“Why architecture needs low-resolution critique” at KTH

LO-RES_KTH Arkitekturskolan_Launch event at the New KTH School of Architecture, Osquars Backe 5 in Stockholm at 18:00 on September 17. Read more

Why Architecture Needs A Low-Resolution Critique

Helen Runting

Script for LO-RES launch event at KTH School of Architecture
September 2015

The architecture of the twenty-first century operates under the hegemony of the slick, the accessible, the legible, the recombinable. Architecture, as it discussed, represented, and thought, has largely been relegated to the domain of seductive images, painfully operative diagrams, punchy catch phrases, and a cult of the personality.

High-resolution and high-visibility, the shining new buildings (whether actually built or not) of the current neoliberal economic moment promise the possibility of legibility, of readability, of direct communication in a world dulled by the affective fogs of an economic logic that is in fact lacking exactly this legibility, an economic logic that has been described by many as schizophrenic, as “mad.”[1] As Joseph Vogl comments:

“The so-called crises of recent decades have led us to ask whether what is taking place in the arenas of international finance economy is the efficient interaction of market actors or a spectacle of the purest irrationality. In any case, it remains unclear whether the much-invoked ‘spirit of capitalism’ operates reliably or simply insanely.”[2]

It is within this “insanity” (ecological, social, economic, political) that we wish to position and discuss architecture. It is the “conditions these conditions are in” which prompt us to propose that architecture needs a low-resolution critique…

Compulsive production

Fredric Jameson once proposed that postmodernism was an attempt to take the temperature of an age. If we, as architectural practitioners and theorists, were to engage in such a maneuver, how would we register the temperature of the present moment? How do we experience the present moment of capitalism? Reflecting on this question, we pose that architectural labour is experienced as simultaneously choppy and smooth, “cellularized” or “fractalized” on one hand and “connected” on the other.

In the present moment of late capitalism, the work that is architecture is spread unevenly across the waged work of the office and the unwaged spaces of everyday life (morning commute emails, the work-related “after work” drink, “soft cadding” on weekends, the eponymous “café-office”/coffice/boffice), the connection of which is facilitated by the technological infrastructures of interface (phones and screens certainly, but also magazines and media). The discrete tasks of architectural labor are not only divided up, as in the production lines of the twentieth century (a process which has famously been critiqued for concealing the product from view), but they have also become radically indiscernible—the entire process of production has itself now disappeared. It is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between consumption and production, between life and production, between sleep and production. A productive spirit (in its various guises called collaboration, entrepreneurship, or the social) reigns, and in the midst of all of our various discrete, choppy, and fragmented “projects,” it is oddly difficult to know when we are working, and for whom.

As Franco “Bifo” Berardi writes, within semiocapitalism, “cells of productive time can be mobilized in punctual, casual, and fragmentary forms. The recombination of these fragments is automatically realized in the network.” Work, just like its immediate products, is thus chopped up, packaged, sold, and re-used. He continues:

“From the point of view of the valorization of capital, flow is continuous, but from the point of view of the existence and time of cognitive workers, productive activity has the character of recombinant fragmentation in cellular form.”[3]


In service of this compulsively productive biopolitical economy, or perhaps just as a reflection of its spirit, contemporary architectural discourse is equally cellularized, delivering a smooth flow of equally choppy bits—the architectural press is full of juicy images, witty sound bites, academico-corporate best practice, and well-crafted architectural self-promotion.

The smoothness of the mode of delivery, of the format, in fact works to conceal the discontinuities of the content.

In the academic press, this plays out in rigid writing conventions, uncompromising grids, endless peer-review processes undertaken in order to win indexing status and continuity, in compulsive requirements to express one’s “scientific ambitions” (“Where is the evidence?”) or to flaunt one’s credentials in hipness. In the popular and professional press, the flow of images is insatiable, and the number of faces – always in black and white, often white, often male – overflows onto the streets of cities. Advertising copies magazines copying advertising. We all begin to look like we belong on an ad for Apple. Everything is smooth:

“Reducers of complexity such as money, information, stereotypes, or digital network interfaces have simplified the relationship with the other, but when the other appears in flesh and blood, we cannot tolerate its presence, because it hurts our (in)sensibility. The video-electronic generation does not tolerate armpit or pubic hair. One needs perfect compatibility in order to interface corporeal surfaces in connection. Smooth generation.”[4] 

As feminist architectural theorist Katherine Shonfield pointed out, joining disparate things requires the various components to be compatible, to be “tolerant”:

“A harsh or rigorous form of construction cannot vary to allow the presence of other components. Just like a party: two people get into a conversation, and it becomes clear that, come what may, each is going to maintain their opinions, and the one person cannot be affected in any way by the other. If you are the host, this puts you under enormous strain. You have to accommodate both persons. You have to be almost infinitely flexible, capable of being pulled from one side and the other without snapping.”[5]

And so the architectural discourse instills the necessary view of a slick, continuous, smooth, and stimulating whole; of formatting the chunks of that process as compatible, combinable, as tolerant with respect to each other. Architectural media plays the role of a tolerant host.

