A Brief History of Horizontality

1968/1969 to 2001/2002

Pasajes de Arquitectura y Critica, March 2003

Kazys Varnelis

This article is the third in a series for the journal Pasajes de Arquitectura y Critica [Madrid] examining the relationship of a spectacularized contemporary architecture, the city, and capital. The other two are: “Hallucination in Seattle. Frank Gehry’s Experience Music Project,” Pasajes de Arquitectura y Critica, June 2001 and “Cathedrals of the Culture Industry,” August/September 2002.

The history of the recent world can be bracketed by two unexpected events that shattered the existing order: the uprisings of May 1968 and the destruction of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. Each marks our entry into another era, the bounds of which architecture and culture must set themselves to understanding. This article proposes to draw out the cultural ramifications of the contemporary moment by comparing it with its predecessor. Two architectural projects, Archizoom’s No-Stop City of 1969 and Foreign Office Architects’ Yokohoma Terminal, completed in 2002, will help us in uncovering the relation of architecture, capital, and the city today.

May 1968 marked late capitalism’s attainment of the world stage. As theorist Fredric Jameson describes it in his seminal essay “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” after World War II, capitalism entered a new, purer stage in which it came to permeate all forms of human life. Jameson cites economist Ernst Mandel’s understanding of late capitalism as that phase in which the most distant reaches of the globe and most archaic work practices had been reshaped by the industrialization of agriculture. Jameson continues, however, to suggest that the thorough capitalization of art, culture, and everyday life have led to a new condition in which there is no more separation between interior and exterior, even in the subject itself. Lacking any separation across which to express meaning and the end of any metaphysics of inside and outside, late capitalism would produce postmodernism, a cultural logic dominated by the schizophrenic play of the depthless, empty sign.

The riots of May 1968 were so shocking because they came largely out of nowhere: not in conditions of deprivation and oppression, but rather in countries – particularly France – that were largely social democracies, possessing a nascent culture of affluence. It is, however, precisely this satiated condition that drove the young revolutionaries. By the mid-1960s, capitalists had realized the limits of a production-oriented approach. The middle class had already had its desires fulfilled. Their needs for housing, transportation, food, clothing, even in-home laundry facilities and televisions had been accounted for and, as a result, consumption began to drop off. In response, marketers began to understand that only by fully colonizing everyday life, making the creation of the self something to continually perform and re-perform through the act of consumption could capital continue to grow. To this end, the proliferation of rock music, fashion, design, and art during the 1960s is the product not so much of a rebellion against the system from outside but of capital seeking new, more lucrative, and more sustainable channels of investment.[1]

The enragés understood this as they hurled cobblestones and Molotov cocktails at the police. May 1968 was not a rebellion to seize the means of production, but rather a last ditch attempt to regain control of everyday life – what one did outside the sphere of work – even as this was being utterly subsumed by capital. While the revolutionaries lost, the regimented channels of consumption associated with the culture industry of the 1950s were annihilated. The result was a new culture industry, able to engage and exploit the desires of the youth of the day for the transgressive, the avant-garde, and the pursuit of pure sensual pleasure. The emphasis on production and rational consumption associated with organized capitalism up until that point was now obsolete.[2]

Thus, if the World Trade Center was a product of its day, begun in 1966 and finished around 1972, it was an icon for a bygone era, a monument to an economy based on industrial production in a time that had left that economy behind. Never profitable, the towers were outmoded when first constructed. Their vast bulk attempted to accommodate the needs of office planning, which, under the pressures of the cybernetic theorists of Büro Landschaft became increasingly low horizontal structures, vertical circulation being seen as an impediment to communication. Corporate office parks on the urban periphery would soon supplant the office tower as the dominant typology of the corporate headquarters.[3]

In his 1971 essay “The Fluid Metropolis,” Andrea Branzi, of the radical architecture group Archizoom, based in Florence, Italy, argued that such skyscrapers were the product of a superceded form of capitalism and would soon no longer be built. In Branzi’s prescient text, the concentrated metropolis and the skyline was the product of one phase of the accumulation of capital, acting as a natural record of its accumulation. The skyline represented the capitalist system to an exterior but, with the loss of any uncapitalized exterior, the need for representation disappeared. Branzi concluded that the total permeability of the territory by capital and the growth of telematics would do away with the city as a terminus. No longer viable as a place, the city would become a condition, existing not as a physical entity but as programming.[4]

Archizoom elaborated on this in their 1969 No-Stop-City, an extrapolation of the postmetropolitan urban condition – that was simultaneously utopian and dystopian. By pushing Branzi’s diagnosis of the post-urban condition to a limit, No-Stop-City became amoral and without qualities. Modeled on the supermarket, the factory, and the horizontal plans of Büro Landschaft, No-Stop-City was envisioned as a “well-equipped residential parking lot” composed of “large floors, micro-climatized and artificially lighted interiors.” Without an exterior, these “potentially limitless urban structures” would be “made uniform through climate control and made optimal by information links.” Rather than serving to identify a place, No-Stop-City would be a neutral field in which the creation of identity through consumption could be unfettered.[5]

Much like the process of Freudian therapy, No Stop City was to serve as diagnosis and cure. To name the problem – that late capitalism had no use for the traditional city or for qualities of place and that the creation of the subject through consumption would to a new, less alienated form of homogeneity – would be to allow its supersession. The result would be a proliferation of sublimely useless objects connoting status and “architecturalness” through the applied facades of postmodernism and the spectacular fragments of supermodernism.

