Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Panopticon of Celebrity: The Image of the City in the Age of Luxury Condominium Towers

At some point in my theoretical education in architecture school the French philosopher Michel Foucault's ideas were introduced. One of the concepts that I learned was about Michel Foucault's description of the Panopticon. From my brief exposure to Foucault's philosophy, it seemed to have centered significantly around power relationships. All forms of cultural expression were subtle manifestations of power of an elite group of people and ideas over everything else. As an example, the language with which we speak is structured in such a way as to assume particular notions of hierarchy and influence that favored a point of view, particular a patriarchal and rationalist one. Many of today's academics apply Foucault's kernel of ideas in order to give meaning to their deconstructive pursuits. By supposedly revealing the inherent bias in power in all that we communicate and even think, it becomes possible to cast doubt on any knowledge we've inherited. This logic has been a driving force in dismantling the influence of centuries of accumulated wisdom, from the Judeo-Christian tradition all the way past the enlightenment up to post-structuralism.

My opinion is that Foucault's ideas have had a destructive impact, canceling many times over any gains in the freedom to rethink knowledge on a different set of power relationships. His separation of truth from knowledge ironically did not lead him to doubt the integrity of all ideas. In fact, Foucault was an avowed Marxist, and many of those influenced by him have used his ideas to reinstate socialist ideology as the base of power for a new body of knowledge (which accounts for much of what passes as scholarship in the humanities these days.)

One of his more architectural concepts was that of the Panopticon, an opaque tower at the center of a circular array of prison cells from which the prison guard can watch the inmates without being seen. This image of a prison represented the broader realization of a pervasive yet unseen power that governs much of daily life, where one will not transgress because of a fear that we are being secretly watched. It is ironic that Foucault wrote about the Panopticon as a way of defending the rights of the imprisoned and the insane but was personally in favor of a political system (socialist tyranny) that used it with brutal efficiency. I was interested in the idea that power over others could be polar, in which one person or thing could command the attention of all those around it. The Panopticon is not only a means of exercising oppressive power but also one of attracting attention in order to exert influence. In an age where much of what we call "news" consists of reporting the whereabouts of an unaccomplished celebrity, the public at large sometimes is compelled to lend its focus on people who by what they are subtly influence what is important in the world.

The emergence of celebrity is relatively recent, the product of mass media that needed to provide images that captivated and stimulated many people to imagine another imaginary world in vivid detail. Whereas not too long ago, a celebrity would express regret of having their privacy invaded, now we can find ambitious individuals aggressively seek as much attention as possible and willingly expose all aspects of their life simply to become the center of a celebrity-based panopticon. Reality television is nothing more than an attempt by talentless people seeking to wield the power of celebrity for their own personal gain. It seems to be the aspiration of more an more people to be seen or at least to celebrate ourselves publicly, often by showing off their possessions. Conspicuous consumption represents a natural human impulse to attract attention through the ownership of special objects from a wide range of scales, from fashionable clothes, cars, private planes and ultimately private buildings. Flaunting one's personal trophies is nothing new, but the way it can become so unavoidably visible to so many is.

From the earliest of times, buildings have probably been the most effective way to wield a "panoptical" power over others due to the way that they permanently occupy and dominate a landscape. Monarchs often would situate their palaces on visually prominent sites while wealthy and politically influential families built their sprawling family compound in the middle of the town to remind subjects or average citizens who was in control. With the rise of large-scale commerce, especially beginning from the Industrial revolution onwards, wealthy tycoons would build that most visible and most literal of panopticons, the high-rise office tower. In the capitalist city, business enterprises become a king of sorts, employing many people within the community, brokering deals with city leaders and lobbying with national politicians. Despite some popular paranoid perceptions, corporations are not watching individuals from their opaque glass towers. Instead, they sear into the memories of citizens a constructed communal identity of which the corporation is a primary element. How many Detroit residents could imagine their city without their monument to their dominant Automobile companies, the Renaissance center? In my home city, where many of its citizens lament the lack of a traditional communal life, could never imagine itself with the seventy-two story Bank of America tower. The unspoken message given by these gleaming towers is: You fellow citizens should not attempt to push any policy that would harm the interests of our business, since the community as you know it would cease to exist without us being part of your cherished urban landscape.

The past couple of decades have seen a change to this commercially-based panopticon. After the real-estate bust that followed the overbuilding of downtown commercial office buildings throughout many cities in the U.S during the 1980s, many large companies decided it wasn't necessary to locate at the center of a big city in a vertically hierarchical tower. They preferred to build more horizontal corporate campuses on cheap land in the suburbs. Efficiency gains from computers and networks shrank the size of corporate staff dramatically, leaving vacant many floors of space that once was alloted to an extensive administrative bureaucracy once required by large companies. Corporate tenants come and go in these office towers, with most citizens unaware of who occupies them at the moment, just that some sort of business is going in there. Municipal governments value the presence of a major corporation in forging a distinct communal identity for the city, and therefore they continue to offer enticements to companies to move downtown with generous tax rebates.