The entrepreneurial self

Fragmentation and repetition renders architecture’s operations both invisible and personal.

Undertaking choppy tasks, a precarious workforce is not only forced into a precarious labor politics, but also routines of repetitive copying, of recombining and recycling the labor of others. Short on time, confidence and the privileged room to experiment, architects flagrantly copy from magazines. This is repetition in the sense of “going through the motions.” In being done (being performed, over and over again), such operations are incorporated as habit, or doxa. As Wendy Brown puts it:

“The model neoliberal citizen is one who strategizes for her- or himself among various social, political, and economic options, not one who strives with others to alter or organize these options.”[6]

A low-resolution agenda

One. Criticality has never been “tolerant” and it certainly doesn’t play off the register of “compatibility” or clear communication. In its ambiguity, though, it demands that both sides change, rather than playing the aim of the “infinitely flexible” host.

Two. The invisible, the unthought, needs to be illuminated, in order that it can be perceived as part of an external system and not a failure of oneself.

Three. Further, variation of the radical kind in the conditions of today’s capitalism is a matter, perhaps then—we wager—of introducing radical modulations into the underlying tone, of operating on a level that repeats in discordant terms.

Four. The only thing worth changing are the structures that produce the possibility of that self, architecture being one of them.

Five. Noise, unexplainable echoes, discordant clashes, distortion, and ambiguity are not problems but aims.

Sweden occupies an interesting moment right now. It is poised on the edge of systemic mutations of the darker kind. Architecture is complicit in the dismantling of the state, of the industry of architecture, of its institutions and its own media. Architecture is complicit in the production of a neoliberal architecture of habit, repetitive error, internalized potential, and infinite “flexibility” of the kind that means accepting the subjugating conditions of the present (for ourselves and, importantly, for others).

A plunge into the lower registers might not change these things. A wholesale shift in practice, however, introducing discordant variations on all of those repetitions, might. We need more magazines, more projects, more architects, more architecture, not less. More copying is fine too. Such a move has definitely been done before. But, perhaps, not exactly like this.


[1]. “Everything is rational in capitalism, except capital or capitalism itself. The stock market is certainly rational; one can understand it, study it, the capitalists know how to use it, and yet it is completely delirious, it’s mad.” Gilles Deleuze in Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, ‘Capitalism: A Very Special Delirium,’ ed. Sylvere Lothringer, Chaosophy (Los Angeles: Autonomedia/Semiotexte 1995), n.p.

[2]. Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capitalism (California: Stanford University Press, 2015), ix.

[3]. Franco (Bifo) Berardi, eds. Gary Genosko & Nicholas Thoburn, After the Future (Oakland: AK Press, 2011), n.p.

[4]. Ibid., 68.

[5]. Katherine Shonfield, Walls Have Feelings: Architecture, Film and the City (London: Routledge, 2000), 40.

[6]. Wendy Brown, ‘Neoliberalism and the End of Democracy,’ in Edgework (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 2005), 43.


“In the little towns on the terraced hillsides the new buildings played piggyback with one another, while in their midst the owners of the old houses added another story and craned their necks to see out. The town where Quinto lived had once been surrounded by shaded gardens of eucalyptus trees and magnolias, where retired English colonels and elderly spinsters leaned over the hedges and exchanged Tauchnitz editions and watering cans. Now the bulldozers were churning up the soil with its rotting leaves and its gravel from the garden paths, picks were demolishing the two-story residences, the ax was at the broad-leaved palm trees, which fell with a papery scrunch from the sky so soon to be filled by the desirable, three-room, all-convenience, sunny homes of tomorrow.“

– Italo Calvino, “A Plunge Into Real Estate”

Every inch of the earth’s land mass now seems subject to some form of financial speculation. The forces of real estate divide us according to our historical, current, and even our future means: our ability to borrow, and our ability to repay. Conversely, our judgments, when it comes to real estate—whether they are optimistic or pessimistic, pragmatic or nostalgic, projective or critical—are most often understood as “personal” sentiments, assessments performed on a case-by-case basis; they are seen as individual and biographical, rather than ideological. In this way, real estate plays off and affects dreams and desires, bringing us into being as subjects capable of owning, borrowing, coveting, and profiting from real estate.

