Images of the Urban as a Paradigm of Postmodernism

The city has been the favorite symbol of contemporary modernity and sensibility. The city that emerged with the industrial revolution is linked to progress, to the monumental nature of the new buildings linked to banking, business, industry and transportation.

The construction of large boulevards, gardens and commercial galleries, as a place of consumption, leisure and expansion of the new bourgeois citizen, has given way in recent decades to a city as an expression of the global in tension with the local. Metaphor for an image of advanced capitalism, which creates new maps of dissolution, articulation and exclusion, more within the order of the chaotic and uncontrollable, of the unplanned and in constant transformation. Faced with the idea of a city rooted in the territory, an expression of a collective political will, the idea of a “networked city” with globalization is presented. Each city is a node of the topological framework of capitalism: a node of economic networks, of investment, of power decisions, of migratory flows

A city without limits (which are built with an infinite horizon both horizontally and vertically), on a planetary scale of urbanization of the territory, where overcrowding prevails.

This urban typology was defined in 1961 with the term Megalopolis, by the French geographer Jean Gottann, with an essay of the same title to define the urban area where several cities converge with others creating large areas called “conurbations” of more than 10 million population. The first one he defined was the Northwest coast of the United States. A city that to be covered has to be seen from outside the earth, from the satellites that orbit around the planet, an extra-planetary look.

A decentralized metropolis, with a strong split between the commercial core of the large megacities with their peripheral expansion.

A landscape where the anonymous citizen becomes the protagonist. A citizen who lives monotonously, often marginalized and alienated, devoured by that landscape as a “non-place” (dormitory cities, urban centers for commercial tourism, airports, metro stations, etc…), where the monotony of what prevails. repeatable, aseptic and healthy. Although this not so pleasant and negative vision already existed in the last decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th, there was still a very romantic attraction (of the abyss) regarding this new experiential space.


Andreas Gursky

We propose an itinerary through works from the Helga de Alvear Collection where the presence of the city from different points of view, from different poetics of gaze, is highly significant. Images of the urban as an expression of postmodernity, of society and the contemporary individual, used as a space for essays and criticism, from documentary and conceptual points of view (Ed Ruscha and Thomas Ruff), but at the same time seen from very personal poetics and intimate (Martin Boyce). The city is no longer something stable (James Casebere), but is defined by a continuous flow of gazes (Pierre Huyghe), in constant growth and transformation (Frank Thiel and Andreas Gursky), demolition, ruin (Gordon Matta-Clark, and Miyamoto) and urban chaos (João Penalva), where non-standard uses of merchandise traffic and consumption arise (Francis Alÿs).


The North American city of the sixties of the 20th century will be the exponent of an undifferentiated functional urbanism that reinterprets the monumental values of the historic city with others of a consumer and commercial key, to propose a visual perspective and space as new monumental values. In this case, Los Angeles will be the paradigm of this new conception of the urban, where the conditions for the movement of cars are optimized. Large areas are paved to accommodate highways, parking lots, while pedestrian space was reduced to a minimum.

Ed Ruscha (Omaha, 1937)

Ruscha, born in Omaha, moved to city of Los Angeles at the age of eighteen, making the city the main reason for all his pictorial, photographic, and publishing work. Ruscha conceives the urban space of Los Angeles linked to the vision that one has of it, not as a pedestrian, but as a motorist, a medium more in line with how the city of cinema is perceived and experienced. An urban space linked to this means of locomotion that configures the way of seeing the landscape. He breaks it down into typological forms that describe the way of life for Los Angeles residents (apartments, boulevards, gas stations, parking lots, swimming pools, real estate, palm trees).

The Ruin in the Postmodern City

The romantic evocation of the ruin, of the passage of time through its trace in the deterioration of the buildings, has been suppressed in the postmodern city. This concept has no place in it. The ruin is getting closer to the present, a kind of planned obsolescence of the buildings that come to have no value, only because of the place they occupy in the urban framework, because of the real estate value of the land where it is located.

These obsolete buildings do not have time, in many cases, to become a ruin and they are demolished in a violent and spectacular way. The long period in which the aesthetic side of the ruin could be seen is annulled in short periods of time. Rosa Olivares points out that “…in the ruins of our present all this symbolic load cannot exist, since it does not come from the past, there is no time between the ruin and ourselves.”

