In his irresistible 1967 Play Time, Jacques Tati anticipated Jean Baudrillard by conceiving a city in which modernist simulacra had substituted for the “real” presence of traditional urban icons and representations.
Thus, the “real” Paris appears to a group of American tourists as only a transient mirror-image in some of the many transparent surfaces that invade the film. Samewise, the modernist slab appears throughout the movie as a repetitive symbol of the modern holiday vista – be it in Honolulu or Benidorm.
As my recent travels have confirmed, Macau is another rendering of this modern, global reality. As local architects claim that heritage and the traditional city image should be defended at all costs – even if as a tool for city branding – they tend to forget why the Chinese embrace modernism at such fast pace.
Modernity is, finally, more Oriental than Western. Modernity’s fleeting spirit is totally in accord with the Eastern philosophy of repetition and renewal, a way of thinking in which the “original” becomes unimportant and irrelevant.
So Macau bids farewell to its unique nature – that of retaining an ambiance of past cultural exchange, which would the opposite of Hong-Kong’s role modeling for the future – and embraces the spectacle of modern simulacra.
Casino culture, that is, corporate entertainment boosted by addiction, becomes the “real reality” – an economic reality that in Macau currently boasts the profits of already more than four Las Vegas put together.
Besides the city lights, the remaining urban context is but the lively stage set in which the personnel needed to oil the machinery of gambling generate a parallel, curious plot. And this is the old city, still interestingly displaying the complexity and layering of different urban pressures and cultures.
In the generic casino city that is occupying the new landfills, however, you can’t even delight in such plays of interpretation (and conflation).
The new Macau is straightforward decision-making based upon the American shopping mall, theme-park city model, i.e., a city which is destined for car use and is intrinsically hostile to public space, while mimetizing it as pure fake.
This is the city that was long ago condemned by Jane Jacobs, but only now is convincingly revealing its irrational unsustainability and expenditure.
In this sense, in all its glorious, decaying fascination, Macau’s mistake is not to have understood what even Beijing has already managed to grasp in spots like its ultracommercial Sunlitun Village: urban space is still best when it proves to be a machine to produce encounters – even if luck and play are also involved.
And to produce this machine one still needs architectural intelligence.