Sphere Eats the Soul

2024-06-19 17:11:4165
Aaron Timms , November 29, 2023

Sphere Eats the Soul

Architecture as entertainment A photo of the Sphere in Las Vegas, which is covered in LED screens showing a human eye.The Sphere in Las Vegas. | James Marvin Phelps
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For all the recent proliferation of buildings that look like concertinas, gherkins, shawarmas, and cheese twists, modern architecture remains a resolutely ectomorphic business. The tower is still the main game in town: supertalls and megatalls are pushing the limits of height-to-width ratios, and despite the post-pandemic shift to working from home, the direction of architectural travel in most of the world’s big cities is up, up, up. Circular and spherical buildings remain oddities in this densely vertical world. The sphere, as an architectural form, is a relic of the twentieth century’s broken idealism. The geodesic dome of Montreal’s Biosphere and the New York City Unisphere, for instance, were both built for World’s Fairs of the 1960s, while Walt Disney conceived of Florida’s EPCOT Center, with its spherical Spaceship Earth attraction, as a utopian planned community demonstrating the ingenuity and imagination of industrial capitalism. The Berlin TV tower, a giant ball impaled on a central shaft in the manner of a suicidal exclamation point, materialized both the universalist aspirations of communism and the terror of the East German security state. To build a sphere today, in an era suspicious of authority and anxious about the future, seems passé, quixotic. 

This shock of the old perhaps accounts for the almost universally euphoric reactions that have greeted the recent opening of the Sphere, the new globular concert venue off the Las Vegas Strip. But the Sphere—a structure so sure of its own geometric-historical importance it’s already awarded itself the distinction of a capital S—is no simple tribute act. Everything about the structure is big, designed to blow you away, both figuratively and literally: it’s the world’s biggest spherical structure, contains the world’s biggest LED screen, and boasts the largest concert-grade audio system on the planet (with 1,586 loudspeaker modules and 167,000 speaker drivers, amplifiers, and processing channels), while the exterior shell contains 1.2 million hockey puck-sized LED panels that can be programmed to create colossal image displays. These numbers are so impressively, almost meaninglessly gigantic they induce their own kind of statistical vertigo. 

Sphere Eats the Soul

The rhetoric accompanying the venue’s opening has been similarly grandiose. Billionaire James Dolan sketched the first design of the venue on notebook paper and provided much of the $2.3 billion needed to build the thing. He describes the Sphere as “a new medium,” while the venue’s website claims the Sphere “is redefining the future of live entertainment, allowing the foremost artists, creators, and technologists to create extraordinary experiences that take storytelling to a new level.” U2 played the opening night in late September, the first show in a residency that will extend to early next year; the media hailed the performance and its venue as “spectacular” (Variety), “utterly astonishing” (the Guardian), “a quantum leap forward for concerts” (Rolling Stone). But in many ways this structure heralds not an opening but a kind of end.

This is the city the Sphere wants: a city without silence, darkness, privacy, or secrets, a city of total display.

That’s because the Sphere is not so much architecture as “medium,” not so much a building as a giant, building-shaped device. Jumbo electronic billboards and super-sized cinema screens have been with us for decades, but this structure goes further: its entire fabric, both inside and out, functions as a screen. The Sphere’s inauguration represents the apotheosis of the screen as the dominant form of contemporary culture, heralding a future in which architecture will be not simply subordinate to the demands of the image (the starchitectural silhouette, the Instagrammable interior) but itself a single, continuous electronic display. After Elon Musk banned text-based headline cards on X, the Sphere’s enveloping visual blizzard provides further proof that for today’s tech and media elites, the image trumps all. 

In a spirit of tenupmanship, Saudi Arabia is now working on its own answer to America’s favorite new blob. Earlier this year the Saudi Public Investment Fund announced plans to build the Mukaab, a four-hundred-meter cube-shaped skyscraper in Riyadh that will become the largest built structure in the world, enough to hold twenty Empire State Buildings, and feature a giant central “experiential” entertainment cone that will “transport you to new worlds.” There’s something quite silly, of course, about this arms race to build the planet’s biggest next-gen IMAX—If you think the sphere is impressive, just wait until you see our cube!—but it speaks to a world in which reality, increasingly, is not only mediated through screens but experienced on them as well. In some ways the “experience” these controlled climates promise rings a little hollow; all experience now is experience through a screen. 

These structures claim to redefine the future, push boundaries, expand the possibilities of live entertainment, and so on, but their innovation is purely distributional. The content they put forward for public consumption is almost exclusively nostalgic and backward-looking, the realm of never-ending U2 tours, cutesily interactive Van Gogh and David Hockney exhibitions, and—in the case of the Mukaab—colossal holographic displays of spaceships, floating meteors, and giant humans dressed in bathrobes for some reason. The builders of these new spheres and cubes are part of the broader, ever-accelerating race to discover fresh forms for the delivery of cultural content, even as culture itself stagnates into a stultifying recursiveness. Perhaps, in time, artists will come along and make the most of the Sphere’s 1,586 loudspeakers, using them to create original styles and idiolects in the same way that the filmmakers of the French New Wave harnessed the lightweight camera to pioneer a new cinematic grammar. But it seems unlikely. Entertainment in the Sphere, as in so many other corners of popular culture today, will inevitably reflect the preferences and interests of the vanishingly few people with the means to finance it. A world of electronic encephalization awaits, in which art—or what’s left of it—gives up on its former aspiration to transcendence and becomes instead the domain of Burning Man-grade sculptural junk and soullessly impressive audio-visual “experiences,” an infantile theme park of ecstasy and effects.