Under a planning and development regime emphasizing “private” property ownership and its protective discourses (e.g., amenity), public debate on urban development has become centered around medially constructed, opinionated “communities” of both NIMBYs and YIMBYs. In the shadow of this Potemkin village of open democracy, actual decisions on the allocations of spatial resources appear to become increasingly complex and opaque.

At a time when the common good is figured by the total sum of individual satisfactions, our legal and bureaucratic systems seem unable to counter to the great variety of vested interests they encounter; they are thus exposed to constant attack by factions demanding the cutting of red tape.

The business of real estate is the prototypical capitalist undertaking, evidencing as it does continuous economic development, the inevitable progression of society, and the unrelenting commodification of life. In the current moment of late neoliberal capitalism, realtors are expanding their conventional domain of influence deeper and deeper into the building industry and into architectural design, orchestrating the material and immaterial production of architecture in ways that align more and more with their marketing strategies. At the same time, the building project in itself has become the ultimate turn-around venture in which the entrepreneurs, the doers, the independents, the hopefuls, and the hard working are incarnated as building contractors, business partners, or capitalists. Commercial opportunities are not to be missed. The skeptics, on the other hand, are the ones who are too slow, too passive or simply too appalled to do anything; they are the figures slowly forced into becoming sellers or unwilling minor players in the game of property trade.

The second issue of LO-RES takes as its starting point Italo Calvino’s novella, A Plunge Into Real Estate. First published in 1957, the story unfolds through the eyes of a young intellectual, who returns home to his place of birth in the Italian Riviera. In the heady climate of the late 1950s, the protagonist’s disengagement from the place is quickly supplanted by an increasing frustration as he is confronted with the rapid exploitation of land. The transformations through real estate development are not only physical but also mental, encompassing the alteration of attitudes towards history, class, valorization, and success. In such a climate, even the most hardboiled opponent of change could be lured into supporting the very mechanism of change via the lure of being a part of a given “economic moment.”

Taking inspiration from this neorealist tale, the second issue of LO-RES addresses the material and immaterial forces of real estate. We are seeking submissions from theorists, researchers, writers, and practitioners that address the architectural, theoretical, historical and political significance of the material and immaterial forces of real estate.

Deadline for full submissions: 31st October 2015

For submissions, please contact the editors with a proposal, at editors@lo-res.se.



This first issue of LO-RES is dedicated to the architecture of infinite extrusion, of capitalist expansion, and of the Welfare State: the high-rise.

In cities across the globe, skyscrapers delineate downtown skylines, engaging in a competitive gymnastics of competition and accumulation. Fields of towers populate the urban periphery of countless cities, forming stacked agglomerations of suburban life, distributed monuments of State housing. Beyond these inner and outer rings, on windswept shorelines and abutting the curtilage of freeways or bridges or airstrips, isolated sentinels stand, not in fields or fabrics but alone, softly announcing their presence on the horizon in semaphore, the lights of their sky bars dully blinking into action at dusk.

High-rise architecture inspires a potent mix of fear, awe, rapture, disillusionment, and dissent. It stacks humanity vertically, allocating inhabitants a floor number. It concentrates, divides, segregates, and multiplies populations. It signifies and it affects us. It also constitutes the object around which the labor of thousands of architects is organized each day, as countless offices produce drawings for these vertiginous schemes, so many of which will never attain materialization (so many of which were never intended to). High-rise, then, constitutes a troubled category of architecture – problematic and divisive and thus in possession (we hope) of a concomitant capacity to trouble, to produce long-range seismological disturbances in the way that we draw, write, inhabit, and dream about and through architecture.

Picking up a theme that has recently proven highly divisive within the Scandinavian context in which we are based as a publication, the essays which make up this issue together constitute a critical catalogue of mechanisms and effects, a distributed engagement with the high-rise as a troubled and a (productively) troubling sociomaterial phenomenon. The issue is arranged in three parts, which are discussed below.

Part One: Projects

From the American social housing of the 1950s and 1960s to the management-speak of the 1980s and 1990s, high-rise typologies have long been associated with the idea of the “project.” The scale of high-rise architecture in itself in fact ensures that it must act as a project, a mass of connections and representations which by virtue of their sheer gravity[1] must be capable of drawing in the vast amounts of capital and extensive networks of influence required to make a building materialize.[2] To speak of architecture as a project, then, is to speak of an architecture “ripening in the clouds.”[3] The four essays that make up Part One of this issue all address high-rise architecture on these terms.

