Urban Syndecdoche and the Disappearing City: A History of Object-Index Design


Introduction While browsing “online” for wallpaper for a home project, I came across a wallpaper sample that captured my attention. Titled “Cities Toile (Parchment)” the product displays drawn images of buildings (fig.1). To the makers of this wallpaper, the cities –as indicated by the product name- were reduced to singular images of buildings: Hagia Sophia, was presumably Istanbul; the Eiffel Tower, Paris; Sydney Opera House, Sydney and so on. This visual associative exercise demonstrated our propensity and capacity to reduce mental maps of entire built environments into single spatial objects. The wallpaper is a clear illustration of the idea of urban synecdoche and the disappearing city. Urban synecdoche is the phenomenon in which a discrete spatial object conceptually replaces the environment in which it is exists. One of the effects of the phenomenon is that many designers inspired by precedent and current media, regardless of global location, approach spatial practice as stand-alone projects whose urban context is at most accidental and at worst, irrelevant; an object located in, but separate from, its contextual matrix. In its detached state the object, i.e., a building becomes a spatial index-type object. , The problem with this practice is that the index’s mediatic recognition presents an inversely proportional relationship of awareness of its contextual environment, i.e., the city, town, or any settlement in which it exists. Thus, the success of the object as an index promotes a disconnection between object and its context. Sometimes, the disconnection occurs gradually: displacing the urban context into a background role and eventually disappearing altogether from consciousness; other times, the object enters the imagination as a standalone object from its inception. Taken to its logical end, the city becomes a curio cabinet of objects whose main function is to be a collection of objects. As the mental image of the city becomes a collection of parts, particularly in the minds of the main city shapers like architects, landscape architects and planners, awareness of the urban totality decreases in favor of object-oriented spatial production and away from a cohesive and unique sense of urban identity. One significant result of this spatial practice is that, because spatial production embodies socially-constructed value systems, the semiotically coded spaces produced by urban synecdoche reveals a society’s spatial identity which prioritizes index-objects, rather than holistic built environments. The phenomenon of urban synecdoche is synchronous with urban social and technological development. As the pace of globalization has accelerated, from regional conquest and trade thousands of years ago to the modern technologic continuous “space of flows,” contemporary manifestations of urban synecdoche are now endemic to the entire world. Spatial producers, e.g., the state, patrons, and designers, compete on a worldwide stage to attract attention. It is unclear if urban synecdoche originated as an intentional strategy by spatial producers or because of the human need to navigate landscapes. What does seem to be clear is that urban synecdoche requires a codependent relationship: spatial producers depend on an audience that demands and consumes index-type objects; spatial producers are rewarded (fame and fortune) for generating objects that fulfill these memorable experiences -often at the expense of their contexts. This essay explores this codependent relationship and its impacts. First, the essay examines urban synecdoche as a result of human spatial cognitive processes. Second, the work explores the pervasiveness of this phenomenon by noting salient examples of urban synecdoche grouped thematically: wayfinding, power projection through monumentality, and image dissemination. These themes are then correlated to the emergence of cultural, political, technological and market conditions in various historic eras. Third, and finally, the text discusses the impact and implications of urban synecdoche on contemporary spatial production.