In today’s experience economy, developers sell lifestyle choice in a sealed-off package.
Take the M or the L out to Bushwick. Wander through the patchwork urban fabric until you come across a bright sea of red, orange, and yellow frames: windows in a tetrising monolith that pixelates itself over the entire block. You’ve encountered 10 Montieth by ODA Architecture. It’s a new kind of beast for Bushwick, and an example of a burgeoning precedent for experiential living that is guiding the hand of new development in the city.
The rooms are tiny - that bright frame extruded 20 feet back is all that most studio residents are getting. But it’s not the room they’re paying for; it’s the endless list of amenities that builds a communal extension of living space outside of the apartment’s four walls. Gym with rock climbing wall and squash courts, dog run and pet spa, cafeteria, nail salon, art studio, and most importantly a sprawling multi-level rooftop; the listings for these units boast that residents need never leave the building. And the unsettling fact is that most probably won’t.
We’re living in an ‘experience economy’ whereby a shift from commodity production to the offering of services has led developers to create experiential amenity spaces rather than larger rooms for the storage of accumulated things. The term for this strategy is brandscape, and it was originally conceptualized to revitalize dilapidated downtowns in American cities. Brandscape creates an identity for a place and the people that encounter it by tapping into the unconscious desires of that community. In this way, a variety of services are packaged as a ‘lifestyle choice’.
The brand is no longer a static entity but is instead a living edifice that provides a transformational individualism and identity. However; that identity is not actually determined by the community, but by the participants in the market. It is packaged and sold, and then purchased and consumed by the community that it is constructing. The brandscape suggests that consumption engenders self-realization. For the younger generations that are interested in spending their money on experiences, and in flexible work schedules and environments, the concept of a living space that enables this ideal lifestyle is very enticing. These new types of developments, like 10 Montieth, attempt to participate fully in their residents’ processes of lifestyle creation by offering customized environments and services within the sealed-off space that is under the developer’s control. Every need is anticipated and serviced by the brandscape.
The issue with such a self-sustaining atmosphere is that within the brandscape’s structure of identity creation, there is the creation of the other. Those who do not fit the brand are kept out of sight and out of mind. And in the case that the brandscape is a piece of gentrifying development in a largely ungentrified area, the entire surrounding neighborhood becomes the other. This produces a carceral landscape of surveillance and exclusion, with the outside becoming heavily policed and the inside turning and existing only within. This is eerily present in the architecture of 10 Montieth, which is shaped like an “O” looking in on a central courtyard and turning its back to the immediate context. Residents can avoid taking their business to local laundromats, groomers, nail salons, gyms, studios, and even grocery stores or restaurants, as they have a cafeteria, vending machines, and lounge inside. That late night run to the bodega for a snack is a chance to meet the bodega owner, and to see the faces of neighbors. Instead, the sealed-off space of the brandscape serves all the needs of the consumer within, segregating them from others and contributing to social homogeneity and lack of diversity.
This is especially concerning in such divisive times. With the rise of neo-liberal models of deregulated governance and socio-economic polarization, we are left with a sense of weak citizenship. Identity at the level of community is simulated by the brandscape, but in truth it is destroyed by a heightened sense of paranoia. Those within the brandscape form a “community” of sameness, with those outside the brand kept at a safe distance.
Many are practicing a sort of ‘survival citizenship’ in isolation. In an atmosphere where everyone is out for themselves, striving for the ideal lifestyle can seem like the ultimate feat of personal endurance against the many obstacles of modern life. When in fact, most of the general population is suffering from varying levels of debt, poverty, incarceration, and insecurity about economic survival. This struggle occurs in isolation, and in fear of one another. That very fear is a technology of power crafted by the state. It is used during times of crisis or change in order to enable the reorganization of subjecthood. The resulting ‘atmosfear’ brings about a new reality that breeds paranoia and exclusivity.
Those seeking social reform are aware of the divisive strategies that are currently sweeping the globe in the forms of nationalism, xenophobia, etc. However, few are aware of the divisive strategies implemented by the brandscape at the level of individual lifestyle and identity. The brandscape models social reform as secession from society, promoting brand identification through the experience of a curated lifestyle within the brandscape’s control. Those that are enchanted by luxury experiential living must be aware of this insidious mix of progressive lifestyle aspirations (social reform, experiential living, workplace flexibility) and segregatory behavior. The threat of gentrification is not just the nomadic strife of artists, it is part of a greater neo-liberal stance that threatens to divide and conquer.
Al, Stefan and Krupar, Shiloh. “Notes on the Society of the Brand”. The SAGE Handbook of Architectural Theory (ed. C. Greig Crysler, Stephen Cairns & Hilde Heynen). SAGE Publications Ltd. (2012). p.247-273.