As Fredric Jameson acknowledged in the early 1990s (the golden era, perhaps, of the project): in architecture, the project both precedes and acts as a proxy for “the real building.”[4] The real building is, in these essays, indeed oddly absent; it is always elsewhere, always located in the realm of the not-yet, or alternately condemned to being viewed as an image of itself – perhaps even, to return to Jameson, a “spurious image at that.”[5] As such, rather than an architecture characterized by the absence of traces of its own production (a quality which signaled the shift in the late 1990s to the so-called “cool” architecture of the “projective turn”)[6] what Hogenboom, Rosenberg, Torisson, and Runting describe is an architecture that exists only as traces. This is an architecture of drawings, sketches, rumors, details, descriptions, budgets, and planning permits, which are projected onto and into the spaces of media, the market, and the planning process as “reified substitute[s] for the real building.”[7]

To act as a substitute is, however, not to act without effect. In fact, even as “simulations” (a term Torisson borrows from Jean Baudrillard) – that is, even as mere imitation, “dreams of dreams nobody had” – projects are highly effective, as long as they are treated as if they are real. But what is it, it can then be asked, that they are so effective at doing? As Frida Rosenberg, drawing on the work of Jacques Rancière, elucidates: in preceding the buildings to which they refer, architectural projects actively produce the conditions for their own production. In this way, Rosenberg demonstrates in the case of the Wenner-Gren Center, the filmic narrative of the promotional film for the Center actively produces the high-rise monument which it describes, lending the project symbolic “gravity” and thus setting up the conditions for the materialization of the building as a monument. In a similar manner, the polite question: “How are you affected by the grant of a [planning] permit?” produces both an affective response (in the case considered by Helen Runting, a sense of trauma) and the political conditions for the provision of planning permission to which it refers (again, a precondition for materialization). This work that is done – and that must be done – by high-rise projects prior to their construction can be described in terms of a kind of ‘performativity,’ to borrow from Judith Butler’s development of J. L. Austin’s earlier work on the speech act, whereby: “the name performs itself, and in the course of that performing becomes a thing done; the pronouncement is the act of speech at the same time that it is the speaking of an act.”[8] If there is one thing that is clear in Butler’s account of this strange propensity within language, it is that performatives are in fact rarely successful. Performativity is contingent and unstable; it relies on a complex set of conditions and conventions. When transposed from the speech act to the architectural act,[9] this instability carries over too: whether “success” is defined in the production of a building (as in Rosengren’s essay) or not (as in Torisson’s), architecture emerges as a deadly serious game of make-believe, a potent cocktail of fact and fiction.

In preceding the real building (and like all good cocktails), the high-rise “project” first registers in the minds of its publics. This “haunting” quality, whereby the project must insinuate itself within individuals and collectives, might in fact be described under the tenets of a building’s “pyschoarchitetectonics,” a key interest of the British science fiction writer, J.G. Ballard.[10] Like his subsequent book Crash, his 1975 novel High-Rise is at once a journey through the built environment, a social hierarchy and, ultimately, a psychic landscape, where it is the projected image of the high-rise building (arguably the novel’s key protagonist, and at times narrator)[11] which is ultimately imbued with the greatest degree of agency: “Their real opponent,” Ballard writes, “was not the hierarchy of residents in the heights far above them, but the image of the building in their own minds, the multiplying layers of concrete that anchored them to the floor.”[12] The essays of Part One also pose that it is in our minds that the high-rise, in its reception, takes on anthropomorphic or narrative qualities, that it is able to be accorded a “posture,” that it can be said to be pornographic and thus obscene, or that it can be said to (vertiginously) “loom.” The presence of a building is, in most cases, superfluous to this process: it is the image of the building which insinuates itself within its public.

It is also “in our minds” that critical theories of architecture most often locate the emancipation which they seek. If the CCTV building in Beijing produces an oscillation between incongruent or competing images – between the monument (the official image) and pornography (the monument’s anthropomorphic double, its obscene “posture”) – in Katja Hogenboom’s analysis, the resulting ambiguity opens up a space for critical reflection in the mind of the building’s public(s). Whilst Hogenboom herself does not read OMA’s architecture in such terms, in the intentional and designed performative failure of the monumental image, we might say that a critical counter-project may be present, yet obscured. However, like its architectural form, CCTV’s project remains shrouded in its own ambiguity – just as Koolhaas’ gambit can be read as a critical project (barely) clad in “corporate drag,” it could also be just the opposite; it is as such hard to tell if the flickering effect produced in the oscillation described by Hogenboom is produced by subversive sequins or by metals of a colder, harder kind. Perhaps high-rises are, more often than not, an alloy, an impure combination of the two.

