March 2021
Published in Modern Matter N°18

Architecture and Politics

Wrapped together, stone, steel, chrome and glass become symbolic gestures of dominance, all-seeing totems to capitalism, class and charisma.

Donald Trump’s paean to high living at 721–725 Fifth Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets stands as cavalier as it did on a chilly Valentine’s Day in 1983, when its atrium and flotilla of glossy boutiques first opened to a bedazzled public. Even though a Bloomberg report last year found that the Trump Tower is now one of New York’s ‘least-desirable’ luxury buildings, its 240 tonnes of plump pink Italian limestone veined with white remain a site of pilgrimage for fans of the president’s boorish, bombastic style. An amalgam of apartments, offices and shops, its 58 floors are testament to a national ethos driven by a mania for prosperity and personal success above all: the reward of upward social mobility in return for hard graft.

Upon completion, the vertiginous living quarters once billed as ‘totally inaccessible to the public’ and meant exclusively for ‘the world’s best people,’ ignored the crime-riddled metropolis that languished far below. From his triplex dwelling, Trump could see the tops of yellow cabs, not the graffitied carts of the subway; he could look across Central Park to the north but not see its homeless; he was safe from the rising levels of crime, ‘encased’ as Trump biographer Gwenda Blair said, ‘within this bubble of serenity and privilege.’

Four gold-painted elevators still transport visitors to Trump Tower from the lobby to the higher floors, which feature a 60-foot waterfall along the eastern wall made up of geometric platforms and acidic underlighting. Tourists flock to its ‘ok nothing special’ three restaurants, leaving gushing reviews on Tripadvisor. It remains a gaudy erection of hi-gloss and nerve – a fitting backdrop for the 2012 runway debut of Kendall and Kylie Jenner who are themselves, like the skyscraper, bodacious constructions of capitalist-scented invention.

The modern city is defined by its tall buildings and the power that is wielded within them.

Wrapped together, stone, steel, chrome and glass become symbolic gestures of dominance, all-seeing totems to capitalism, class and charisma. In 1936 Le Corbusier observed ‘an erect Manhattan, the drives of Chicago, and so many clear signs of youthful power.’ Looking towards the city’s burgeoning skyline he wrote: ‘Feeling comes into play; the action of the heart is released; crescendo, allegro, fortissimo. We are charged with feeling, we are intoxicated, legs strengthened, chest expanded, eager for action, we are filled with a great confidence.’ Enchanted by the virility of New York, Le Corbusier’s language reinforced the bond between skyscraper and supremacy. In popular culture, skyscrapers appear as shorthand for adventure and thrill. Films of the 1920s and 1930s depicted bright young things leaving small dusty towns, gawping up at looming tall buildings as if they alone spurred on a path to stardom and a better life. Saul Bass’s kinetic typography in the opening titles of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 North by Northwest skilfully slides across the glass panels of the bottle green New York high rise offices of its ad executive hero; grids creep across the screen, scoring it with suspense and dynamism. From the late 1970s, fashion campaigns paraded smart-suited models striding through glass doors carrying leather attaché cases, uniting personal and professional prowess.

Scholars and academics have long proclaimed the skyscraper to be an emblem of male domination: an all-powerful phallus rubbing up against a chalky sky. Sigmund Freud drew comparison between the ‘high achievement and the acquisition of wealth’ amongst men with the tall buildings they rush to assemble. In the ancient world, obelisks and similar structures resembling the human penis epitomised male sexuality and, by extension, political fertility. Writing in 1977, the urban historian and professor emerita at Yale University, Dolores Hayden remarked that ‘the goal in building these extremely tall skyscrapers is psychological “procreant power” or awe.’ Perception of the power this kind of architecture offers is reflected by the skyline of Washington, D.C., where skyscrapers over 34m are forbidden by law – the Capitol reigns eternal as the highest structure.

In the beguiling way that American politics feels like it is a show produced by the soapy Bravo television network, Trump was accused by Florida Senator Marco Rubio during a Republican presidential debate in 2016 of having ‘very small hands.’ Trump replied: ‘I have to say this: He hit my hands. No one has ever hit my hands. Look at those hands, are those small hands? And he referred to my hands as if, if they’re small, something else may be small. I guarantee to you there’s no problem, I guarantee!’ To Trump and his disciples, size matters; their very call to Make America Great Again is itself an instruction to build and build big. Proclaimed as ‘flamboyant, exciting and emblematic of the American dream,’ Trump’s aging tower is more than just prime campy Eighties real estate, it is a symbol of America’s wilting potency. At 202m high, Trump’s New York organ might be the 64th tallest building in the city, but on the international stage it is little more than a squat, over-sucked thumb.

If we were seeking architectural allegories of global dominance, then the expanse of high-rise construction across the Middle East and China reveals the political posturing across an increasingly polarised world. Challenge to America’s position as a global superpower is exemplified in the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat’s list of the world’s tallest buildings – only 11 out of 75 are in the United States.

At number one is the slinky Burj Khalifa in Dubai. At 828m tall it is soon to be trumped by a tower in Jeddah that plans to stand at an eyewatering 1,008m once complete. The brainchild of His Royal Highness PrinceAlwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud – nephew of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah – the Jeddah Tower ‘symbolizes the Kingdom as an important global business and cultural leader, and demonstrates the strength and creative vision of its people…’ That’s according to its Chicago-based architects. Just as the American skyline with its jutting steel turrets and glowering lights celebrated by Hollywood stands for a certain wide-eyed faith in the capitalist system, Jeddah’s construction projects a message of Saudi Arabia’s economic and political might. Its Four Seasons hotel, luxury condominiums and ‘world’s highest observatory’ will stand on a direct line with the holy city of Mecca.

When a country gets rich, it builds bigger. ‘Skyscraper megalomania … is never only about attracting foreign investments,’ the anthropologist Aihwa Ong writes in Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, ‘but fundamentally also about an intense political desire for world recognition.’ In 2012, I travelled to Luanda – a city rebuilding itself out of its troubled past. A generation of young Angolans brought up abroad on a diet of American TV were moving back to the capital to start a new life, opening theatres, music venues and shops. Alongside them were an increasing number of Chinese investors, moving to Angola buoyed by the strong trading relationship between the two countries that had been established before the independence. Tekasala Ma’at Nzinga – one half of fashion label Projecto Mental – told me that growing up, he would play football and basketball in big public places that quickly became plots for multi-storey car parks and swish penthouse flats: ‘There are no playgrounds for our kids, there’s nowhere they can play basketball and football so in that respect, all of this construction is bad,’ he said. ‘We have to be able to create an identity that we can relate to and respect. We have a past, we have a history, and our own architecture. Yes, we had a civil war ten years ago but if you knock down those buildings, the city cannot relate to the past because it is all new.’ Crumbling late 19th Century palaces and colonial buildings in Luanda, inspired by Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer, are today cheek by jowl with Gotham glass and steel. International investment has ushered in architecture that is aspirationally all-purpose, unyielding in its scale but globally understood to send a message of prosperity and growth. Luanda’s tallest building stands at 145m. In any city around the world, a cluster of supertall, shiny buildings is like the eager, valiant swoosh of a Nike tick – a recognisable logo of commercial chutzpah on which a nation depends. The skyscraper is a riddle of brutal economic seduction and cultural ambivalence.

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© Dal Chodha 2023 / Site design by Margherita Sabbioneda
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Site design by ︎︎︎Margherita Sabbioneda
© Dal Chodha 2023