Illusionism in Architecture: Society of the Spectacle


Today I want to talk about Guy Debord's book Society of the Spectacle written in 1967. I have written two other articles about his beliefs and movement called "The Situationists." Below you can find said articles...

Voyeurism in Architecture Theory of the Derive


He was a revolutionary, writer and philosopher from the 1930s who conceptualized the sociological beliefs in architecture. About how one perceives space without preconceived notions of a site, and about psychoanalysis of the terrains.

For my current architectural project I have been looking more in depth into his concepts and I finally came upon one of his books called Society of the Spectacle, which deals with the changing relation between direct experience and mediated representation in modern times. Debord has a very negative view about the technological developments of the century, which for him serve for the individualization and separation of human beings and the reinforcement of exploitative class society under advanced capitalism.

For Debord, the "spectacle" is not a collection of images. The spectacle is however, "a social relation among people, mediated by images" (Debord, Ch.1). One of the key and most famous notions in Debord's Society of the Spectacle is the "obvious degradation of being into having... and from having into appearing." (Debord). What Debord is referring to is that architecture temporarily supports a passive acceptance of the environment. Architecture has the ability to confront its own crisis of spectacle by offering a different illusion. Maybe a different illusion while experiencing what is inside or an illusion of terrain.We must wake up the spectator who has been drugged by the spectacular images, and create active and radial actions in the form of the construction of situations.

Which brings us to the topic of Illusionism in Architecture. How can architectural devices which bring about the notions of illusion aid in altering perception, reality and experience? And how can this illusion counter the illusion of the spectacle talked about by Debord? A type of architectural device that could be used in this case is the cinematic illusion. Debord was a cinematographer in his time, and by creating many films and movies he himself was a creator of different realities that focus on the persistence of vision and the suspension of disbelief, creating mystery and awe.

People’s perceptions. Image by Kathryn Klesseck.   Source.

People’s perceptions. Image by Kathryn Klesseck. Source.

The Cinematic Illusion

Kathryn Klesseck, A Graduate of Architecture wrote an essay Architecture of Illusion where she talks about how Architecture and the Cinema are similar. These are summaries, in my own words and understanding, of her writings:

  1. Architecture has the ability to create a narrative for the user. Which results in the movement along various terrains and environments that also bring about a particular experience.

  2. Architecture is derived from sculpting time and space with materials and light. The experience of what comes out of this sculpture is the essence of what architecture is.

  3. The experience of space in architecture today is being neglected. Images and objects are the concern for architecture nowadays, something that makes the surroundings passive.

  4. The cinematic experience is formed by a narrative and movement of a still image. When this is applied to a design of a space, it creates an active awareness of space and time.

All in all, Debord means that nowadays social life has been replaced by single images that numb the individuals [society] and make life more passive. He believes that people do not pay attention to these situations to experience the environment around them. The spectacle does not really refer to glorifying a collection of images, but rather about creating a social relationship between the people and the images. So that individuals become more active in their engagement with architecture.


Illusions are devices that deceive, entertain and conceal. Illusionism in architecture transforms an experience by manipulating the person's perception of reality. These illusions dematerialize planes, change symmetry and make an element appear weightless. In architecture, the change of perspective can bring about great illusion characteristics.

A famous artist that has the ability to do this, whom I have also talked about in later posts (see Chichu Museum: Darkness Before Light) is James Turrell. He is famously known for working with light and space. He creates artworks that engage viewers with the limits of human perception. When the user is brought out of the reality of the world around them, they will be immersed in an experience.

Devices for Illusion

Devices include a different number of ways to create illusions in architecture. Starting from film projectors, which allows the illusion of movement in a movie to occur. Another one is Baroque Architecture, which brings about the exploration of light and shadow with dramatic intensity. These special effects used in those times are often presented as spectacles. Another device is perception and with that we can talk more about anamorphosis.

Anamorphosis is the distortion of an image which when viewed from a certain point, it can be seen clearly or even bigger. Such examples are the David by Michaelangelo, the Pantheon in Rome, and Escaping Criticism by Pere Borrel del Caso. Each of these artworks are said to be different when looked from the bottom rather than straight on. A person must lay on the floor and look up when looking at David and all other artworks talked about because it gives the impression of a bigger man, or of the kid coming out of the painting, and so on.

Another device for illusion is motion. Mies van der Rohe was one of the first individuals to study motion and how it plays an important role in Architecture. When translating this into an architectural device, the focus becomes how to construct and overlap a series of moments in order to give the sensation that space is continuously moving and shifting.