Beyond the pinpoint accuracy of its sound system, the Sphere also includes a range of haptic controls that can shoot cold air, hot air, wind, and even various scents into the audience’s faces. Like casinos and prisons, the Sphere operates as an authoritarian zone of sensory management. Where the casino is structured to keep gamblers at the tables and prison is built for optimal discomfort, the Sphere is designed to induce a continuous, giddy delirium, a passive fascination with what’s unfolding on screen. Early reviews of the venue’s giant indoor space describe “insane” videos of desert vistas and mountains: “Just wow,” wrote one concertgoer under a video of U2’s Bono crooning “Without or Without You,” as the camera transported viewers through a jarring hellscape populated with vultures and flying snakes. But the more you look at the videos of these souped-up nature documentaries, shakily reproduced on TikTok and Instagram and utterly charmless in their tinny immensity, the more it seems clear they’re not a representation of the real world in any meaningful sense. Instead they’re a replacement for it. 

Everything is entertainment now, but the thrills of performance shrivel even as the screens that deliver them grow bigger, brighter, boomier.

The Sphere represents an important break from technology’s old annihilation of time and space; if anything it stages a re-distancing, a closing off, a retreat from the surrounding world. It is a world unto itself, a pulsing LED orb that offers escape, through precision sound engineering and visuals, from the increasingly uninhabitable biosphere that hosts it. Why experience the Sahara when you can experience the Sphere? Why care about what’s happening over there? It’s all already here. In the early 1990s, the urban critic Michael Sorkin described the emergence of a new kind of “ageographical” city, characterized by chain stores, uniform shopping malls and hotels, copycat gentrification, and the endless connection provided by satellite communications and cable TV. This new type of urban environment, familiar to anyone living across the United States today, represented “a city without a place attached to it,” Sorkin wrote. The Sphere, by contrast, is a space without a world. In this sense it’s a canonical venue for the online era, in which screens no longer bring us closer to the real but block it, constituting a separate reality. The screen of the Sphere, unlike the TV screen or even the screen of the early internet, functions less as a window or a portal than as a veil. Its transparency does not enlighten but imprison.

The one thing the Sphere does not offer escape from, of course, is itself. Even as it insulates those inside from the surrounding world, the Sphere projects itself aggressively into the Las Vegas sprawl. Paying visitors to the Sphere submit to the venue’s interior pyrotechnics voluntarily, but the far more consequential audience is the millions of people in the surrounding city who are involuntarily subjected to the Sphere’s optical blitz. On social media, video after video shows how the Sphere has instantly become an indelible, bombastic addition to the city skyline, a bulb with no off switch. The contrast with the neighboring buildings—drab, low-rise, and dozy—is especially stark; in the vision presented by these social media chronicles, it often seems as if the Sphere is a hyperactive child pestering the city into a state of permanent wakefulness. “I’m thinking that the Sphere may have come into existence because of Jim Dolan trying to solve the problem that The Beatles started when they played Shea Stadium,” Bono said on the opening night. “Nobody could hear you. You couldn’t hear yourselves. Well, the Sphere’s here. Can you hear us?” Like this dream of perfect interior acoustics, the Sphere’s exterior aspires to a kind of totalitarian visibility, a domination of the urban horizon. This is the city the Sphere wants: a city without silence, darkness, privacy, or secrets, a city of total display. 

Since it opened in late September, the Sphere’s exterior shell has been lit up as a sequence of enormous images. Most have been garishly innocuous: a basketball, a Halloween pumpkin, a cloudscape, a baseball emblazoned with the logo of the World Series-winning Texas Rangers. But a couple—a smiling emoji face, a giant blinking eyeball—position the Sphere not simply as something to be watched but as a structure that watches, a panopticon disguised as a monster TV screen. Blinking perkily on the horizon with an emoji grin, the Sphere recalls less the idealistic globes of earlier eras than an object that’s discreetly ubiquitous in public spaces today: the 360-degree security camera, hemispheric and all-seeing, its machinery of surveillance whirring away in the inky depths. Whereas the security camera, usually affixed to walls and ceilings, is designed to be small and unobtrusive, the Sphere, pressed into the lateral smear of the Vegas cityscape, goes for maximum size and visibility. It’s not a machine of surveillance in the traditional sense, but it’s so distracting, so insistently embedded into the city’s skyline, and so difficult to avoid looking at, that it effectively acts as a twenty-four-hour apparatus of visual control—a monitorin both meanings of the word. 

Wherever you are in Vegas, whatever you’re doing, the Sphere is watching, commanding your field of vision. It’s not simply a screen but a reflection of the way in which humans now interact with screens, the uses they seek to extract from them: it exists mostly to draw attention to itself. “This project proposed that entertainment was going to change forever,” Lionel Ohayon, the founder of the design firm behind the Sphere’s interior and lighting, said recently. “We looked at everything as a performance space, for the whole thing to be an activation.” But an activation to what? Everything is entertainment now, but the thrills of performance shrivel even as the screens that deliver them grow bigger, brighter, boomier. Structures like the Sphere take all the worst features of modern consumer technology—the addictiveness, the anti-circadian light pollution, the kitsch—and expand them to the scale of the city. This is architecture as engagement, the facade as marketing scheme, a culture of distraction for distraction’s sake made violently material.

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