The performative is, however – and fortunately so – beyond the remit of intention alone, because it both precedes and exceeds the subject.[13] As Judith Butler reminds us, a performative act succeeds “only because that action echoes prior actions, and accumulates the force of authority through the repetition or citation of a prior and authoritative set of practices.”[14] As such, she locates the critical task in the possibility of a subversive repetition. It is clear that in its relatively short but highly intense history, the high-rise typology has accumulated plenty of material for citation, much of which is contained within the “traces” that make up the architectural project. It is also clear that it has thereby gathered a force of authority that now extends beyond the building itself and deep into that project, which, as Torisson demonstrates, no longer even needs a building in order to act upon the world. Most importantly, though, as each of the essays at Part One respectively demonstrate, in order for a project to succeed (or to intentionally fail) in its aim to materialize some or all of its traces, those traces must take root in the minds of a series of architectural publics. In light of this mediated exchange, an urgent task for architects and theorists seems to us to lie in the design and the theorization of a more reflexive “politics of reception” for the architectural project. 

Part Two: Transformations

Standing as a counterpoint to Part One of the issue, the essays which make up Part Two together envisage a radical transformation of the high-rise through a shift executed through the embodied acts of its occupants. We thus move on to a bracket of essays wherein architecture is treated as a material condition rather than an image or project, and is subsequently able to be repurposed through acts of tactical use. Situated within a tradition of architectural writing which owes a heavy debt to Henri Lefebvre’s analysis of architecture as “lived,” in these texts the subjects of the high-rise are positioned as producers of the architecture that they respectively negotiate, covet, destroy, or colonize; their use of architecture constitutes its animating principle.[15] As in the preceding texts, trauma, dreams, and symbolism all infect the new realities that are opened up by the repurposing of the high-rise, but here architecture is enacted by human subjects who are no longer placed on the outside of the building looking in (and thus “at”), but who have become physically integrated into the building’s structure, through use. Our viewpoint shifts.

What unites the work of Karami, Reisinger, and Ozmin is that rather than a production of subjectivities which privileges one partner – as in Koolhaas’ description of the Downtown Athletic Club, whereby the metropolitan bachelor is the product of the building, itself a (biopolitical) “machine for metropolitan bachelors”[16] – all three authors determinedly set both parts of the occupant-building assemblage in motion, on the terms of co-constitutive encounter. Each essay thus describes an architecture that anticipates and accompanies the corresponding transformation of its user, a figure who negotiates and repurposes this “landscape of re-appropriated surplus and debris”[17] in order to produce tactical opportunities for (individual and collective) transformation. As such, architecture is conceptualized as existing in a state of constant becoming, as the building is “ingested” (to borrow Sepideh Karami’s term) by the occupant through occupation, and in turn the building “ingests” the user, both physically (through their negotiation and manipulation of its physical possibilities) and, in an echo of the essays of the previous section, mentally (through, for instance a play of anthropomorphic simile). As Karami writes of her protagonist:

‘I am standing in front of a trick mirror,’ she thought, perceiving a sort of similarity between her body and the tower. Their fragile bones bore the same burden, the same weight of the Venezuelan financial collapse. They looked at each other with hunger in their eyes. She felt an urge to enter her enlarged self, to travel into her empty stomach, her neurons and her fragile, incomplete organs. Who was eating whom? She or the tower?

All three authors describe instances wherein the high-rise (whether it is Torre David, the Twin Towers, or flattened into the Swedish postindustrial landscape of “things”) is both fully there and at the same time dematerializing and denaturing: the high-rises examined in Part Two are thus simultaneously “half-finished” and “halfway to ruin.”[18] The environment is treated as a found, as given, but also as broken. In each case, the high-rise acts as a vestigial remnant of a time that has now passed, which never fully came – we sense the presence of the project of modernism, of all those cited traces of high-rise architecture, with its various political weights, its “gravities.” In these essays, we thus see the return of a decidedly postmodern position in relation to architecture. Beneath the persistent images of a modernist project in tatters, we also sense echoes of the desperation of the postmodern, a feeling expressed so clearly by Jean Baudrillard in a 1984 interview:

Postmodernity is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. It is a game with the vestiges of what have been destroyed… all the definitions, everything, it’s all been done. What can one do? What can one become? And postmodernity is the attempt – perhaps it’s desperate, I don’t know – to reach a point where one can live with what is left. It is more a survival among the remnants than anything else. (Laughter.)[19]

The prospect of radical change no longer “looms” in these essays, but is rather underway, as we ricochet unsteadily into the postindustrial, postmodern urban landscape of the twenty-first century, which is more about survival than materializing a “project.” It is in the fraught terrain of post-9/11 New York, as in Reisinger’s work, or amongst the debris of excess represented by Sweden’s secondhand goods market, or in the ruins of Venezuelan financial collapse, that the radical change which we confront in Part Two (and which we perhaps anticipated in Part One) is in fact revealed as the premise which fuels the circuits of contemporary capitalism. As Maurizio Lazzarato warns us, we have now entered an era wherein the production of subjectivity represents the most important work of capitalism.[20] As such, we must be careful in addressing the terms of a mutually implicated transformation in the architecture-occupant relation, understanding that even in the drastically more fluid conditions of the contemporary capitalist city – which, drawing on Gilles Deleuze, alternately might be described in the terms of a “control society” – and just like the rapidly changing urban landscapes which we now inhabit, there is no guarantee that we will be given the opportunity to (reflexively or critically) consent to the terms of our encounter with architecture, and there is certainly no guarantee that we will like who we become.