Branzi’s diagnosis was correct: the project of the city had come to an end, at least as far as architecture is concerned. The Twin Towers were among the last significant skyscrapers constructed in North America or Europe. Such construction has moved to the newer economies of Asia where it seems a record of capital’s achievements is still desirable, for now. Moreover, the pursuit of difference has led to a new homogeneity, if one in which alienation is experienced only nostalgically, as affect.

Fast forward by a generation. An architect and planning historian, the writer of a doctoral dissertation on “City Planning in the Syrian Town of Aleppo,” born in September 1968, Mohammed Atta leads a successful conspiracy to destroy the World Trade Center. If the spectacular nature of this attack is compelling, its aftermath cements the supersession of the capitalist metropolis.

The continued threat of such attacks – amplified in Europe by the targeting of the Pirelli Tower in Milan – means that nobody wants to work in such tall structures for fears of safety. While developers, architects, and politicians propose to rebuild the towers, the reality is much harsher: no insurance company would ever consider such a risk and few tenants, if any, could be found above the fiftieth floor. Corporations have understood that to be visible is to be a target, and not always of terrorism. If the most recent readily identifiable tower to be constructed in New York was Johnson/Burgee’s AT&T building of 1979, rather than ensuring the corporation’s place as a government sanctioned monopoly, the structure seemed to magically draw in the Justice Department to break up the entity which was then forced to sell the structure to the Japanese firm Sony. Visibility is no virtue in the late capitalist society: the first outrageously tall skyscraper of the twentieth century, the 792′ tall Woolworth building, completed in 1908, emptily symbolizes a chain of discount stores that closed in 1997, mainly due to competition from Wal-Mart which replaced the now-empty symbolic value of the towering corporate headquarters with the real economic utility of a computer database reputedly second in size only to that of the Pentagon.

Surely a symbol of the new economy would have been a better target than the outmoded structures of the World Trade Center, but where to find such an architectural icon? The suburban corporate headquarters of companies such as Wal-Mart, Microsoft, or Intel are deliberately outside of public view. Moreover, the weeks after 11 September demonstrated that the late capitalist economy is anything but reliant on the urban center. With its main offices uninhabitable after the destruction of the towers, The Wall Street Journal’s reporters and editors went online with their laptop computers to put out the next day’s edition. A month later, Dow Jones, the newspaper’s parent company announced that the Wall Street Journal would relocate half its staff permanently to New Jersey. And although Wall Street was closed for a week and many investment banks and stock trading companies, located in the towers, were destroyed during the attacks, trading reopened on September 17 due to the redundant systems kept off-site. Even Cantor Fitzgerald, a trading company that lost some 700 of 1000 workers based in the city because of the attacks was able to resume operations one week later.[6]

Having visited Manhattan three times since the attacks, I sense an unmistakable change in the city. The loss of the ever-present symbols of production of the World Trade Center together with the remarkable cleaning-up of the city over the last decade has made it much more a European historic core than the American production-machine it once was. Endless shops and bistros with chalkboards outside, entire stretches of the city converted to an upscale shopping mall underscore the shift in the city from a center of production to a site of consumption. It is no accident that the most talked about structure opened in Manhattan during the last year is OMA’s Prada Store.

Al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks failed to destroy the world center of capitalism. Its collective psyche was shaken and damaged to be sure, but beyond a few billion dollars of losses and an ominously deepening recession, capitalism was unaffected and the markets resumed operation swiftly. The failure of the attacks to do sustained economic damage validates Archizoom’s predictions: it is the invisible, placeless world of the network and the database, now indistinguishable from capital itself, which characterizes this second phase of late capitalism.

If Archizoom’s No-Stop-City was a prophecy for the future, our current period seems to be singularly averse to such thoughts. In hopes of better understanding our contemporary condition, however, we could turn to one architectural prophecy of the present that specifically sets out to deal with the relationship of architecture and late capitalism, Foreign Office Architects’ Yokohama Terminal.

To begin our discussion of this project, we start with the observation that the structure’s relationship to the visible – and to prophecy – is particularly fraught. In the seven years since FOA won the competition, images of the virtual Yokohama Terminal have been reproduced to the point of overexposure. Accompanied by a relentless celebration of the Terminal as the first product of a new generation of very young, computer-driven practices, these images force us to pit the reality of these drawings, or rather, renderings, against the reality of the building. Given that the built project and the renderings both stem from the same computer model – modifications for construction aside – then the Yokohama Terminal has already existed for some time now.

