Asset Architecture 2 …. Capitalism as an Urban Catalyst

Capitalism as an Urban Catalyst ist my text contribution to PennDesigns latest publication Asset Architecture 2, edited by Ali Rahim and myself, which documents the design research of last year’s MSD AAD students about Asset Archtecture in Manhattan and will also include texts by Evan Douglis, Ali Rahim, Christopher Hight, Ferda Kolatan and Matthew Soules.

The image you just clicked on shows the project BIOMORPH by students Jayong Shim, Dailong Ma & Tai Feng.

Capitalism as an Urban Catalyst

Current American Architecture is not a matter of art, but of business. A building must pay or there will be no investor ready with the money to meet its cost. This is at once the curse and the glory of American architecture. - Barr Ferree, editor of Engineering Magazine, speaking at the American Institute of Architects in 1893i

More than any other contemporary building typology, since its beginnings in the late 19th century the skyscraper has always been widely understood by the public as a symbol for innovation, modernism, technological advancements, and progress. Little attention, however, has been given to the question of how the principles of financial speculation have affected its historic development.

Over the years, the typology of the tower has undergone a series of crucial changes, in its building morphology as well as in the way it engages with the surrounding cityscape. For a long time, towers were essentially block buildings, building volumes extruded along site boundaries, and, due to the need to directly connect rentable spaces to their environment, office spaces were arranged on the perimeter around a central core.

In 1952 SOM’s Lever House introduced a new high-rise typology by combining a slender vertical slab tower with an open ground floor, an open courtyard, green space, pedestrian walkways, and a large 2nd floor plinth containing auxiliary office spaces. In 1958 Mies van der Rohe set back his Seagram Building from Park Avenue by a large open plaza, thus creating a public urban space in front of the building, which became so popular, that the City of New York revised its zoning laws a few years later, offering incentives for investors who created privately owned public spaces. These two buildings went on to set the architectural style for high-rise buildings in New York for the next decades. Nowadays, pencil towers, extremely lean condominium skyscrapers, that do not contain more than one exclusive unit per floor, have started sprouting up all over Manhattan.

To account for the historic development of the skyscraper, two main narratives predominate the contemporary architectural discourse. The first narrative is a strictly chronological one. Invented in the 19th century due to the need for urban densification and rendered possible by technological advancements, their continuous changes in form and facade treatment throughout history are mainly attributed to their constant adaption to the prevailing styles and architectural agendas of a specific time period. In that way it is easy to categorize towers according to their age and appearance. Towers are historicist, art deco, modernist, international style, postmodernist, or high-tech architecture.

The second, more modernist reading emphasizes the technological aspects, identifying advances in building and construction technology as the most important drivers behind skyscraper development and their typological changes.

While it is certainly true that no high-rise building could have ever been developed without the invention of crucial technologies, such as elevators, air conditioning systems or advanced materials, and that the forms and surface ornamentations of high-rise buildings, not unlike any other building, are subjected to the constant change of architectural styles, none of these narratives can really account for their typological development, let alone for the recent propagation of super thin residential pencil tower developments all over Manhattan. Contrary to standard historic narratives that normally focus on design philosophies, architectural ideologies, styles or technological progress, it might therefore be more interesting to look into the principles of financial speculation to understand the recent development of skyscrapers.

Large urban structures in general, and the buildings that are a part thereof, should be perceived to have an intrinsic networked nature, as they are organized primarily around currents and lines of exchange where people, services, ideas, and goods are collected, organised and redistributed in a multitude of directions (a good account of these phenomena are for example given by Manuel de Landa in his book A Thousand Years of Non Linear Historyii). It seems that cities nowadays have become complexly interwoven commercial environments, where space is being privatized and land property—similar to the stock market—is subject to fluctuating value cycles. Buildings become assets and air rights have developed into a speculative commodity.

In her book Form Follows Finance, Carol Willis argues that high-rise buildings have always been highly speculative developments, and that their form, location, and distribution throughout the city are the result of complex interactions of parameters such as plot sizes, local or regional building patterns, cost effective construction technologies, fluctuating real estate cycles, building codes and zoning lawsiii.

Today, there is more capital than there has ever been in the world. Worldwide financial capital has more than doubled from 2001 to 2011 from $37 trillion to $80 trillioniv. While monetary capital has always played a significant role in determining the built environment, recent shifts in the character of global finance have resulted in a new relationship between investment practices and buildings. As the capital has grown, investors have circumvented traditional stable assets, such as treasuries and municipal bonds, for real estate, which directly affects architecture and urbanism. As the amount of capital that is channeled towards real estate increases, the degree to which space functions as an asset has increased radically.

