The Skyscraper Boom?

Almost every week, there is something worth linking to from the Economist. Last week’s issue contains a lengthy article on the Skyscraper Boom. But is this “boom” the Owl of Minerva spreading her wings at dusk? In my paper, Philip Johnson’s Empire, which I am finishing up for a forthcoming book based on the earlier conference, I ponder the question of the AT&T building, which is the last iconic skyscraper.

Top firms no longer need to aggrandize themselves with height. Instead, companies like Microsoft, Home Depot, and Wal-Mart shun corporate visibility in favor of anonymity, occupying faceless office complexes deep in postsuburbia, reflecting the banality of the products they market and the landscape that they have given rise to. To be sure, Donald Trump calls press conferences periodically to propose another (usually fictitious) tower, and builders from Shanghai to Dubai work like mad to catch up to the West as the last gasp of delirious verticality pushes westward around the globe. But the skyscraper no longer signals the kind of iconic importance it once did. Already in 1971, Archizoom founder Andrea Branzi observed that skyscrapers are an artifact of the past, products of a superceded form of capitalism and concluded that the day would soon come when they would no longer be built. In Branzi’s analysis, the concentrated metropolis was the product of a phase of Capital’s accumulation, a “natural” record of its accretion. The skyline, in turn, made visible that accretion, demonstrating the force of capital to the world. But with the city thoroughly connected by telematics and with capital having thoroughly colonized the world, Branzi concluded, the city has become a mere condition, the skyline superfluous, urbanity existing not as a physical entity but as programming or organization. (Andrea Branzi, “The Fluid Metropolis,” Andrea Branzi. The Complete Works. (New York: Rizzoli, 1992), 50-51.)

Cities will continue to attract corporations and individuals eager for the kind of dense variety of cultural life that only cities can offer, but they have ceased to be places in which corporations need to represent themselves architecturally, at least not in the manner by which Johnson’s building represented AT&T. If the city was once the foremost spectacle of production, it is now the foremost spectacle of consumption.

In other words, skyscrapers may be built, but they have lost their historical moment. Regardless of the boom, so carefully documented by the Economist, these structures lack the ability to compel us, something that the interminably boring (albeit at times horrifying) Freedom Tower process has demonstrated. Business has little need for innovative architecture. Instead, today’s large urban buildings of quality are generally temples of civic aggrandizement, structures such as the Seattle Public Library or the Guggenheim Bilbao (and the myriad other museums built since). But here too, we should tread with caution, for the discipline’s delirious embrace of Bruno Taut’s old idea of the Stadtkrone is not without its dangers. See Cathedrals of the Culture Industry and follow it up with a viewing of Fitzcarraldo.

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Is MySpace a Place?

Networked Performance pointed me toward an interview (download in PDF)with Networked Publics speaker Henry Jenkins and Networked Publics friend danah boyd about Myspace. The site, popular with teenagers, has become increasingly controversial as parents and the press raise concerns about the openness of information on the site and the vulnerability this supposedly poses to predators (Henry points out that only .1% of abductions are by strangers) and the behavior of teens towards each other (certainly nothing new, only now in persistent form). In another essay on Identity Production in Networked Culture, danah suggests that Myspace is popular not only because the technology makes new forms of interaction possible, but because older hang-outs such as the mall and the convenience store are prohibiting teens from congregating and roller rinks and burger joints are disappearing.

This begs the question, is Myspace media or is it space? Architecture theorists have long had this thorn in their side. “This will kill that,” wrote Victor Hugo with respect to the book and the building. In the early 1990s, concern about a dwindling public culture and the character of late twentieth century urban space led us to investigate J?ɬºrgen Habermas’s idea of the public sphere. But the public sphere, for Habermas is a forum, something that, for the most part, emerges in media and in the institutions of the state:

The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people come together as a public; they soon claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor. The medium of this political confrontation was peculiar and without historical precedent: people’s public use of their reason (?ɬ?ffentliches R?ɬ§sonnement). In our [German] usage this term (i.e., R?ɬ§sonnement unmistakable preserves the polemical nuances of both sides: simultaneously the invocation of reason and its disdainful disparagement as merely malcontent griping. (Habermas, 27)

Nevertheless, the salon, the café, and the parliament were key places that instituted this kind of discourse, and they succeeded the court, which was explicitly spatial.

But myspace and the new sites of network culture are different from the media of old. If they are””?in general””?not places of rational discourse, they are venues in which publics gather. Is myspace media? Yes. Is it a place, maybe? In my book, MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft definitely are. So do we exclude myspace just because it is not rendered in three dimensions? Are spaces media themselves? Are media spaces? Could be (think of the Seattle Public Library). I don’t have any easy answers on this, even as Anne Friedberg and I work on our essay for the upcoming Networked Publics book.

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