Reinhold Martin: Financial Imaginaries – Toward a Philosophy of the City

Kaucyila Brooke, Alma Mater, five-channel video installation, 2009.

Kaucyila Brooke, Alma Mater, five-channel video installation, 2009.

For over a century, the social relations of the metropolis have been linked analytically to capitalist circulation, a link that is still clearly audible in the term “global city.” This applies in both the narrow, deterministic sense that would privilege the mechanisms of techno-economic globalization, and in the broader, more inclusive sense that would assign to social and cultural processes a semi-structural role in shaping the pulsations and interchanges of economic life. In either sense, the city itself seems to stand as a receptacle, a sort of archaeological site for holding these dynamics in place long enough and firmly enough to study them in all their complexity.

This scenario was inherited in part from the great thinkers of modern, metropolitan experience, from Simmel to Weber to Benjamin, with Marx and Engels just over the horizon. Their cities, Berlin and Paris, with London, Moscow, and New York just outside the frame, gave the term “metropolis” its phenomenological texture. For his part Benjamin, reading Baudelaire, was able to imagine the Parisian arcades as paradigmatic of the circulation of both commodities and dream images through the interstices of “modern life,” primarily through the literary device of allegory. This insight would eventually be inverted and transformed in that same city into the Situationist dérive, with the help of which a later cohort of urban thinkers, from Lefebvre to De Certeau, would draw their lines in the sand: sous les pavés, la plage.

But this tradition, which extracted general principles from what late twentieth century urbanists would eventually call the “historical center” of European cities (for which the barricades of May 1968 are an ironic emblem), has become a rather quaint, if not entirely irrelevant, vantage point from which to approach the “world around” dynamics of today, to borrow a term from the idiosyncratic lexicon of Buckminster Fuller. We can let Fuller stand here as a late representative of the counterproposition, incipient in modern architecture and urbanism and thoroughly manifest in mid-century modernization discourse and the policies and practices that it generated, that the modern city was a node in a much larger network that could only be apprehended and managed from above. Just as the inside-out, bottom-up view of the city and of modernity in general, from Benjamin to the Situationists, was enabled by technologies of perception that ranged from the reading glasses of the dandified, pedestrian flâneur, to the plate glass in which the arcades were enclosed, to the vividly painted panoramas that destroyed perspective and enfolded distant horizons, so too did the aerial, eventually planetary view have its technical media. These also had partial roots in the European nineteenth century, in aerial photography (as Benjamin intuited) and in imperial cartography, but they would only be fully expressed in the multi-screen, computerized war rooms of the Cold War, mirrored in the control rooms of NASA or the Soyuz programs, and eventually miniaturized in GIS and Google Earth.

The globe, as a dynamic object of perception and manipulation quite distinct from its antecedents in the history of cartography, is a prerequisite for the concept of globalization, and the design problems that it generates, from the problem of visualizing in real time the rapid pulsations of “world around” financial markets to the problem of predicting long term weather patterns, are its materialization. However, it is important to recognize that historically, our two vantage points, from the street and from the control room, develop simultaneously rather than in sequence. Though it may be tempting, therefore, to assign to each a valence—negative for the dominating, leveling perspective from above, positive for the situated, everyday perspective from below—and hence to oppose them as two terms in a dialectic of modernization, we would do better to recognize the inherent limitations of the analytical frame thereby described.

This requires a theorization of media that exchanges the eschatology of a McLuhan or, for that matter, the millenarianism of a Baudrillard or a Virilio, for the rigorous materialism generally associated with the term “archaeology” as elaborated by Foucault and others. The archaeological perspective, which emphasizes the interaction between ways of seeing and ways of knowing, including the politics embedded therein, demystifies the endgame that opposes the street to the control room. Far from harboring a ludic freedom diametrically opposed to the panopticism initiated by Haussmann, the street in all its iterations has become a privileged realm of microphysical surveillance. While the control room (and the corporate-state apparatus to which it is appended) is not merely an a priori of despotic power; it is, like Bentham’s empty tower, a vacuum with theological antecedents, and therefore subject to a demystification as thorough as that accomplished by Zarathustra and his mountain.

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About fifty years passed before interpreters of modern architecture, such as the historian Manfredo Tafuri and his colleagues in Venice, most notably the philosopher Giorgio Cacciari, had internalized the Simmelian/Weberian analysis of the modern metropolis. Ironically, perhaps, by this time that very sociological tradition had been transformed, particularly in the North American academy, into the systems sociology associated with Talcott Parsons, or later in Germany, with Niklaus Luhmann. Thus the asynchronic character of strategic “interdisciplinarity”: lines of thought engaged in untimely exchanges. In this case, Tafuri’s and Cacciari’s trenchant decodings of the metropolis by way of the itineraries of the modernist avant-gardes were made possible by an earlier sociology of the city that was at the time being absorbed into the very same systems model from which the Italians recoiled in the architecture, city planning, and politics of their own time.