In this respect Ultra High Net Worth Individuals find unique opportunities in the United States and especially in New York. Whereas, according to the Prime International Residential Index (PIRI), the value of high-end residential property in the whole world increased on average by just around 2% in 2014, luxury residential prices across the US rose by almost 13%. In New York itself prices skyrocketed by a breathtaking 18.8%. This increase starkly contrasts with other world regions, such as Europe with an average increase of only 2.5%v.

New York City has a total of 845,000 houses and apartments and 102,000 units (or 12 per cent of its housing market) are vacantvi. This number is predicted to grow further if the growth of capital keeps increasing at the same rate. The people who own these condominiums are usually foreigners , spending only 2% of their time in New York. This number has grown rapidly and explains why so many windows dotting the imposing facades of Fifth, Madison and Park Avenue apartment buildings are pitch dark every evening. These buildings are often referred to as zombies, as they are buildings without life.

Especially in the history of the development of Manhattan, within its gridded logic of property development, architecture has always been the expression of capital due to its increase of land value by densification of building mass. Thus, architecture can be read as the outcome of vertical expressions based on its relationship to its land. Manhattan therefore is uniquely equipped as a site to speculate on asset architecture and develop innovative architecture and urban proposals that are unprecedented in the ways they link to global capital. Nowadays increments of architecture (units, buildings, parcels of land, etc.) increasingly operate primarily as financial investment assets, which is in direct contradiction to the performance criteria typically associated with any building in an urban context. Architects and architecture have not responded to this issue in any way.

Under the current logic of speculative high-rise development, the question then becomes how to conceptualize a Manhattan skyscraper that, as a speculative object to draw investors, outperforms standard high-end residential pencil towers while giving something back to the surrounding city and thus acting as a social or cultural catalyst within its urban context. The thesis taken within the studio is that the architecture of New York City is able to increase its value as a commodity by fusing urban elements into a new form of architectural interiority to the mutual benefit of both. The building and the city, thus avoid the detrimental impact of zombie architecture on Manhattan’s urban structure. The site on 432 Park Avenue, currently the location of New York’s most famous pencil tower, becomes the testing ground for this speculative endeavor.

Student teams in this year’s studio responded in different, innovative ways to that challenge. On the one end of a wide spectrum of different design proposals, students took on Manhattan’s tradition of infrastructural buildings, such as Carl Warnecke’s 1974 AT&T Long Lines Building, in order to speculate on the provision of imminent and future public services and how these could start to shape the program, structure, materiality, and visual nature of the city tower.

On the other end of the spectrum, students explored the role that refined aesthetics and restlessly technique-driven formal differentiations within the framework of a consistent part-to-whole relationship can play as an urban catalyst.

Some teams investigated how contemporary, highly profitable services and provisions for the public could be structured, expanded, combined, and reorganized three-dimensionally to, at the same time, create a strong asset argument and investigate the formal, spatial, and aesthetic consequences of these typological changes.

Others read the contemporary tower as a green tower with its own complex ecological system, that not only provides public recreational green spaces, such as a vertical spiraling version of the Highline or elevated parks and green facades, but would also dramatically improve the local climatic conditions in the city and create new and interesting micro-ecologies within Manhattan’s dense urban fabric.

Looking at the wide range of programmatic solutions and their spatial, formal, and aesthetic implications, another important issue arises: the question of architectural style. Since the studio’s agenda was to push New York’s recent pencil tower typology beyond its current boundaries, it has also developed its own distinctive and novel aesthetic, driven by techniques and processes.

High-rise building typologies have developed considerably since William Le Baron Jenney’s Home Insurance Building in Chicago, and so have their compositional principles, facades, and ornamentations. In today’s architecture production we can identify various design strategies operating well within the modernist paradigm, yet still ambitiously contrasting the predominantly featureless and sleek modernist facades of most of New York’s international style skyscrapers.

On one end of the spectrum, Norman Foster’s 700-foot ultra-thin condominium tower on 610 Lexington Avenue, just behind Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, for example, appears to be another attempt to push high-tech architecture well beyond its reasonable limits. On its other end, for his 41 West 57th Street pencil tower, Mark Foster Gage reverts to a building design that seems to be a contemporary version of last century’s Art Deco style, replacing gargoyles with articulate figurative balconies to provide the building’s wealthy residents with individual computer-controlled outdoor environments.

But how can the advanced formal vocabularies of this studio be located within contemporary architectural discourse? The work is seemingly positioned at a point of intersection between the two major antitheses in today’s architectural discourse: a recently materialized persuasive digital sensibility—which it is definitely part of—and an explicitly socially oriented and environmentally conscious architectural agenda, which it follows by addressing the issue of New York’s Zombie towers.

Design research in the wake of new digital design and production strategies, with their clear predilection for soft, undulating, and malleable architectural forms, has opened up new perspectives for both the spatialization of complexly interwoven with social and environmental specifications and its articulation in the form of a new structural ornamentation.