Frank Thiel (Kleinmachnow, 1966)

One of the artists who reflects on the new statute of ruin will be the German photographer Frank Thiel. Coming from East Germany, he moved to West Berlin in 1985. His own experiences and interest in the emergence of a new political space within the urban structures in transformation in the German capital, have led him since 1995 to capture the new urbanism and architecture. that was taking place in Berlin after the fall of the wall.

His photographs of buildings under construction and demolition, full of cranes that set the rhythm of the composition, are a reflection of a city in permanent transformation. The image of the city becomes a tangle of cranes, scaffolding, metal mesh, which has wrapped the city like a fabric, like a kind of simulation of reality above the territory. A kind of constructive palimpsest that eliminates or blurs the historical and territorial aspects of the city.

Globalized urbanization

As a Catalan urban planning professional, Jordi Costa, points out, “Urbanization is not a city” and goes on to say that “The emerging city is diffuse, with low densities and high segregation, territorially wasteful, not very sustainable, and socially and culturally dominated by perverse tendencies of ghettoisation and dualization or exclusion”. An urbanization model that has spread throughout the world, where planned urbanism is absent, house styles overlap, and where nature has been tamed. An unsustainable lifestyle.

James Casebere (Lansing, 1953)

The work of James Casebere has adopted the point of intersection between photography, architecture and sculpture to give shape to a work that adopts simulation as a strategy aimed at introducing the viewer into ambiguous and evocative environments, which produce an effect of strange familiarity. The photographs of inhabited models of him establish a game between illusion and reality as a vehicle to create a critical method of representation that injects political and historical narratives, from the effects of globalization to relations of social control.

The Landscape with Houses series recreates the residential areas of the Dutchess district, on the outskirts of New York. In the images that compose it, we see this idea of global urbanization of the territory, where nature has given way to residential areas where the architecture of single-family homes is combined with artificial green areas, created for rest and enjoyment, grass meadows, artificial lakes and small forests. An urbanization that creates what has come to be called in Anglo-Saxon terminology as Urban Sprawl.

The “non-places”

The citizen of today’s large metropolises increasingly lives and spends more time in the so-called “non-places”. Places of transit, waiting, or movement (roads, metro stops, train stations, airports) configured everywhere in the same way, mainly because they are functional spaces.

The ethnologist Marc Augé defined these non-places in his book Non-places. Spaces of anonymity (an anthropology of supermodernity) defining these common features:

  • They are spaces built for certain purposes, such as transport, commerce, leisure…
  • They do not generate stable organic social relationships. We could summarize it with the phrase “everyone goes to their own”.
  • There are contractual relationships essentially of an individual nature, by means of a transport ticket or passing through a toll or control of passage.

Fischli & Weiss (Zúrich, 1979-2012)

One of those “non-places” is the main theme of the photographic series by the Swiss artist couple Fischli & Weiss called “airports”, carried out over a period of twenty years where they have collected more than a thousand photographs of various airports through which they have passed. throughout the world. In them we see how the same planes, hangars, platforms, catwalks, windows are repeated, seen from the point of view of the passenger who lives with these bland, empty and impersonal spaces that have been created precisely because of man’s desire to “catch the world”.

As Rem Koolhaas points out in The Generic City “Airports are beginning to replace the city. The transit condition is becoming universal. Airports, all together, contain populations of millions of people […]”.

Resistance Modes

One of the paradoxes that occurs in today’s large megalopolises are the aspects or habits of resistance of the local or popular in the face of the normalization and standardization that the global imposes on them. It is something singular in the image of the postmodern city, where multiple and combinatory mixtures of ancient and modern elements are produced, which create contradictions, in relation to certain objects, merchandise and ideas that inhabit the current city.

This tension between the global and the local will be perfectly exemplified in the work of the Belgian artist Francis Alÿs, a resident of Mexico City and whose much of his work reflects on how this city is inhabited, one of the clearest exponents of these new megacities.

Francis Alÿs (Amberes, 1959)

The images that make up the work “Ambulantes” were taken by Alÿs in Mexico City where he lives, and are focused on capturing street vendors and merchants who move and sell their merchandise through the streets of the city, reflecting a human typology that mark the landscape. It shows us a form of movement of merchandise typical of the city, foreign and in resistance in relation to other globalized forms of transport that are trying to be imposed on the city.

Other examples in the collection