Much was learned from these decodings accomplished in the 1970s, which concentrated on the fundamental negativity of metropolitan experience, and hence on the helplessness of the revolutionary or reformist avant-gardes when confronted with the full force of capitalist development. Nevertheless, their historical field of vision was restricted to the northern transatlantic, and they did little to account for the pulsating, dynamic globe that echoes through the term “globalization.” In the hands of someone like Fuller, who remains an anomaly for many historians, and whose eccentricities are paradigmatic rather than exceptional, this globe was a system of systems to be designed and managed. In that sense, we might even say that the geodesic dome and its underlying databases are to the “global” or “mega-” city what the arcades, street signs, and curios were to the modern metropolis. Not only because Fuller’s dome optimized the mass production techniques that Benjamin, reading the architectural historian Sigfried Giedion, saw in the iron and glass enclosures of his Passagen. And not only because the geodesic dome, as an air-conditioned space frame built (more often than not) for the military-industrial complex, represented the purest, most Platonic instance of the airy claustrophobia sublimated into the glass-enclosed corporate lobby. But also because it was, first and foremost, an object of the architectural and urban imaginary projected at the scale of the planet, and realized in the great, cosmological tradition of Western dome-building since the Renaissance: an object that was entirely rational and entirely magical at once.

Understood as media, such objects can be seen through to reveal the dynamics of a world that otherwise appears exterior to them. Gazing through them as we might a crystal ball oriented toward past and future at once, we find ourselves with what seems like an entirely different set of problems, posed from an entirely different set of vantage points, from those that confronted early twentieth century metropolitan thought. Still, to learn from that thought is to learn to read the control room as though it were the street, and vice versa. Architectural analysis can accomplish this, but only if it updates the toolkits inherited from the European avant-gardes and their philosophers. Among these is the device, and the phenomenon, known as “abstraction.” Abstraction is modern architecture’s answer to circulatory capital, wherein the supposed lifelessness of the commodity form is given an aesthetic language of its own. Not the Werkbund or even the Bauhaus, but the Bauhaus Corporation, which was set up to enable the circulation of the various lamps, household fittings, and pieces of furniture prototyped in Weimar and later in Dessau, would be its most fitting representative. Alongside this in the urban realm might stand the Siedlungen, or functionalist, middle class housing estates built outside of Berlin and Frankfurt during that same period to train a multitude of Simmelian strangers in the protocols of mechanized domesticity.

But how, if at all, does the abstraction that we associate with modernization continue to operate aesthetically in today’s cities, and not only in those architectural artworks characterized by a degree of self-consciousness unavailable in the urban scene more generally? Is this merely a question of progressive, sequential development, whereby the synchronized, geometrical “mass ornament” that Siegfried Kracauer found in Weimar-era spectacles and the factories that supported them, is now to be found in the repetitive hum of business inscribed into Shanghai, with the Siedlungen replaced, in the imaginary and on the ground, by the hundreds of cities by which the urbanization of the Chinese countryside is now being accomplished? To be sure, there is insight to be gained from such a transposition. However, not only does its developmentalist narrative (from Berlin to Shanghai) leave too many symptomatic assumptions intact, it fails to recognize the historicity of abstraction itself, along with associated concepts like disenchantment (and re-enchantment), or alienation and estrangement.

We could begin instead by collecting a set of worldwide architectural “equivalents” to circulatory, global capital and its many outgrowths and mutations, in a manner similar to what Fredric Jameson has done with his Benjaminian reading of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles. Still, though Jameson offers many clues, we would not yet have fully approached a central transformation in the history of modern (and modernist) abstraction. That is, quite simply, that the mimetic relation between architecture and the city, figured unconsciously in the arcades and semi-consciously in the Siedlungen, has become an apparent non-relation. In other words, the relation between architecture and the city has become abstract. And the aqueous dreamworlds of the modern, European metropolis in which the outlines of an entire epoch could be discerned in distorted form, have not simply been frozen into the opaque mirror-worlds of postmodernity so poignantly captured in the self-referential corporate hotel. As Jameson intimates but does not fully develop, they have been displaced onto a different plane, to which architecture provides only indirect access. So we cannot be content to compare the hotel lobbies of Pudong circa 2000 to the hotel lobbies of Berlin circa 1930. Instead, we must read architecture and urban form not only as tangible, material evidence of the abstraction of modern life, but also as abstraction itself.

Take Mumbai, or New York. In many ways these two cities epitomize the workings of what we can call the financial imaginaries of globalization, which we can think of as a modification of what Simmel called the Nervenleben, or “mental life,” of the modern metropolis. Financial imaginaries are cultural constructions through which circulate other cultural constructions, like “money,” “credit,” and “architecture.” All imaginaries belong to the realm of social practice, and my use of the term relies on its development in the work of such figures as Cornelius Castoriadis, Benedict Anderson, Arjun Appadurai, and Charles Taylor. Taylor in particular has emphasized the practical dimensions of what he calls “modern social imaginaries” in making sense of social institutions in a way that enables these institutions to work. The “economy” is one such institution, but the workings of what we can call “the imaginary institution of architecture,” especially with respect to the socially-produced experience of the “economy” as a collective, social institution, is still not very well understood.

