Cities leverage privately owned public spaces to make urban areas more livable. It’s a tradeoff between giving developers access to money-making property and providing citizens with parks the local government wouldn’t otherwise be able to construct. Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street’s hub, is an example. San Francisco has a number of them, which have become lunchtime destinations for office workers. Those areas have the feeling of being free to the public, but in reality a complex set of restrictions governs them. And not everyone is welcome—a point London artist Max Colson underscores in his series called Images of Enjoyment and Spectacle.
“The project is about the marketing of new urban spaces and the role of people within digital images,” Colson says. “[Renderings] promote this attractive vision of the new development—the new tower block with a park surrounding it—but when you look at the images, there’s a narrow group of people represented in them.”
The photorealistic renderings often depict gleaming buildings and lively landscapes filled with happy, middle-class denizens. But where is the medley of income groups, cultures, and ages that’s found in a city? (The sad fact of the matter is you’d be hard pressed to find a park in a major metropolis without homeless people.) Using Photoshop, Colson excises the architecture and the all-to-blue skies from renderings, leaving only the montage of people inserted into the constructed scene. He then fills the blank space with computer-generated pastel gradients. “It makes the theatrical nature of the images a bit more obvious,” Colson says.
Renderings have the power to shape the expectations of a development. To investors they can signal the project’s target demographic (rich people in a mall, profit to be made!). To the public they can reveal civic aspirations. John King, the urban design critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, pointed this out in a 2013 story on technology in the city for Architectural Record. He noticed how lots of proposed projects depicted only one social strata in their respective renderings and wrote: “…developers and government are betting the future on an urban uniculture, a city planned for exactly one segment of the population: lean, lithe Millennials with a taste for food trucks and cash to burn.”
Colson says similar forces are at play in London where social housing is disappearing, only to be replaced with condos and privately owned public spaces. Some of the luxury developments he’s referenced in his work include the Westfield Stratford shopping center, Canary Wharf district, Paddington Waterside district, and Olympic Park.
“I’d like people to look at my images and then think about the redevelopment of urban space,” he says. “There’s a level of social engineering involved that’s not immediately apparent in these images of new urban utopias. I hope people want to find out what makes this particular vision alluring, how it’s made, and what it represents.”
Nearly every image we encounter is manipulated to elicit a specific response. To the casual eye, a scene may appear normal. As Colson’s work shows, it never hurts to arm yourself with a dose of skepticism.