Such incentives indicate a desperation to stall the shift away from commerce occupying the role as the icon of authority in a cityscape. Beginning in the 1990s and expanding rapidly in our current decade, construction residential towers have become the most prominent urban event taking place in our downtowns. Vacant office buildings are rapidly being converted into residential units, and city skylines are being changed by new towers with smaller floorplates and highly articulated walls punched by private widows and balconies. They avoid monotonous glass curtain facades and lobbies engulfing entire city blocks. Many of these towers are surrounded by more pedestrian low-rise mixed use buildings with ground level retail. These residential highrises almost exclusively house the city's elite, and cater the natural desire to enjoy dramatic views of the surrounding city. The structures also accomplish for those who dwell in them a sense of importance shared with monarchs and wealthy families of long ago: a reminder who is important, who stands above the rest of average society.

And yet there are differences from that earlier time help explain the particular nature of panoptical power in our time. The most obvious is that this power is much more democratically distributed. Instead of one large palace for one family, there are now hundreds of luxury units attached to a tall vertical structure for all to be reminded who's important. Another difference is that today's mini-palaces in the sky are not literal political symbols like their ancient predessors. Whereas political leaders used their grand residence as a projection of their power over others, luxury condo towers serve as monuments to the occupants' apparent success and their association with an elite leisure class. Many among us aspire to become part of that leisure class due to their seemingly boundless sense of freedom and financial security. Yet the lifestyle of leisured elites resembles that of celebrities, who seem to make news simply by attending some leisurely event like movie premiers, awards shows and parties.

Buying property to upgrade one's social status happens frequently at the private level. But the times we live in are quite unique in that climbing for personal prestige is becoming our most significant built legacy. Only a few weeks ago, it was declared that tallest building in the world is now in Dubai. The 160 story tower contains mostly condominium units and an Armani brand hotel. In Chicago, there are plans to build an extremely tall spire on the most prominant waterfront site in the city, containg luxurious condominiums spiralling to the top. Currently the first ninety-plus story building in decades is underway under the Trump brand on the Chicago river, featuring condos and hotel sharing personal concierge services. Flying over Miami recently, speculative condo towers seem to have be growing like weeds, utterly changing the landscape of that city forever. The magazines on the airplanes were full of ads promoting spectacular towers in a place that not too long ago was briefly occupied American troops-Panama.

What particularly made me realize the significance of the rise of the residential tower in cities was when it was announced not too long ago that the first major addition to my home city's skyline would be a forty-two story condominium tower in the Dallas Arts district. The units in the tower are selling for no lower than a million dollars each. A stone's throw away, the most significant downtown development since the 1980s is going up. Called "Victory", it consists of a series of condo-hotels and upscale retail catering specifically to the leisured elite. The project's "cherry on top" could be represented by the private helipad roof sitting atop the tallest unit above the W hotel, belonging to none other than the Victory primary developer himself.

What does this say about the contemporary big city? The rise of corporate commercial towers often conveyed the general economic prosperity of the city, giving it regional and national prestige. A newcomer arriving to a major city would view the skyline on the horizon and say to himself "this is where important business is conducted...this a city on the move!" As condo skyscrapers begin to dominate the skyline of important cities, can one necessarily say the same thing? My first impression upon seeing these new skylines would be that there are a lot of wealthy people who live there that want to enjoy views. They say little of that city's overall economic health, or what life might be like for the majority of people who can't afford to live in these vertical mini-palaces. Gleaming downtown office towers connote opportunities for work and advancement. Glitzy condo towers symbolize the opportunities already taken, a city reserved for those who have already made it. They do not produce marketable commodities and ideas like their commercial counterparts, but merely display the byproduct of those successful producers themselves in a memorable and highly monumental form (the high-rise). One critic of the condo boom in American cities notes that many of those who own units in these towers are not even residents of the city in which they are located. Like the office towers that preceded them, many of the towers are pure speculation, built to no compelling overall civic need.

Imagining how future urban historians will regard the developments at the turn-of-the millennium American city (and a few international centers like Dubai), it seems to me evident that the story will involve the rise of luxurious high-density living anchoring the revival of old downtowns as well as the establishment of new satellite city centers. As the nineeteenth century turned into the twentieth, the story of American cities was their exuberant commercial growth, the development of the high-rise as a response to speculation as well as the creation of a new class of workers--the office worker. New architectural vocabularies (Gothic revival, art deco, Chicago style) responded to the overwhelming drive to build vertically in order to accomodate an army of office workers helping produce the massive quanities of goods and services for the industrial age. Nowadays the need for towers comes from a fast-growing upper class benefitting from the opportunities made possible by the post-industrial information age. Business has opted for low-rise suburban campuses or spec-office parks while the new rich's growing desire to show off becomes one of the only remaining reasons to build higher and higher.

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