To begin with, we must be clear what we mean when we expand the notion of social imaginaries—which again, I take to mean all of those everyday ways in which a society imagines itself as a society—in the direction of cultural or aesthetic practices like architecture. Like social practices, cultural practices help to define what we mean, for example, when we speak of finance capital, which is widely understood as a key factor in shaping “global cities” and “mega-cities.” Finance capital courses through skyscrapers and slums alike; its presence or absence defines these physical forms but is also defined by them. As the raw material out of which what Appadurai has called “finanscapes” are made, finance capital is much more, but also (by virtue of its abstraction) much less, than the sum total of the material goods and services in which it ostensibly trades. It is, strictly speaking, imaginary, though in a very real and practical sense rather than in the sense of a mere ideological illusion. It circulates differently in Mumbai, New York, or São Paulo, constructing relationships between cities while defining each city’s relative uniqueness, and the different conflicts and communities that each city harbors. In this and other respects, architecture and urbanism form one element in a complex network of cultural practices that make financial globalization—and, by extension, its crises—not only visible but also imaginable (and therefore possible) to begin with. Or to put it more bluntly, in today’s cities, the construction and circulation of cultural meaning through architecture and other aesthetic forms is a primary characteristic of political-economic processes, rather than a secondary effect.

In this give and take, site-specific particulars constantly trade places with general axioms, in a process that can best be described philosophically. Here I again refer to Simmel, whose work contains much in it that can be called philosophical. In particular, Simmel’s famous essay of 1903, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” extrapolates a set of principles regarding the modern (and for him, Western) metropolis in general, out of the empirical qualities of early metropolitan life. These qualities include permanent restlessness, nervous energy, mechanical movement, and a heightened sense of abstraction associated with the money economy. For Simmel, these elicit a sort of archetypal psychological reaction on the part of the metropolitan subject, which he calls a “blasé attitude.” And in an equally important essay of 1908, Simmel designated as the bearer of this attitude “the stranger,” a prototypical urban figure who, as Simmel says, “comes today and stays tomorrow,” without ever really settling down or fitting in.

These ideas were, in turn, based on arguments that Simmel had developed in his magnum opus of 1900, The Philosophy of Money. There, he argued that the forms of abstract monetary exchange associated with industrial capitalism found their social equivalents in a generalized objectification of everyday urban experience that reflected “the calculating character of modern times.” Recent events in the world markets, tied as they are to the financing of real estate, should make clear enough the contemporary relevance of Simmel’s philosophy of “money,” though it should be equally clear that today we are speaking of a credit crisis rather than a monetary one. But it would be a mistake to limit one’s understanding of these events, and of the historical context in which they have occurred, to a kind of crude economic determinism, whereby harsh economic realities have finally broken through the phantasmagorical screens of globalization materialized in such metaphysical constructions as “iconic buildings” and writ large in places like Dubai or Abu Dhabi. Instead, we might look more closely at those architectural and urban ciphers in which the logic or syntax of the global economy, which we can now describe as the syntax of credit, becomes visible. Because, far more than in Simmel’s time, during the recent phase of accelerated growth, relationships between two forms of abstraction, architecture and credit, have structured our understanding of the contemporary city.

In New York as elsewhere, one result of this discursive restructuring has been the elevation of the private real estate developer to near-mythical status, as occurred in the wake of 9/11 with the intense media attention lavished on the World Trade Center’s developer-owner, Larry Silverstein. And, as also occurred with the subsequent architectural competition for Ground Zero, this fetishizing of the developer has been accompanied by a comparable elevation (if we can call it that) of the architect to the status of a kind of movie star, especially in the case of the so-called “signature architects” who now populate the international scene. Generally, the relationship between these two phenomena is very poorly understood: the rise of the developer and the rise of the signature architect go hand-in-hand, but not only in the sense of one serving as client or patron for the other. Much more significantly, and following Simmel, I want to argue that the rise of these two iconic figures has something to do with a certain, hidden religiosity that architecture and money still share, a religiosity that becomes clearer when we recognize the hidden affinities between so-called iconic buildings and the visual icons that characterize many but not all religious traditions. These affinities are based on a common language of “faith.” To the extent that the financial crisis is ultimately a crisis of faith, in the crypto-religious sense of “faith” in higher forces, such as the self-regulating, autopoetic financial markets that seem to lie outside of human control but are nevertheless constructed as benevolent, this language acquires the force of law. In the context of a city like New York that has witnessed an intense privatization of its physical infrastructures as well as of its civic discourse, declarations of faith give us a way into the problem of the abstract relationship between architecture and money, understood at a philosophical level.

