a transition that is already in its advanced stages - the transition from the 'reason dominated' to the 'emotion dominated' modern age. According to this theory, people's actions today are no longer determined predominantly by reason, rather more decidedly by feeling. The 'homo oeconomicus' has transformed himself into a 'homo eventicus' and the rationalistic, fordistic consumer society has become a mood-governed affluent society. Whereas instrumental-technical aspects such as efficiency, productivity, functionality, objectivity, etc. have dominated until now, emotional factors like atmosphere, ambience, aura, flair and other dimensions aimed at the senses and sensibility are gaining influence. An object must not only function. It must also be appealing to the senses, even exciting or fascinating them. The head, whispers the postmodern 'Zeitgeist,' cannot be left to do all the thinking. The stomach thinks along.

14Event-orientation is a worldwide effective disposition of post-materialistic space production. If one asks how the eventistic society realizes itself in a spatial sense, then one comes up with the previously mentioned atopias. We refer to them also as 'event parks.' Hardly anything is produced today which doesn't legitimize itself through a more or less large experience value. Event parks are appearing everywhere. At first they are scattered islands, then archipelagos. At some point they will develop into mainland. It will no longer be possible to differentiate between world and event park.

15But just what is an event park? How can we picture this in our minds? Here is an example from the leisure-time industry, a typical European example, in my opinion: Until recently, the administrators of German municipalities were proud if they could provide their citizens with a public indoor or outdoor swimming pool. Such an offer was considered the expression of a social state concerned for the welfare of its people. If one carefully looks at these facilities from an aesthetic viewpoint, one is struck by the cold, clinic-like rationalistic design: the water basins are rectangular, inviting one to partake in athletic activity, if not even competitive sport. The other facilities make a hardly less rationalistic, sober impression: the changing cubicles are strung together by kafkaesque corridors, spartan benches flank the edge of the pool, and the grassy areas somehow remind one of a soccer field. Because pleasure is obviously dependent upon the relationship between the available and the feasible, we as children had our fun in these simple and not so expensive pools of the first generation.

16For several years now in Europe, the pools, or water parks, of the third generation (we've skipped over the second one) have been springing out of the ground like mushrooms. They are mainly found near major highways, easy to reach, located between several larger cities or centers of population. The core of these spacious facilities are huge domes made of steel or glass, underneath which tropical beach landscapes are reproduced. Water ripples over blue tiles, palm trees sway to and fro in the airstreams created by wind generators, the sound of birds chirping and other jungle noises resound from hidden speakers conjure up images of the equator. Carefully regulated air temperatures (29 degrees Celsius/84 degrees Fahrenheit) and an artificial climate deliver one from the moods of nature and the smells produced by the agrarian and industrial high-performance landscapes outside. Grouped around these South Pacific islands are service facilities of every imaginable kind, such as hairdressers, out-patient clinics, saunas and solariums, health clubs, recreational and sports facilities. Added to that are holiday bungalows, hotels, shopping malls with everything that goes with it, from the drugstore to the supermarket and of course any number of boutiques and restaurants - and sometimes even a church.

17If you believe the advertisement literature from these places, a virtual paradise awaits you. Violence, obtrusive poverty, losers must remain outside. The entrance fees, the house rules, the family-oriented profile (for instance the absence of accommodation for groups) and not least the private security forces ensure this. The water, walkways and other areas are always absolutely clean, and environmental problems are also left standing at the entrance door. As one guest commented: 'One comes here because it's just like in the tropics, only without the bugs, the foreigners and the dirt.' Everything is worked out to the last detail, finished, without wrinkles, perfect, smoothly-running, without any demands or risks, but enriched with carefully measured doses of sensation. The original was the dream of an island in the South Pacific. Now it is a three-dimensional picture in which one can walk and play, a manufactured fiction, a fake. In this designer world, dream and reality seem to be as indistinguishable as public and private. And concepts such as democracy and participation seem to be out of place here. Acts of individual self-expression don't take place. And why should they? Everything is already here! The water park is a fast-food landscape, waiting to be devoured in event-sized portions.

18Following the example of Holland and Belgium, numerous such pleasure-reserves are currently being planned, built and operated on Germany's North Sea coast. This shouldn't come as a surprise. One look at the dirty water and the blobs of oil on the beach is enough to put a damper on anyone's pleasure. Even the sun can't be enjoyed without harm - too little ozone in the upper atmosphere, too much in the lower! How can one not take delight in swimming in a synthetic water park with the sun setting over the North Sea in the background?