However, while the use of the ornament has become more widespread recently, there still seems to be a lack of rigor in intellectually pursuing its underlying concepts, and, as Marjan Coletti puts it – “… a generative logic and morphological syntax is nowadays being embraced by parametric and scripted generative techniques to produce myriads of complex, patternised, ornamental topologies, although the endeavor…usually drifts towards the generic and the dogmatic, and away from the phenomenological and the experimental.vii.

Coletti identifies two different conceptual strands within the pursuit of digital ornamentation, “one [propelling] towards ‘pure form’ through abstraction, [one] towards the purely figural through sensation.” (Coletti, ibid.). Both distinguish the results of contemporary digital form finding processes from representational digital visualizations in the same way a modern painting “[escapes] from the figurative in art.” (Coletti, ibid.). Both of them pursue the rationalization of the contemporary ornament as a systematic, abstract, and theoretical endeavor, that, though intellectually driven, first and foremost speaks to the sensorial and atmospheric qualities of a spatial configuration.

The technique-driven, methodical development of these deep surface systems aims towards the generation of tightly controlled complex geometries, which are highly adaptive and open for multiple connectivity. Variation and continuous differentiation of initially simple elements reflect the mutually influential forces within a system’s different layers in order to eventually articulate a complex architectural system that ties together a spatial organisation, its complex program, its environment, its inhabitants, and their constantly changing patterns of use.

This implies a controlled and simultaneous development of function, form, structure, and material, and also requires attention to the associative qualities of all single constituents, their semiological properties, and to their part-to-whole relationship.

The act of design is no longer framed by “a singular aesthetic end, but by the multiple constraints and ambitions of each project, as negotiated by the architect.”viii. The result displays a contemporary elegance that is supported by articulated complexity rather than by minimalism or simplicity.

Successful complex building structures are able to develop a descriptive architectural language that visually reduces the underlying complexity and helps to order, frame, and organize the varying patterns of use. “An elegant building or urban design should [...] be able to manage considerable complexity without descending into disorder.ix.

On the other hand, the recent general shift of contemporary architectural practice towards a more political, social, economic, or environmental agenda has not yet resulted in the development of a novel formal language that is able to coherently reflect its ideas and ambitions. Discarding what Peter Sloterdijk calls “Euro-American technical titanism” we see architects all over the world reverting to a material practice that favors the vernacular, makeshift solutions, and thriftiness. But is this really what we want our future built environment to look like? Is this kind of prospective nostalgia capable of generating the forms, materials, and spatial organizations that we will need to frame our social interactions in the 21st century?

At its best, architecture is the result of a simultaneous advancement of agenda, program, typology, tools, and innovative digital techniques, that need to be developed in parallel within a very specific contextual framework, and thus result in the emergence of unprecedented formal, aesthetic, and spatial solutions. It provides clues and anticipations about what lies behind its currently visible layers and the type of communication and interaction it houses. And it has the potential to generate nuanced architectonic articulations within its multi-layered building configuration that reflect the different patterns and intensities of its interaction with its urban environment.

In this sense, the student work in this book – speculative and radical as it may be – opens up new ways of synchronizing novel program ideas with advanced formal design and construction sensibilities, calibrating a high-rise building’s geometric ecology with the affective and effective qualities that connect it with its urban environment.


 i Barr, Ferree. Economic Conditions of Architecture in America. In Proceedings of the Twenty-Seventh Annual Convention of the American Institute of Architects. Inland Architect, Chicago: 1893; 231

ii De Landa, Manuel. A Thousand Years of Non Linear History. Zone Books, New York: 1997.

iii Willis, Carol. Form Follows Finance. Skyscrapers and Skylines in New York and Chicago. Princeton Architectural Press, New York: 1995. ISBN 1-56898-044-2.

iv Fund Management, (London: TheCityUK Fund Management Report, 2012): 1.

v Everett-Allen, Kate. US shines as global growth falls. In The Wealth Report 2015. Shirley, A. (ed.). KnightFrank, London: 2015.

vi Roberts, Sam, “Homes Dark and Lifeless, Kept by Out-of-Towners,” The New York Times, July 06, 2011. Online edition.

vii Coletti, Marjan, Ornamental Pornamentation, in Exuberance. AD 02/2010 March/April 2010. Coletti, Marjan (ed.), Wiley, 2010.

viii Rahim, Ali and Jamelle, Hina, Elegance in the Age of Digital Technique, in Elegance. AD 01/2007 January/February 2007. Rahim, Ali and Jamelle, Hina (eds.), Wiley, 2007.

ix Schumacher, Patrik, Arguing for Elegance, in Elegance. AD 01/2007 January/February 2007. Rahim, Ali and Jamelle, Hina (eds.), Wiley, 2007.