We have also heard many times now that half of the world’s population lives in cities. What we have not heard much of, however, is how the consequent growth in cities around the world fuels another kind of competition at the level of the urban imaginary. At that level, cities are largely imagined in terms of naturalized cycles of growth, much like living organisms. This is an old story, which correlates with the supposed “laws” driving various local, regional, and inter-regional economies toward unlimited (and typically, under-regulated) expansion. Thus the recent competition between developers and architects in different cities to build the tallest building in the world is not merely a question of egotism; it is the logical, symbolic fulfillment of the organicist myth of unlimited growth: the tallest tree in the unsustainable forests of expansionist capital.

So far, then, we have the idea of a quasi-religious “faith” in the markets, accompanied by an economic organicism—the supposedly natural “law” of unregulated, competitive expansion. But the crux of Simmel’s philosophy of money lies in the interplay between abstraction and objectification. In his account, money is by turns what we would call today a floating signifier and a concrete social (and technical) form. In that sense, we can call money a concrete abstraction. Disregarding Simmel’s ambivalent tendency to resolve the contradictions that are laid bare by his own work, this is of particular relevance to his description of persons engaged in an exchange of credit. He describes such persons as united in what he calls a “new, more abstract and comprehensive synthesis.” This synthesis is paradoxically defined by increased distance as well as increased proximity. Rather than exchanging goods or even cash, people here are exchanging credit. As a result, they must trust one another more intimately than if they had exchanged more tangible things. Here is Simmel’s further explanation:

“In credit transactions the immediacy of value exchange is replaced by a distance whose poles are held together by trust in the same way as religiosity is more intense the greater the distance … between God and the individual soul in order to call forth the most considerable degree of belief so as to bridge the distance between them.”

Thus, the more abstract markets are—the more difficulty we have, say, in understanding today’s credit markets—the more they require emotions like trust, belief, and even a quasi-religious faith to function. Moreover, just as the concrete abstractions of the money economy allowed Simmel a window onto the inner, psychic life of the modern, metropolitan subject, so too does architecture, analyzed in a particular way, offer a window onto the psychic life of the post-modern, post-metropolitan city dweller, a psychic life that, however, has now moved largely outside, into the light of day.

Though it may seem, however, that those who live in what Mike Davis has called the “planet of slums” remain relatively indifferent to the mathematical abstractions on which this economy is built, they too are subject to them psychically, and not merely as depersonalized quanta. Take the Slum Redevelopment Authority (SRA) in Mumbai, which oversees the implementation of so-called Slum Rehabilitation Schemes (SRS) such as the one currently proposed for Dharavi, which is famously Asia’s largest slum. First, it is necessary to understand the intense pressure on real estate in Mumbai, which is at the heart of this legislative effort to incentivize the private sector to “solve” the city’s massive housing crisis while simultaneously releasing valuable land for speculative development. By law, the SRA treats every slum structure existing prior to 1 January 1995 as a protected structure, and every inhabitant of such structure is eligible for what is called “rehabilitation.” Rehabilitation proceeds as follows (as described by the SRA):

“1. A minimum of 70% of eligible slum dwellers in a slum pocket come together to form a co-operative housing society for implementation of Slum Rehabilitation Scheme. (SRS)

2.  The underlying land is used as a resource for the SRS.

3.  The slum dwellers appoint a developer for execution of SRS.

4. The developer puts in resources in the form of money, men and material for construction of free houses for the slum dwellers.

5.  The developer is compensated for his efforts in the form of free sale component.”

In other words, the developer is effectively “hired” by the slum dwellers such that he may legally exploit them, by treating their claim to housing as a form of property that can be traded, rather than as a political right that is administered by the state. In return for replacing every eligible slum structure with a 225 square foot bare minimum tenement unit (a material improvement on the existing shanties, to be sure), the developer gets development rights on what amounts to 50% of the land occupied by the slum. And such deals are indeed made, with much political gamesmanship and bullying, simply because Mumbai’s real estate market has made them quite profitable, and is very likely to continue to do so in the foreseeable future.

In addition to contriving to make it seem like the market simply takes over from the state in providing for the basic needs of the population (which even the developers admit is impossible for the city as a whole), this scheme has built into it a curious urban and architectural contradiction. For it does not so much resolve the underlying class conflict as abstract it into a general principle. A vivid example of this is to be found in the pair of luxury high-rise residential towers designed by the architect Hafeez Contractor on a slum-rehabilitation site in Mumbai’s Tardeo neighborhood. This is not a particularly accomplished work of architecture, and indeed, for Hafeez Contractor architecture is a game that is played to win rather than a refined art form. In this case, the game involved making the SRA legislation work on the site by balancing the socio-economic demands of the luxury real estate market against the political demands of slum dwellers. The result is a monumental fissure running right through the site that divides the very wealthy from the very poor. The architecture of the building, which consists mainly of overwrought, neo-Deco ornamentation above and functionalist regimentation below, is used simultaneously to produce and to cover up this fissure. But more importantly, despite the domineering posture of the project’s twin towers, their architecture and that of the “rehabilitated” slum over which they hover stand starkly separated from one another not only for their contrast of garish to humble, but essentially, for their contrast of an architecture (that of the towers) that attempts to communicate and another architecture (that of the tenements) that does not.