19Let's take a look at another example from the world of trade. The department stores of the old industrial society get their appeal from their clear organization, their wide selection of goods, their expediency and the convincing relationship of price to service. The decor is sober and reserved, in order to leave room for signs, advertising and other information. The rooms are clearly organized, with orthogonal passageways cutting through them. The sobering aesthetic of the rational dominates. This is especially well-documented by the so-called discount stores. Starting with the warehouse architecture, everything is oriented toward utility, efficiency and the minimization of costs. The spartanly decorated shelves with the opened cartons of goods, the primitive neon lighting and the chalk-white walls, the absence of personnel and a limited, never changing, reasonably-priced selection of goods add up to an ascetic ambience designed to serve mass consumption. The relentless charm of the assembly line, the series and the principles of scientific management have found their application here in the field of trade. Cash-and-carry markets are well-oiled, smoothly-running, fordistic machines designed to satisfy our needs. And based on the principles of the division of labor, they satisfy the demand accordingly: goods neatly and tidily divided into foodstuffs and consumer items: electronics, linens, books, music, fast-food restaurants, etc. No show takes place, because it could be seen as an attempt to hide something.

20How different in comparison are the department stores of the third generation! The mega-malls, as they are called, appeal not to reason but rather to emotion. They are aimed at the vanities and sensitivities of their customers, at their desire for fun and entertainment. The satisfaction of needs is in this case only a concomitant of the event. Accordingly, the mega-malls present themselves as highly-integrated arrangements which blend art, theater, music, food and drink, fitness and fun, diversion and an overwhelming selection of goods and services into a hyper-real cosmos of event and adventure. The 'cold,' economically-driven motives of organization disappear behind a scenery woven out of variety and spectacle, confusion and improvisation, moods and images. Form follows sensation!

21The organizers have studied their clientele they know for example about the dangers of overstimulation. Therefore the rooms are made rhythmic, in that zones of peacefulness and reflection follow areas of acceleration, cleverly playing off the buried or suppressed psychic disposition of the visitors. In the confusion of the hyperspace, spheres of familiarity are created, which through their design fulfill the wish for closeness and warmness. Imitated village, staged neighborhood, simulated pastorals and Mediterranean flair take up the latent desires of the visitors from suburbia and satisfy them for a moment. Images and memories from a long-lost rural life or from a repressed childhood are consciously used as a medium for moods. Form follows emotion!

22Recreated vacation dreams, visions from films, scenes from comics, etc. are found everywhere today. Alpine wild-water rides or climbing tours in the lowlands of Northern Germany are just as possible as a visit to a tropical rainforest near New York or a trip to the Caribbean at the polar circle. In Japan you can visit the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Hofbrauhaus of Munich, and in Florida or California you will find the neo-romantic castle Neuschwanstein. It's not difficult to imagine that the Eiffel Tower would lend itself just as well to imitation as the Römer in Frankfurt or the Campo in Siena. And yet the fairy tale castle of Ludwig the Second of Bavaria is itself only the fiction of a castle of the French Duke of Berry, as portrayed in a miniature in his book of hours by the Brothers Limburg. The Römer in Frankfurt is disputedly a postmodern fiction of itself. After the fall of the iron curtain, it's only a matter of time until the Wartburg, the baroque Elbe-silhouette of Dresden, the Krämerbrucke (merchants' bridge) in Erfurt or the Goethehaus on the Frauenplan can be visited in the Far East or in America as fake versions of the originals. Michael Sorkin quotes from an advertising leaflet for an American theme park: 'If you want to see Europe, take a vacation in Virginia ... It's all the fun of old Europe ... but a lot closer!' And when one poses the question, where is Hollywood located, the correct answer is: Hollywood is everywhere! In Germany, one can now greet Batman personally, and the same is possible near Paris with Mickey Mouse. The Wild West with its cowboy heroes and outlaws first visited us in the cinema, then they appeared on television. Today one can experience Texas, Colorado and Oklahoma live almost anywhere - as three-dimensional pictures, to enter into and touch. Even the European Middle Ages have announced their resurrection: on an area approximately 120 hectares (that's about 300 acres) near Berlin, a 'medieval cultural and amusement park' has been planned, complete with fortress, village and allmende (common land) from the 5th century, including jousting knights. A patent has already been applied for. Copyright landscapes and cities have been, since the Disney corporation invented them, a booming business.

