02 March 2013

Towers of speculation

The construction of the world’s first one-kilometer building took a step forward last week with the announcement of a project manager. If completed, the Burj al Mamlakah (Kingdom Tower) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, would stand 170 meters taller than the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, currently the tallest building in the world by a wide margin. If you stood New York’s Chrysler Building on top of Chicago’s Sears Tower (aka Wesley Willis Tower), you would still have to add the tallest building in Boston, the Hancock Tower, to reach the planned height of the Burj al Mamlakah. If you put Shanghai’s second-tallest building, Jinmao Tower 金茂大厦, on top of the city’s tallest building, the World Financial Center 球金融中心, it would still fall about 90 meters short of the Mamlakah.

The explosion in supertall buildings seems to have barely taken a breather after the global financial crisis. While there were casualties in Dubai, Moscow, and Chicago, others have quickly stepped into the void. What will be the world’s second-tallest building (640 meters), Digital Media City Landmark Building 디지털 미디어 시티 랜드마크 빌딩, is being built in Seoul with an expected completion date in 2015. But the Ping’an International Finance Center 平安国金融中心, under construction in Shenzhen, will almost immediately eclipse it at 660 meters. The following year Seoul will reclaim the number two position with the Dream Tower 드림 타워 (665 meters). Meanwhile, proposed buildings in Baku and Kuwait would both be taller than even the Burj al Mamlakah. World One Mumbai (442 meters) will be almost 200 meters taller than India’s current tallest building; the Shard in London (310 meters) last year became the tallest building in the European Union; and Moscow’s Mercury City Tower/Меркурий Сити Тауэр (339 meters) will this year become the tallest completed building in Russia.

As if we needed any more evidence, the meteoric revival of the skyscraper boom signals that the agents of neoliberalism have changed nothing after their first brush with death. Skyscrapers are one of the most concrete expressions of the abstract movements animating a speculative society. They map the motion of capital spiraling upward into thin air, seemingly unmoored from all physical constraints. They represent the extreme inequalities of a society animated by speculation, as the ultra-rich escape from the debased masses milling about in the sprawl or the slums, into the rarefied precincts of their towers: the corporate office suites, the requisite luxury hotels, the extravagant restaurants and bars “in the sky”. The soaring verticality of the buildings mirrors the assent of the winners in this society over the losers, or the skyrocketing fortunes of the speculators.

The pattern is hardly new. As soon as the building of skyscrapers became possible in the late nineteenth century, they started to proliferate in the financial centers of New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. As the Roaring Twenties flew towards its disastrous conclusion, the impulse to build ever-higher towers intensified. Three New York buildings started at the height of speculative fever on Wall St successively seized the position of world’s tallest building: the Bank of Manhattan Building in 1930, the Chrysler Building only weeks later, and the Empire State Building in 1931. All three were completed only after the motor of speculation driving buildings ever higher had violently torn itself apart in the Crash and the Depression.

Fordist society, on the other hand, glorified not individual competition but cooperation within the collective, not social differentiation but homogeneity, not the vertical but the horizontal. It produced far fewer skyscrapers—the Empire State Building remained the world’s tallest building until Fordism was nearing its end in 1971, and only a dozen or so towers built around the world in the years 1949-1974 vied with the tallest buildings of the 1920s-1930s—compared with several hundred built in the 1990s and 2000s. Just as telling is the architectural contrast. The soaring vertical lines of Art Deco that reigned during the 1920s gave way to the resolutely horizontal lines of the dominant postwar style of Mies van der Rohe and his imitators, imprinting in steel and glass the social imaginary of the age. Neoliberalism began with a phase of architectural mystification known as postmodernism during the 1980s and 1990s (or the clunky B-movie sci-fi style that prevailed in China during the 1990s), but over the last two decades showpiece architects have returned with a vengeance to the abstract verticality first expressed in Art Deco.

Rockefeller Center, New York: the verticality of the late liberal period.

IBM Building, Chicago: horizontal, homogeneous, Fordist.

Rendering of the Shanghai Tower (under construction): neoliberal verticality.

It is no coincidence that the skyscraper serves as the perfect symbol of the speculative society. Very practical business considerations drive these towers up into the air. After productive outlets for investment have dried up, capital increasingly flows into unproductive sectors like real estate, inflating huge speculative bubbles that drive the price of land ever higher. As the price of land soars, its profitable use dictates the piling up of ever-more saleable space along a verticle axis. The skyscapers are, of course, clustered together in the principal centers of speculation, either the primary financial markets like New York, London, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, or in those states enriched by speculation on the world’s indispensable commodity, oil. It is only in these cities that the global elite congregates, so it is only in these cities that the tremendous expense of building skyscrapers can find an adequate return on investment by attracting some share of the bloated bank accounts of the elite. The winners in the speculative society will part with some of that money in order to set themselves apart through association with these monuments to exclusivity.

Yet there is also an impulse beyond market considerations, an aesthetic gratification in the spectacle of height. The sensibilities nurtured within a speculative society are drawn to the skyscraper’s verticality. Perhaps there is an unconscious apprehension of the skyscraper as a symbolic representation of the social totality, but at a higher level of awareness, the skyscraper becomes an object of desire because it is preeminent. The speculative society is obsessed with competition. By virtue of its extreme inequalities, the absurdly lavish rewards bestowed upon its winners, the extreme degradation suffered by its losers, and the completely arbitrary standards by which these are distributed, the only vindication for success becomes success itself. In the world of architecture there is no greater success than to peer down upon all those who are lower.

The question is whether those planning all these new supertall buildings will ever have the chance to enjoy such a feeling of supremacy—can speculative growth last long enough to see their plans to completion? The heroic efforts of the governments of the world and especially their central banks may have revived speculation as the motor of growth for the global economy, but it stands on no more solid footing than it did in 2007. In a speculative society capital seems to have broken free of the corporeal body imprisoning it—the commodity—and to have realized at last the movement to infinity inherent in its very concept: value generating ever more value. This is possible because, as Marx wrote, “Circulation bursts through all the temporal, spatial and personal barriers imposed by the direct exchange of products, and it does this by splitting up the direct identity present in this case…into the two antithetical segments of sale and purchase.” If the gap between these two—for example, the gap between the sale of a financial asset and the realization of its value through the steady flow of revenue it makes a claim upon—“proceeds to a certain critical point, their unity violently makes itself felt by producing—a crisis.”

After the towers of speculative capital come crashing down, their material counterparts, the skyscrapers, will still mark the horizon. But they will stand as monuments to the impossible dream of endlessly increasing inequality and excess.

1 comment:

  1. Good, insightful entry. I know Chris Arthur makes a similar argument in an essay that appears in "The New Dialectic and Marx's Capital."