Conventionally, this would be described as a contrast of figurative to abstract. But it would be more accurate to describe the project’s stark, built-in divide as the result of an abstraction of another sort—a higher level of abstraction comparable to the abstractions of credit. Since credit, as we have just been reminded, is built around trust, belief, and a quasi-religious faith—in this case, the faith that the real estate market will resolve the city’s housing crisis. Moreover, the classic movement from use value to exchange value is turned on its head here. Exchange value, in the form of luxury real estate, is made to seem capable of yielding surplus use value, in the form of the utilitarian tenements. This inversion, which is also the principle according to which many “public-private” partnerships work, naturalizes the politico-economic proposition underlying the SRA legislation, by repositioning the slum dwellers (and by extension, the “public” at large) as beneficiaries from whom the markets ask only trust and faith. Enabled by the state, the market thus takes over as the biopolitical agent par excellence, and the slum dwellers are caught in a double bind of paternalism and primitive accumulation. In terms of urban realpolitik, they are also pitted against one another and forced to engage in Faustian bargaining for additional square feet based on the leverage acquired by holding out. Thus the slum rehabilitation scheme taken as a whole can be described as a fetish: a quasi-religious object with seemingly magical powers that, like Fuller’s equally metaphysical domes, is the product of rational calculation, rather than its opposite.

It is uncontroversial to suggest that, in cities like New York but also around the world, architecture has more generally become a kind fetish for the speculative real estate market. What may be more controversial is to say exactly what this means. Since for architecture, it means buildings that inspire faith. In other words, it means iconic buildings, the degraded form of which these Hafeez buildings are paradigmatic.

The culture industry in which such buildings operate is managed aesthetically by a broad spectrum of producers, at the far end of which stand any number of “signature” architects, such as Jean Nouvel or Frank Gehry. And while the associated phenomenon of accomplished architects working with large developers is not particularly new, during the first decade of the twenty-first century it has been elevated to a new kind of norm. Rather than being the exception (marked, for example, by the association between I.M. Pei with the developer William Zeckendorf in the late 1950s), the thought that architecture as an art form is not only possible under the global real estate markets, but is actually stimulated by them, has become commonplace. The most articulate architect working on or around this problem remains Rem Koolhaas. But here too, even Koolhaas’s self-conscious irony is limited merely to reflecting the mainstream identification of architecture with finance capital, as in his firm’s imaginative yet quite accommodating parody of the market-driven desire to maximize residential floor areas under strict zoning regulations in a recent proposal for 23rd Street in Manhattan.

Faced with such a juggernaut, we are forced to ask how architecture actually works—especially as an artwork designed for the urban real estate market by architects like Koolhaas. But I have already alluded to the beginnings of an answer, and therefore to the beginnings of what we might describe as a philosophy of the contemporary city written from an architectural perspective. Today, architecture still works the way it has for millennia: as a fetish, an object with special powers, the prime example of which is a religious object, like the hundreds of temples, churches, and other religious monuments that constitute the foundation of any given architectural canon, whether Western or otherwise.

But what does it mean to understand the relationship between architecture and capital as, at least in part, a religious one? It means, again, that this relationship is not just a matter of patronage (the developer as client) or of analogy (that, say, the virtuality of contemporary architecture somehow mimics the virtuality of contemporary finance), though both of these are factors. Nor does it simply mean that Architecture (with a capital A), costly though it is, is now considered profitable, along the lines of a model promising higher returns per square foot that was actually invented in the 1980s in Houston by the developer Gerald Hines in collaboration with Philip Johnson. Instead, it means that, as with Hafeez Contractor’s SRA scheme, architecture has become more than just a useful object turned a commodity in the earlier, Marxian sense.

Under the conditions of European industrialization, Simmel and his interpreters, including Frankfurt School critics like Benjamin and Kracauer, took up the increasing degrees of abstraction of the money economy, and especially, the increased distance between humans and their artifacts introduced by commodification. Following Marx to a certain degree, these analysts saw commodification as a process of objectification—the conversion of useful objects into alienating abstractions, whose main attributes were quantitative and numerical. Commodities were manufactured in large quantities in anonymous factories, stored in anonymous warehouses, and sold in anonymous department stores. Moreso than Simmel or Weber, Benjamin and Kracauer were able to see that this entailed not only a process of disenchantment (i.e. of abstraction, and of objectification), but also a process of re-enchantment. Thus Benjamin’s fascination with the dreamworlds harbored by the shopping arcades, which could properly be described as temples of commodities that anticipated the newer, more mythic, and more visibly enchanted department stores themselves.

