Applying Beaudrillard's Hyperreal

I am writing the curriculum for a media communications course at UTS College and one of the theories taught to students is ‘Hyperreality’. Jean Baudrillard, the French philosopher and sociologist, is well known for this concept that explains how a representation replaces reality, such that the simulated version becomes more real than the actual experience  (Beaudrillard, 1994). While this concept is often discussed in relation to media and technology, it also has architectural relevance.

Architecture is one of the most prominent forms of representation of the built environment. It shapes our world experience, and as such, it can construct our understanding of reality. Buildings are often viewed as symbols of power, status, or cultural identity, and their design reinforces these meanings. In this sense, architecture has the potential to present the hyperreal that blurs the boundaries between the real and the imagined.

The most obvious example of hyperreality is how architecture is marketed and consumed. Increasingly sophisticated photorealistic renderings for architectural visualisations create false realities altering the light, materials, activity, and even the weather. Photorealism makes it difficult to distinguish between the representation and the actual building. Like media that confuse viewers and leave them unsure of what is real and fake, these visualisations can lead to a disconnect between the expectations of the consumer and the reality of the built environment.

Many consider the work of contemporary architects such as ZHA to be hyperreal as they often use technology to create buildings that seem almost unreal. But those who think this misunderstand the concept. Baudrillard does not say that the hyperreal presents things that we cannot tell are real or not, it is about things that are better than the real. In the case of visualisation, the image represents a building that is better than reality. However, many ZHA buildings look just like their representations; they do not present reality with no origin, they are the origin of a new architectural reality.

A better, and scarier example of the hyperreal in architecture is found in theme parks and entertainment complexes. These spaces are designed to create immersive environments that transport visitors into a different reality. Disney World, for example, is a hyperreal space that presents a distorted version of reality through its architecture and attractions. The Magic Kingdom's Cinderella Castle is a prime example of this, with its exaggerated size and intricate detailing creating a hyperreal version of a fairy tale castle that is better than any real castle. Similarly, their Pirates of the Caribbean ride presents the life of a pirate that is far from the reality of 17th and 18th-century pirating.  Similarly, Las Vegas build versions of Venice and Paris that aim to be better versions of the original, with less flooding and fewer Parisians.

Using Baudrillard's concept of hyperreality to think about architecture is highly relevant. Like the media, the built environment has the power to present reality, and as such, it can also force us to question reality, for better or worse. Architects and designers should be aware of hyperreality in their work, but similarly, the general population need help recognising when they are served “a real, without origin or reality: a hyperreal” (Beaudrillard, 1994).

Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.