Part Three: Occupations

Finally, it seems fitting that we arrive in the future promised to us by the project with which it all started. Beyond the ‘not-yet’ and the ‘half-finished,’ and certainly not yet ‘halfway to ruin,’ the architecture of the high-rise is explored in the final four essays which make up Part Three of this issue as an architecture that has materialized en masse, an architecture that now operates at the scale of the urban itself. In the skyscrapers of a deregulated property market, we confront what Jim Hudson describes an architecture “that presents itself as ‘the future,’ but a future that seems unable to cope with its own implications.”[21] It is with the explication of those implications that these texts engage. The four essays that comprise Part Three thus signal diverse stories of arrival, asking their reader the question, albeit divergently, “Now that we are here, can we really” – to return to Baudrillard – “‘live with what is left’?”

Eija Hasu and Aija Staffans, working in the Finnish context and the twin cities of Helsinki and Espoo, and Andy Fergus, writing of Melbourne in Australia, could not come from more geographically disparate corners of the globe, and yet these commentators paint strikingly similar pictures of the architectural consequences of “delusions of perpetual growth,”[22] critically questioning the degree of “liveability” (a term both essays deploy) afforded by the contemporary high-rise city. To claim that a built environment is no longer “liveable” is not to claim that it no longer supports life, but rather perhaps to claim that it no longer supports a good life. A point of return is thereby signaled, as the authors direct us to reconsider perhaps the most important question of architectural modernism – How to live?[23] Modernism’s ghost thereby returns, and at the scale of the urban no less, doubling over the postmodern skyline of towers like the obscene folding itself over the monumental in the CCTV building in Beijing.

The four essays collected here seem to point to a broadly socioecological understanding of what “good” (and thus “liveable”) might in turn mean – in a sense, Hasu and Staffans, Fergus, and Hudson are all in agreement that “the city already exists; it does not need to be created,” and as such that “social network[s] of support built up over years” in fact constitute the heart of a “liveable” city. Whilst Jim Hudson defends the right to public housing and affordability, Hasu, Staffans, and Fergus reiterate the importance of (modernist) planning considerations such as light, views, communal facilities, and street life as part of the complex liveability formula. In fact, these diverse criteria might, with recourse to Amy Butt’s uniquely dystopian brand of archi-literary criticism, be clustered under the category of “needs.” After all, it is essentially under the auspices of (to quote Butt) “the fear that our environment can outgrow us and that the needs of the cities we make will overshadow our own” that these authors argue against the “disfigured” cities of late capitalism and their high-rise towers. Emphasizing the quotidian experience of the city, these final essays all convey a deep sense of concern for the present occupants of the contemporary high-rise: for the quality of life afforded to them by their environment, which is portrayed as potentially hostile. (Even in Hudson’s meditation on the ultra-rich of London’s Southbank, we sense a concern about the effects that their voluntary incarceration will have upon them.) It is here that we also begin to sense a discussion emerging around what might be termed the “biopolitical” implications of high-rise architecture. Deploying the terms developed by Michel Foucault in the lectures Security, Territory, Population, 1977-1978, and The Birth of Biopolitics, 1978-1979, as well as Sven-Olof Wallenstein’s positioning of biopolitics in relation to architectural theory,[24] such a discussion might situate the high-rise simultaneously as a mechanism of ‘discipline’ (over bodies), an object through which ‘sovereignty’ can be exerted (over territories), and as a problem of ‘security’ (or, the control of future events). In a way, we are therefore back at the Downtown Athletic Club, that biopolitical machine for the production of metropolitan bachelors described by Rem Koolhaas in the mid-1970s, except that it now operates at the scale of the city itself, producing not only bachelors, but transient student populations, market segments like “urbactives” and “homevestors,” or those who can consume on the basis of a label like “oligarch-affordable.”