23With Celebration (near Orlando, Florida), this same corporation has just put the first private city on the market. This city is entirely a product of imagineering. Whoever buys here acquires not only a house, but also a lifestyle. It arises from the old American middle-class dream of a clean and tidy house in the country with a garden, dog and family. Sitting in the town hall of this atopian city are employees of the Disney Corporation, who enforce design regulations and keep watch over the cutting of the lawns and hedges of the inhabitants, the inventory of the flower beds, and the condition of the house facades. There's no room for self-expression. Disney also has control over the hiring of teachers for the school. Even the streets are spaces of Disney's grace: private spaces which pretend to be public.

24The question is whether this trend is homogenous throughout the world. Is it the same in one place as in the other? Or will there be cultural, regional differences? Maybe the example of Euro-Disney near Paris is an indication. This project had enormous difficulty in getting off the ground in Europe and had to be massively subsidized by the French government in the form of land and infrastructure. What were the causes of these difficulties?

25There are probably several answers to this question. One answer could be that the Disney concept has a lot to do with the way Americans, whether rich or poor, black or white, dream the American dream. Disney World doesn't exactly fit in with the way Europeans see themselves. In America, the differences between lowbrow and highbrow culture are not as pronounced as in Europe. Theme parks à la Disney are viewed as culturally trivial. They are associated with the simple, unsophisticated working class masses, which already pose a problem for the middle class and are completely unacceptable for the elites. They obviously don't correspond to the way in which Europeans live out their legitimate need for personal and social distinction.

26Interesting insights into this are provided for example by the fierce debate on the participation of prominent architects as imagineers in American and European Disney projects. It was not just a few European architects who refused to take part in corresponding internal competitions - apparently because they feared damaging their image. Other European architects who did participate had problems getting their way, because they didn't meet American tastes. They just didn't have the right postmodern eros of imagineering. And others, like for example Aldo Rossi, Jean Nouvel or Rem Kohlhaas, were criticized of having sold themselves out to the trivial culture of the Mickey Mouse world.

27A very interesting (postmodern) question is whether this documented world-wide event-orientation will take on national or even regional forms. Will a European style of production and fictionalization develop? Will there be a Europe-specific imagineering, which differs from the Japanese, Latin, (South African) and possibly Oriental imagineering? It cannot be denied that imagineering à la Disney is a challenge to Europe. The need to legitimize such fakes is obviously larger on that side of the Atlantic. This expresses itself in the following way. When event parks are built in Germany, the regional ties of their thematization strategies are carefully examined. In a feasibility study conducted on a theme park with the name 'Faszinatura' near Dresden, great value was placed on the observation that the success of the proposed event strategy was also dependent on its 'credibility in the context of its location.'

28A European - maybe even a specific German - answer to the challenge of imagineering is possible and should be strived for. If the present traditions, carefully preserved since the Second World War, are taken into account, this could mean a careful and intelligent social-ecological regulation of private event parks. The state, which often performs a great deal of the preliminary site development work, has without question the possibility to exert its influence on the concept of theme parks. A modern, ethical, well-founded form of 'public-private-partnership' should also be pursued.

29In this way, the often insular character of theme parks could perhaps be averted in favor of a partial and theme-supported opening. This could be an opening to reality to existing landscapes and cities, to nature and cultural events, to the event qualities with which Europe has been so richly provided. An opening also to the dark side of reality in which we live. Why can't the art of imagineering be put into the service of making existing reality visible? Why only 'indoor-imagineering' and not 'outdoor-imagineering?'

30This thought brings me in conclusion back to the old European city, which, as we already noted, is too slow to fit into our fast times. But we can use our postmodern view, sharpened by our exposure to events, to discover a natural, pre-existing event potential. There we can find hundreds of non-private Main Streets and Celebrations, with public streets and squares, but nevertheless with such a big event value that Japanese and Americans are putting a lot of time, energy and money into copying them. We should not simply dismiss this trend toward event parks, toward spectacular productions, as postmodern nonsense. Rather, we should see it as a challenge to understand the urban and rural world in which we live as a world that can and should be designed according to an aesthetic point of view. Taking the postmodern challenge of imagineering seriously means in the end to again grant aesthetics (the sensory realization) its proper place. For a time, it almost entirely forfeited this place to reason and function. Imagineering cannot only be left to the bourgeois; it is also a concern of the 'citoyen.'