Maria Kaika: trains or agitators
Drawing on an ongoing research project, Kaika outlined how shifts in the pattern of architectural patronage have changed architects from active producers of public space, to ciphers for flows of capital, or from ‘agitators’ to ‘trains’. In the mid 20th century, the fictional media tycoon Mr Wynand from Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead and the real mining magnate Solomon Guggenheim both expressed the ‘almost exotic relationship between private capital and the city’, which Guggenheim’s art advisor Hilla Rebay made explicit in her instruction to Frank Lloyd Wright, ‘I want a temple of the spirit, a monument’. New York’s numerous ‘temples to private capital’, including the Rockefeller Center (Wallace Harrison and Raymond Hood) and the Chanin Building by Sloan and Robertson, turned the city into ‘a stage for urban elites’, both as ‘physical space for the function of their economic activities’ and as ‘symbolic space for their personal glorification’.
By the 1980s this model of urban architectural patronage was rejected, because, in Richard Sennett’s words, ‘people might become too attached to their offices… they might think they belong here’. A new urban economy emerged, organised around flows of global capital and information, corporate power and infrastructure technology, as well as mass tourism and consumption of services. Correspondingly the new urban elites no longer see themselves as associated with a particular city, and the sort of buildings they commission reflects that condition. Where ‘old urban signifiers’ like the Rockefeller Center were granted their status by the public, these ‘new urban signifiers’ have their status conferred by architectural critics, often before erection. Instead of being ‘timeless spatial expression of established power…identified with the city’s economy’ in a mutually beneficial relationship between private capital and the city, new urban signifiers are ‘branding objects’ with ‘no loyalty to their city’.
Kaika suggests these changes in architectural patronage have an impact in three areas: the relationship between buildings and public space; the relationship between the individual building and the city; and the social role of the architect and architecture generally. The symbiotic relationship between private capital and the city meant that ‘old urban signifiers’ had generous public space, simultaneously ‘forging the image of a good capitalist and a sense of civic pride’. New urban signifiers tend to be ‘fortified against the public’. In their urban context the former were ‘events which can conjure an image of the city as a totality; the latter are self contained machines, autonomous or ‘autistic’ architecture. The skyline can reflect those qualities, being either a trace of the rest of the urban fabric with some connection to the experience at ground level, or exist as autonomous entities. Finally when designing ‘old urban signifiers’ architects challenged and stirred, as Guggenheim said of Wright, ‘I need a fighter, a lover of space, an agitator, a tester and a wise man…’ But their new counterparts need no more than to run on the rails successful formulae, where architects have renounced their role as public intellectuals.