As such, the contemporary high-rise, then, finally, might be termed part of a neoliberal “environmentality.” Michel Foucault describes neoliberalism as a governmental practice – a “way of doing things” – that aims to actively produce the market by in fact steering clear of the market itself and rather acting on the social body, making that body market-like (competitive, innovative, flexible, etc.).[25] Part of the “project” – a term we can now define as those traces of architectural production that exert sufficient gravity in order to act as a substitute for a building and bring that building (or a counter- or even anti-building) into being – of contemporary high-rise architecture seems to lie in the production of the conditions for a market. Through the notion of environmentality, which remains largely undeveloped in Foucault’s lecture, neoliberal governance, in this sense, doesn’t directly produce subjectivities as much as environments:

On the horizon of this analysis we see… the image, idea, or theme-program of a society in which … action is brought to bear on the rules of the game rather than on the players, and finally in which there is an environmental type of intervention instead of the internal subjugation of individuals.[26]

Again, then, we return to Baudrillard’s uncomfortable “game.” In fact, we can speculate that this may be ultimately why the high-rise (and subsequently, the city) takes on anthropomorphic qualities for us: if we can’t see our environment until it becomes content,[27] and if we then feel fear in the face of the “fiction” we create, beyond architecture’s politics of (critical) reception or its politics of (radical) transformation, there must be a horizon whereby both the occupation and the design of high-rise architecture engage in a feedback loop, producing a social body (even a city) that is “good,” in the sense that it is liveable. Perhaps a point of departure in pursing such an architecture might, after all, be located in the “project” – in “a mass of active connections apt to create forms” through the sheer (performative) weight of their own gravity.


[1]. The term “gravity” is taken from Fredrik Torisson’s essay, ‘An Essay About Nothing,’ published in this issue. Torisson deploys the term in order to describe the ability of successive tower proposals in Malmö, Sweden, to generate a range of effects, including increases in land prices and the facilitation of the strategic planning of greenfield sites.

[2]. In considering the “project” in its “gathering” capacity, we here draw upon the definition set out by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello in their study of management practices in the new economy. The pair describe the project as: “precisely a mass of active connections apt to create forms – that is to say, bring objects and subjects into existence – by stabilizing certain connections and making them irreversible. It is thus a temporary pocket of accumulation which, creating value, provides a base for the requirement of extending the network by further connections.” Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2005), 104.

[3]. The notion of “ripening in the clouds” references Georg Reisinger’s use of Philippe Petit’s description of his walk between the Twin Towers, which is addressed at length in Reisinger’s contribution to this issue, ‘Stories.’ Philippe Petit, To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers (New York: North Point Press, 2002).

[4]. Fredric Jameson. Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1992), 124.

[5]. Ibid., 125.

[6]. Here, we refer to the terminology of the so-called “post-critical debate” in architecture, and the way in which the term “projective” was put forward in Somol and Whiting’s polemic ‘Notes around the Doppler effect and other moods of modernism.’ Robert Somol and Sarah Whiting, ‘Notes Around the Doppler Effect and Other Moods of Modernism,’ Perspecta 33 (2002): 75.

[7]. Jameson, Postmodernism, 124.

[8]. This definition is taken from Judith Butler. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (New York: Routledge, 1997), 44 (emphasis original).

[9]. This is a move that, whilst not uncontroversial, is elegantly justified by architect and theorist Katarina Bonnevier. As Bonnevier writes, “Since architecture is produced culturally, performativity is built into all architecture. For example, architecture prescribes behavior; bodies and social situations are engaged with building elements, settings and scenes. By repeating the same principles for how we build homes over and over again, these principles are naturalized.” Katarina Bonnevier, Behind Straight Curtains: Towards A Queer Feminist Theory of Architecture (Stockholm: axl books, 2007), 369.

[10]. The term “psychoarchitectonics” was raised by Ballard in: Iain Sinclair. Crash: David Cronenberg’s post-mortem on J.G. Ballard’s ‘Trajectory of fate’ (London: BFI, 1999), 29-30.

Ballard’s text High-Rise, which was published in 1975, in fact constitutes a core reference for many of the essays which comprise this issue – this is perhaps not surprising, given the shared thematic and the way in which the book, although not a work explicitly included in the ‘canon’ of architectural writing, nonetheless exerts a presence within architectural culture and education. High-Rise constitutes a shared ground, then, which connects architecture’s inside with that which is outside and, with the 40th anniversary and rumored release of a film version in 2015, provides a timely excuse to stir the pot with co-conspirators and friends.

[11]. As Nicole Larose writes, “As each of the male protagonists retreats to a phallocentric understanding…, the narrative perspective becomes more and more circumspect, suggesting a position that only the building could provide as it is the only omniscient perspective presented.” Nicole Larose, “Gangsters, Zombies, And Other Rebels: Alternative Communities In Late Twentieth-Century British Novels And Films” (PhD Diss., University of Florida, 2006).

[12]. J.G. Ballard, High-Rise (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975), 69..