But if the combination of these two earlier building types—the department store and the arcade—would eventually yield the shopping mall, it is unclear that today’s malls carry the same sense of enchantment for today’s shoppers. Instead, in another turn in the cycle of disenchantment and re-enchantment, these have given way to representations of sheer quantity, sheer enumeration, as in the big-box megastores strewn across the suburban United States and beyond. But these spaces, like the mathematical or statistical techniques that structure many academic attempts to analyze the urban phenomena to which they belong, are hardly neutral. In fact, seen together with a general fascination with all things gigantic or indeed “global,” the new tendency toward quantity can be said to conjure something like a mathematical or statistical sublime. Here, of course, I am referring to the “analytic of the sublime” formulated by Kant in the late eighteenth century in his third Critique, The Critique of Judgment. There, as is well known, Kant, following Edmund Burke, distinguished the category of the beautiful from that of the sublime, arguing that “in the case of the beautiful our liking is connected with the presentation of quality, but in the case of the sublime [it is connected] with the presentation of quantity.” Kant thus defined the “mathematically sublime” as follows: “We call sublime what is absolutely large.”

For Kant, the sublime is pure quantity, so terrifyingly large as to exceed comparison to any known and graspable object or, as he says, “large beyond comparison.” Where beautiful things are finite and therefore, can be framed and represented, whether in painting or in architecture, the sublime is infinite and by definition, unrepresentable. But this does not mean that it is inconceivable. On the contrary, Kant goes to some lengths to distinguish between the powers of the senses and the powers of the mind, to the degree that the sublime is as much a form of thought as it is an aesthetic experience. As an experience it is threatening, for example, when we are presented with the sublime force of nature in a turbulent storm, since this force cannot be fully captured in a finite representation. But for Kant, it is precisely this threat to the senses, and indeed, to human reason, that gives the sublime its special status, yielding a distinctly mental form of comprehension that can intuit but not quite represent to itself (or picture) the scale of the phenomenon. The result is, in Kant’s words, that “the object is apprehended as sublime [and not merely beautiful] with a pleasure that is possible only by means of a displeasure.”

On the basis of this philosophical digression, we can begin to grasp more fully the workings of “faith” to describe the feeling shared by architects and developers with respect to an unpredictable global real estate market. Since, the global financial markets are not simply conduits, channels for the circulation and mediation of mathematical abstractions like derivatives. The markets are themselves abstract, in the sense that like the “globe,” they are imagined at some level to lie outside representation. This does not mean that the global financial markets cannot be accurately described, represented, or indeed, demystified. However, the proliferation of numbers, data, and charts describing the circulation of finance capital, and the design problems they pose, ultimately correspond with a largely unconscious effort to represent the imagined boundlessness and arbitrary force of the markets themselves, and with them the “city” that they have produced and that, in turn, has produced them.

So while it is true that so-called developer architecture is commodified, this description only scratches the surface of what architecture has become under globalization. Even more than commodities circa 1900, when Simmel was composing his philosophy of money, and even more than money itself, architecture has effectively become a concrete abstraction. By this I mean that it has become a kind of real virtuality, in which, from the point of view of the markets and those who manipulate them, the actual, tangible existence of anything that can plausibly be called a useful object (i.e. a real building) has been superceded by a set of representations. These representations are, strictly speaking, abstract, in the same way that commodities prices are only distantly related to the commodities underlying them, and are tied more to their conditions of circulation, to speculative future value, and so on. But precisely by virtue of their capacity to circulate, these abstractions have also become concrete—real, tangible, and visible—in their own right. Therefore, they carry with them their own spatial and psychic equivalents, just as money did for Simmel.

At the level of both cognition and aesthetic experience, the category of the sublime as elaborated by Kant still captures best the concrete effects of the new abstractions. Correspondingly, like a nineteenth century landscape painting that tries to capture the vastness of nature, the abstraction that we call developer architecture presents its many constituents with a system of systems so vast and encompassing—and ultimately, so threatening—that it has become sublimely pleasurable to contemplate it. With this spectacle—which is the spectacle of the contemporary city proper, whether we are speaking of New York or Mumbai—comes a sense of awe but also, if Kant is right, mastery. This experience can be compared to a similar sense of mastering the wrenching effects of deindustrialization that preceded the conversion of cities like New York or London into the headquarters of global finance. Such psychic mastery is, for example, quite palpably figured in the enchanting conversion of former industrial buildings into luxury condominiums (as in Manhattan’s Chelsea warehouses), or into “sublime,” crypto-religious artworks (as in a recent installation by Olafur Eliasson at the Tate Modern, a former power plant converted into a museum).

Such artworks notwithstanding, however, thus far my architectural examples have been highly commercial, and so it might be objected that architecture circumscribed as an autonomous artwork overcomes these limitations by transcending the vulgarities of marketing or commodification. But Kant, too, can be credited for having formalized the notion of the autonomy of art (and by extension, of architecture), as it has been passed down through generations of historians, critics, and architects, to become a commonplace of architectural discourse and practice, and a precondition for socioeconomic immanence rather than a prescription for artistic withdrawal.