But not entirely: now that the defamiliarizing effect of the enigmatic renderings of black silhouettes on a deformed gridded field has worn off and become familiar, it is an astonishing physical quality of the structure that strikes us. Shrinking down and away onto the water, the structure pulls the observer out onto the surface. But these are the qualities of a bridge or highway, not a building. The Yokohama Terminal distinctly fails to develop a façade or any kind of iconographic quality. Far from being a shining exemplar of the new, Maya-driven era of the blob – if that era will ever arrive – the project is anti-formal, indeed, anti-appearance, infrastructural rather than architectural.

click here for built images of the Yokohama terminal at archined

Toyo Ito, who served as one of the jurors, understood the infrastructural nature of the building and applauded it. In contrast to the common reading of the Yokohama Terminal as a virtuoso work of formalism, Ito suggests precisely the opposite: “In this proposal the concept of façade does not exist. É In contrast to this posture [the monument exemplified by the Sydney Opera House], the proposal by [FOA’s] Zaera Polo and Moussavi formulates an architecture where the form hardly has significance. It could be called an “architecture without exteriors.'” [7]  For Ito, the Yokohama Terminal acts as not a self-sufficient entity but rather as a state between two geological conditions, the undulation of the slabs creating a union between fluid ocean and solid land: “The architecture is nothing more than a point of passage, an instrument of change of velocity between modes of transportation or aspects of nature.”[8]

The reconception of the building from monument to infrastructural mediator is FOA’s response to the competition brief’s urging of designers to consider the project as ni-wa-minato, a mediation between the local condition of Yokohama and the global flows of the cruise ships and between the garden and the harbor.[9] Thus although advocates of Maya-driven architectural form point to the Yokohama Terminal to validate their visions, FOA saw the project’s goal of mediation realized not through form but rather through the materiality of the object. FOA writes: “Our proposal for the new Yokohama terminal aims for an artefactual rather than a representational mediation between the two elements of the concept.”[10] In this, FOA distinguishes themselves from other surface-complex architecture, arguing that they conceive of architecture as “not a plastic art, but the engineering of material life.”[11] Echewing the spatial effects of Frank Gehry, who sees himself as a master-builder, attempting to implement his vision as directly as possible, FOA’s focus is on building program and the process of construction: “our main priority is to produce consistency in the process of construction and material organization.”[12]

The Yokohama Terminal points toward a reconsideration of contemporary architecture and its relationship to the city. The era of the architectural spectacle is past. Even in the most celebrated case of spectacular architecture, the Guggenheim-Bilbao, what is really remarkable is the alliance of private and public capital that made the project constructable. The dominance of the visual over the last decade is a rouse, a last irruption before architecture turns to the less visible, but more real, work of engaging with the programme and with organizational processes of construction. FOA’s Yokohama Terminal announces the emergence of an immaterial age in which we come to reject our frustrated world of objects for programming, much as Archizoom suggested we would a generation ago. As philosopher Jacques Derrida points out, “Form fascinates when one no longer has the force to understand force from within itself. That is, to create.”[13] The shimmering masterpieces of the avant-garde are only a sublime distraction from the real obsolescence of architectural form today and the clear direction that leads past it.  [1]Thomas Frank. The Conquest Of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, And The Rise Of Hip Consumerism. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

[2]On the transformation of capitalism from the regimented production of Fordism to flexible consumption of post-Fordism see David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity. An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Basil Blackwell, 1989).

[3]Eric Darton, Divided We Stand: a Biography of New York City’s World Trade Center, (New York: BasicBooks, 2001).

[4]Andrea Branzi, “The Fluid Metropolis,”  Andrea Branzi. The Complete Works. (New York: Rizzoli, 1992), 50-51.

[5]Archizoom Associates, “No-Stop City. Residential Parkings. Climatic Universal Sistem” Domus 496, March 1971, 49-55.

[6]John Ellis, “The Hard Truth About New York,” Fast Company, January 2002, 99.

[7]Toyo Ito, “Yokohama International Port Terminal, Architecture without Exteriors,” “Terminal del puerto internacional de Yokohoma,” Arquitectura sin exteriors,” 2G 16 (2000), 86.

[8]Ito, 87.

[9]Foreign Office Architects, “Yokohama International Port Terminal” “Terminal del puerto internacional de Yokohoma,” “Arquitectura sin exteriors,” 2G 16 (2000), 88 [note: to translator, see original 2g article for proper Spanish text]..

[10]Foreign Office Architects, 88.

[11]Alejandro Zaera-Polo, “Rollercoaster Construction”, Verb 1 (Barcelona: Actar, 2001), 14.

[12]On Gehry’s position see my “Hallucination in Seattle. Frank Gehry’s Experience Music Project,” Pasajes de Arquitectura y Critica, June 2001

[13]Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 4-5. I am indebted to my colleague Karl Chu for pointing out this quote to me.

Images of Yokohama Terminal courtesy Lev Manovich

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