The Age of Spectacle: Adventures in Architecture and the 21st-Century City. By Tom Dyckhoff. Random House; 378 pages; £20.

IN 1977 the state of New York hired Milton Glaser, a graphic designer, to help improve its image. Undoubtedly, it needed a lift. Wealth had been escaping New York City for years. Manufacturing had fled to cheaper sites and crime had filled the gaps. Mr Glaser’s simple I NY logo marked the beginning of an economic and social revival so dramatic that Ed Koch, the mayor, was able to declare: “We’re not catering to the poor any more…there are four other boroughs they can live in. They don’t have to live in Manhattan.”

“The Age of Spectacle” by Tom Dyckhoff, a British architecture critic, is the story of the transformation of cities from the dense manufacturing hubs of the early 20th century to the consumerist meccas they are today. He begins with Jane Jacobs and Ruth Glass, two social scientists who spotted that middle-class youngsters in 1960s London were refusing to move to the suburbs as their parents had done. This was driven both by the “stifling conformism” of life on the outskirts, and, according to Raphael Samuel, a historian, by a love of “values inherent to the dense, historic city, whether its aesthetic form, its layers of history, its ability to somehow encourage neighbourliness or its sheer excitement.” Mr Dyckhoff notes the casual manner in which Ms Glass defines this behaviour as “gentrification”, identifying a movement which he believes became “the most significant force in Western cities in the second half of the 20th century”.

Gentrification might have proved a passing fad, had it not been for favourable government policy and economic trends. The author identifies the role of restoration grants and right-to-buy schemes in cementing the movement. But he is also good at deconstructing the myths that surround gentrification: “Nothing did the job better of simultaneously rooting you, distinguishing you, emancipating you, investing your money in something safe, but risky enough to stimulate dinner-party conversation—and displaying it for all the world to see—than buying a shabby little warehouse or townhouse downtown, and getting the builders in.” From this point onwards, housing was given a wider purpose than providing shelter; it had to reflect its owners’ identity and make them money.

As cities began to compete more aggressively for investment and employment, they were forced to distinguish themselves. This, according to Mr Dyckhoff, was what lay behind the wave of grandiosity in public architecture, his age of spectacle. But it is also here that his argument loses focus. He marvels at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao designed by Frank Gehry, puzzles at Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI gallery in Rome and is alienated by Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV building in Beijing. It is not clear if he believes that the movement to create eye-popping buildings in public spaces is a good thing, or if it depends on the architectural merit of each construction. He is wearied by contemporary bridges that insist on the function of crossing becoming an experience. “No bridge can sit there quietly, keeping itself to itself. It has to be interesting.” Mr Dyckhoff seems to be afflicted by what Mr Koolhaas calls the “Dubai icon paradox”: “When everything looks so wildly different, it ends up looking all the same.”

He has a sharper vision of where architecture is heading. He notes the challenge of working with heavy, permanent materials in a digital age defined by speed and agility. In response, architecture has gone on “a crash diet, losing kilograms, countless tonnes”; interiors have been stripped back in order to cater to every potential occupant; a building’s skin has become more important than ever. In Munich Mr Dyckhoff visits Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron’s football stadium. Clad in partly translucent plastic blisters embedded with strips of light, “the entire façade glow[s] like a low-resolution TV set, bearing the team colours.” Here he sees a building that transcends its weightiness to communicate to its users, and finally finds a thrill in the experience.