Take an example from New York by way of Los Angeles. As his own house in Santa Monica abundantly demonstrates with its re-assembly of suburban detritus into an enchanted refuge for individual “creativity,” Frank Gehry epitomizes the figure of the architect-as-artist. And yet, as he has done throughout his career, in New York he was until recently to be found collaborating with the developer Forest City Ratner, in a massive redevelopment of Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards. But where that project now rests on uncertain financial footing, Gehry has already completed another project in Manhattan: the headquarters of Barry Diller’s InterActive Corporation (or IAC), on the city’s far West Side. At one level, this minor Gehry building might seem unworthy of the kind of critical attention usually reserved for serious architecture. Still, there is much to learn from its attempt to inject cultural meaning into what is essentially a generic office building. Not designed as a speculative building for a real estate developer but rather, as a headquarters for a multimedia corporation, Gehry’s IAC nevertheless adheres to the constraints of many speculative buildings, especially in its emphasis on an architecturally articulate skin wrapping an otherwise unremarkable floor plan. This strategy, which in its generic form is called “shell-and-core,” is used by developers to hedge against market fluctuations, by configuring most of the available space in such a way that it can be rented or sold should business decline or needs change.

It will not be surprising to learn that Barry Diller’s partner in building the IAC headquarters was The Georgetown Company, a rather mysterious commercial developer. Nor will it be surprising that Gehry’s client in Brooklyn, the developer Forest City Ratner, partnered with The New York Times on that company’s new, Renzo Piano-designed skyscraper on 41st Street, approximately half of which is rentable office space. At first glance, more prosaic realizations of shell-and-core, like those that constitute northern California’s Silicon Valley, might seem to resemble the mass-produced dreams of the Grosstadt decoded by Tafuri in the work of architects like Walter Gropius or Ludwig Hilberseimer: very mechanical, very repetitive, very empty, very monotonous. As analyzed by Simmel, however, the early twentieth century European city was also the site of overstimulation—a cacophony of noise, movement, and productive energy that generated an equally nervous response among urban dwellers. In New York at around the same time, the physiologist George Beard called this phenomenon “American Nervousness,” a disease (neurasthenia) that he diagnosed as the result of city-dwellers’ constant exposure to the competitive stress of modern life. But where Simmel’s prototypical metropolitan subjects responded to the onslaught of external stimuli in the city with a kind of blank stare—the “blasé attitude”—the banality of today’s shell-and-core has produced a different kind of nervous reaction.

If Gehry’s building can serve as a guide (and I think it can), the problem for the post-modern city is not the abundance of external stimuli but rather, a sort of persistent emptiness. Beneath all of the “irrational exuberance” of financial globalization, what becomes most evident in the rather desperate attempts of even the most adventurous developers to produce architecturally “interesting” buildings, is how little they amount to—just an empty shell with a dried-up core, wrapped in an anxious skin. In aesthetic terms we can call this phenomenon empty form. And it is exactly this emptiness, this structural absence of meaning, which Gehry’s building shares with money, especially as the latter is further abstracted into the social relations of credit. It is also this emptiness, this abstraction-degree-zero, which Gehry’s architecture strenuously attempts to overcome by injecting an excess of cultural meaning, thus attempting magically to re-enchant the building’s disenchanted shell-and-core. This gesture replicates the theological underpinnings of a faith-based credit system, of which the SRA legislation in Mumbai is representative in its conversion of slums into abstractions—investments that seem magically to resolve a structural crisis even as they reproduce it. But what money and architecture have in common today is the fact that they both mean nothing. Literally.

So how does the Gehry building perform its magic, and thus cause us to believe that it is the bearer of cultural meaning? To begin with, as in many such examples, the building is not designed by Gehry alone; the San Francisco-based firm of Studios Architecture, who had previously designed the Silicon Valley headquarters of Silicon Graphics (now the Googleplex), 3Com, Excite@Home, and many others, designed the interiors. This division of labor is important, since Studios are experts in converting the alienating banalities of everyday office life, which is in fact organized around the accumulation of capital, into a set of ideologically “meaningful” social experiences. At IAC, this begins with the coffee bars and break-out rooms on every floor, and a cafeteria on the roof, all vaguely oriented around a set of nautical metaphors that reflect the building’s site on the Hudson River, opposite a dock where the CEO docks his yacht. Outside, Gehry supplies the architectural clichés that reconfirm these corporate poetics, with an undulating, bent-glass shell that has been dutifully compared by critics to billowing sails, or clouds.

Here we note the meteorological metaphors, which are a common feature of financial imaginaries. Whether or not it was intended (and he argues that it was not), Gehry’s sophisticated rendering of the building’s pulsating shell has allowed for if not encouraged meteorological readings of a more benign sort than those that refer to the “gathering storms” of crisis. However, seen less metaphorically, and in more strictly formal (i.e. Kantian) terms, its dynamism even more clearly points to something that, like the weather itself, eludes representation. A mysterious set of forces seem to have shaped this particular shimmering shell just this way; it seems to be the work of a ghostly agent that can be compared, in economic terms, to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” Except that in this case, the invisible hand of architecture—signed by the hand of the signature architect—has taken over from the invisible hand of the markets to give this building its distinctive form.