[13]. We note that Maurizio Lazzarato argues for the continuing relevance of Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of “speech genres” as an alternative to Butler’s development of the performative. Quoting Bakhtin, he explains, “Although just as normative and prescriptive as language, speech genres are much more ‘changeable, flexible, and plastic.’ Speakers discover in speech genres the possibility of forming their expression and their ‘intention’ (address, response, position, etc.) in more or less creative, more or less stereotypical, ways.” Whilst we acknowledge the importance of Lazzarato’s alternative, we deploy the performative here in order to open up the specific question of deliberate performative failure and citation. As such, we see the theory as holding a strategic usefulness in the present discussion. Maurizio Lazzarato. Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2014), 193.

[14]. Butler, 1997, 51.

[15]. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991).

[16]. Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (New York: The Monacelli Press, 1994).

[17]. See Janek Ozmin’s essay ‘Duchamp, Wall, Isis, and Blocket,’ in this issue.

[18]. Here, we refer to Sepideh Karami’s use of Jill Stoner’s work on a “minor architecture,” in her essay ‘DE/Ascending: Torre David, The Second Episode of Ballard’s High-Rise,’ in this issue. Jill Stoner, Toward A Minor Architecture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012), 102.

[19]. Jean Baudrillard is here quoted in Mike Gone (ed.), ‘Game with Vestiges: An Interview with Salvatore Mele and Mark Titmarsh,’ Baudrillard: Selected Interviews (London: Routledge, 1993), 95.

[20]. Lazzarato. Signs and Machines, 2014.

[21]. See Jim Hudson’s essay ‘High-Rise,’ in this issue.

[22]. See Andy Fergus’s essay ‘Melbourne: A City for Cowboys,’ in this issue.

[23]. Here, we refer to the phrase “How to live?” (Wie wohnen?), which was printed across the poster for the Deutscher Werkbund exhibition (Werkbund ausstellung) of 1927 in Stuttgart, Germany.

[24] See Sven-Olof Wallenstein, “Noopolitics, Life and Architecture,” in Cognitive Architecture: From Biopolitics to Noopolitics; Architecture and Mind in the Age of Communication and Information, eds. Deborah Hauptmann, Warren Neidich (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2010).

[25] As Foucault puts it: “[Neoliberal] Government must not form a counterpoint or a screen, as it were, between society and economic processes. It has to intervene on society as such, in its fabric and depth. Basically, it has to intervene on society so that competitive mechanisms can play a regulatory role at every moment and every point in society and by intervening in this way its objective will become possible, that is to say, a general regulation of society by the market.” Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France 1978-1979, eds. Michael Senellart et al. (New York: Picador, 2008), 145.

[26] Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, 2008.

[27]. See Marshall McLuhan, “The Invisible Environment: The Future of an Erosion,” Perspecta 11 (1967).




Photo by Katja Hogenboom, all rights reserved.


VERTIGO Helen Runting
STORIES Geo Reisinger
HIGH-RISE Jim Hudson



By its very efficiency, the high-rise took over the task of maintaining the social structure that supported them all. For the first time it removed the need to repress every kind of anti-social behaviour, and left them free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses. It was precisely in these areas that the most important aspects of their lives would take place. Secure within the shell of the high-rise like passengers on board an automatically piloted airliner, they were free to behave in any way they wished, explore the darkest corners they could find. In many ways, the high-rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly ‘free’ psychopathology.”
(J.G. Ballard, High-Rise, 1975: 46)

In cities across the globe, the familiar form of skyscrapers delineate downtowns, stretching upwards in a competitive gymnastics of extension and accumulation. In other instances, high-rise buildings mark urban peripheries, forming distributed agglomerations of suburban life, remnants of the Welfare State that are left to decay quietly. Neither the former nor the latter, to this typology we might add those sentinels that occupy wind-swept shorelines and the sides of the enormous freeways, those occasional lonely towers that punctuate the low-slung skylines of “the traditional city”, running interference on the trademark silhouettes of church spires and town halls. These high-rise survey the horizon – the coastline, the airport, the motorway – loudly announcing “Arrival!” in semaphore, the lights of their sky bars blinking dully.

High-rise architecture inspires fear, awe, rapture, disillusionment and dissent. It stacks humanity vertically, allocating us all a programme. It concentrates, divides, excludes, disseminates and multiplies. It signifies and affects.

The first issue of LO-RES is dedicated to the architecture of infinite extension, of capitalist expansion and the Welfare State: the high-rise. We are seeking submissions from theorists, researchers, writers and practitioners that address the sociomaterial phenomenon of the highrise in and through architectural theory.

The deadline for submissions for this issue is on the 30th of April, 2014.

For submissions and questions, please contact: editors@lo-res.se