In my last post On Architecture, Technology, and Liberty I set out to understand the connection between political ideology and architecture. While the intention of this blog is to formulate a theory of how architecture can respond to the growing demand for individual liberty and decentralized power, I ended up doing a better job of describing what a libertarian architecture is not. I attributed this to a lack of good examples, but it got me thinking that perhaps I wasn’t looking in the right place. So I headed over to my favorite source of Libertarian ideas, Reason Magazine, and came across a 2012 article by Greg Beato titled “Skyscrapers as Spaceships“. Here’s a quote:
As we spend more of our lives in cyberspace, we come to expect its primary characteristics (convenience, efficiency, abundance) to define our off-screen lives as well. And supertall, mixed-used skyscrapers are currently the most potent physical approximations of the virtual world we have. They’re environments designed for maximum convenience and efficiency, with elevators functioning like hypertext, taking you almost instantly from one mode of existence to the next. Push a button and you’re at work. Push another button, you’re at home.
– Greg Beato, “Skyscrapers as Spaceships”, Reason Magazine, Feb. 2012
The author makes a case for skyscrapers as symbols of individual will, noting the unexpected environmental benefits of super tall buildings due to the density they foster in cities experiencing rapid urbanization. This would seem to be a case of the invisible hand of the free market at work, as architects and developers attempt to get the most bang out of their real estate buck and in the process create efficient living environments for city dwellers who would otherwise have to commute between home, work, and other daily destinations.
Skyscrapers are a perfect emblem of capitalism — they destroy what came before, in order to create something new. Sometimes the change is for the better, and sometimes it’s for the worse — but a city where nothing new gets built is a dead city, which might have nostalgic value to tourists, but which is never going to be a driver of global commerce.
-Felix Salmon, “The New Era of the New York Skyscraper”, Reuters.com, Dec. 24, 2013
If skyscrapers are the ideal capitalist architecture, then it goes without saying that they must overcome or adapt to a slew of regulations put in place by the powers that be in order to protect the public from such a profit-driven space race. As Reuter’s contributor Felix Salmon noted in a recent article on skyscrapers in New York, “The fact is, of course, that all the best skyscrapers were built by private builders, often in the face of substantial public opposition.” This has been true since the dawn of skyscrapers, as Beato points out that the rise of skyscrapers in the late 19th century was directly responsible for the unprecedented proliferation of zoning laws in the early 20th century. Therefore, one would think that more liberty-minded policy-making, such as eliminating zoning regulations and freeing up the flow of capital, would lead to a boom in the construction of supertall skyscrapers. But is it really this simple?
World-record-setting skyscrapers are a signal of economic crisis. Like world-record-setting art prices… such records are signs of economic excess. Just remember that that “excess” can only occur in market’s manipulated by central banks, like the Federal Reserve.
Mark Thornton, “The Skyscraper Curse Hits New York“, Mises.org, Nov. 16, 2013
Mark Thornton, a senior resident fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, points to the “skyscraper index” as evidence that the relationship between skyscrapers and financial markets is not as straight forward as one might imagine. The index is used to predict economic downturns based on the construction of record-breaking skyscrapers, which is surprising at first given the incredible amount of capital that goes into constructing these earthly spaceships. Historically, the index proves quite accurate, as almost every tall building boom in the last 100 years has been accompanied by a significant financial downturn. According to Thornton, these booms and busts are the result of government interference in the market. When interest rates are artificially lowered, investors looking for higher profit margins are more likely to finance large-scale, capital-intensive projects. But when rising production costs and increased competition catch up with the economy, “projects which once seemed highly profitable (such as record setting skyscrapers) open up in bankruptcy at ribbon-cutting time.”
As a native Chicagoan currently living in New York, I have always been fascinated with skyscrapers, which seemed to me the greatest achievements of architectural and technological ingenuity. The Miesian glass and steel boxes of Chicago and the ubiquitous Art Deco towers of New York have since lost some of their appeal to me, yet they continue to stand tall as monuments to American individualism. Do these great feats of corporate architecture symbolize the power of capitalism in America? Certainly. But are skyscrapers the ideal manifestation of a libertarian architecture that I am searching for? I am not convinced.