Reflecting whatever is left of the age-old tension between art and money, the Darwinian “laws” of the real estate market nevertheless remain visible in the building’s overall volume, which sets awkwardly its site like an overweight figure in an ill-fitting suit. Still, however ungainly, the building somehow moves as you move past it or around it, thus recovering its mystique. Benign and unthreatening as this may seem, the building can nevertheless be said to point toward Kant’s mathematical sublime. Like representations of the weather, there are numbers behind it—square footages, office space requirements, and risk-reward ratios. But unlike the average shell-and-core developer building, Gehry’s building stands as a monument to the ineffable: both the abstract corporate networks to which it belongs, and the empty abstraction of architecture-as-such. In this monument, which can therefore be compared (however dimly, and unfavorably) to the cosmological efforts of a Boullée or to the meteorological fervor of a Turner, the vicissitudes of multinational capitalism are converted into the gentle rippling of a summer breeze.

Gehry’s building therefore performs the oldest trick in the book of capital, a trick as old, at least, as the one performed a century earlier in lower Manhattan by Cass Gilbert with his Woolworth Building, nicknamed at its dedication ceremony in 1913 by the Reverend S. Parkes Cadman as a “cathedral of commerce.” Like Gilbert’s, Gehry’s building makes emptiness meaningful. In its gestures toward the ineffable forces that seem to animate it, the IAC building may not be a cathedral, but that does not prevent us—again—from detecting something religious about it. The difference may be that where Gilbert’s Woolworth Building stretched a distorted neo-Gothic skin around a distorted neo-Gothic volume, thus sublimating the architecture of the Christian church into the supposedly secular architecture of capitalist modernization, Gehry goes one degree further. At IAC as elsewhere, his architecture does not promise a specific set of meanings through an anachronistic iconography. It promises meaning as such, in the form of a concrete, sensible object. The ultimate emptiness of this object is covered over not by mere beauty or picturesque effect (though Gehry can certainly be accused of that), but by the mathematical sublime of the global economy—and with it, the violence issuing daily from the numbers that swirl through it—which Gehry’s building converts from an ominous threat into a promise of redemption.

Nevertheless, Gehry’s building fails to deliver fully on this promise, which suggests that the sealing-off of the city in a gigantic atrium of neoliberal fantasy is not yet complete. Nor has the sublimely unrepresentable invisible hand fully re-animated the shell-and-core of metropolitan abstraction. This is the truth about architecture: its ultimate failure to deliver meaning in the contemporary city. Far from eternal, like the city itself and the virtualities on which it is built, this sort of truth is as ephemeral and as fleeting as that uncannily recurring sense of solidarity among strangers with which the modern city was initially defined. Such truths have been overtaken in cities from Mumbai to New York by those crypto-religious representations of deregulated flows that have become the lingua franca of so many attempts to convert the sheer quantities of the contemporary city into an ode to the mathematical sublime of the markets, in a sliding scale of artistic merit that recapitulates a counterthesis to Benjamin’s notion of the decline of the aura. Contrary to the expectation that commodification, mass production, and circulatory abstraction empty out cultural meaning into a disenchanted mirror-play of surface effects, aura tends to increase in direct proportion to abstraction. As Simmel’s “calculating character of modern times” approaches the mathematical or statistical sublime of the credit economy, meaning is permanently promised but also—a general law of circulation—permanently deferred.

Hence, valuable as local or site-specific knowledge may be, equally valuable is a type of knowledge that can account for the circulatory abstractions that make up the contemporary city. We can call this knowledge philosophical not to imply that it is universal or absolute, but rather, because it is a type of thought that can confront the statistical sublime on its own terms. These are the terms that underlie the dominant financial imaginaries of globalization. In briefly sketching their outlines through the looking glass of architecture, I hope to have at least given the impression that a properly critical philosophy of the city is not only possible, but required, in order to comprehend the transformations undergone by the city as an idea as well as a phenomenon, from one end of the century to the other.

Reinhold Martin is Associate Professor of Architecture in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University, where he directs the PhD program in architecture and the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture. He is a member of Columbia’s Institute for Comparative Literature and Society as well as the Committee on Global Thought.

Martin is a founding co-editor of the journal Grey Room and has published widely on the history and theory of modern and contemporary architecture. He is the author of The Organizational Complex: Architecture, Media, and Corporate Space (MIT Press, 2003), and Utopia’s Ghost: Architecture and Postmodernism, Again (Minnesota, 2010), as well as the co-author, with Kadambari Baxi, of Multi-National City: Architectural Itineraries (Actar, 2007). In 2012, Martin co-curated with Barry Bergdoll “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, for which he and Bergdoll also co-edited the exhibition catalogue.

His work centers on histories of space, power, and the aesthetic imagination, particularly as mediated by technical infrastructures. Related areas of research include architecture and epistemology, globalization and cities, and media history. Currently, Martin is working on two books: a history of the nineteenth century American university as a media complex, and a study of the contemporary city at the intersection of aesthetics and politics.