The tall office building has been more often than not compared with the male erection. It’s like the starchitects play ‘mine is bigger than yours’ on a city’s skyline. Each new skyscraper boasts to be taller than the previous, or distinguish itself by adding a ‘striking’ form to the skyline.
Kim Dovey in his book, ” Framing Places-Mediating Power in the Built Form” talks about this very phenomena in the chapter titled “Tall Storeys”. Right from when the need for more offices in the Capitalist society of the USA was realized, steel enabled economical construction to a great height, Elisha Otis invented the high speed elevator, and a growing population combined with growing land value, forced an increase in number of storeys. Tall office buildings started, Louis Sullivan’s famous ‘Form follows Function” came about, the skyscrapers have just been going higher and higher, getting more and more disconnected from the street life, people and nature. They pierce the sky with promises for financial capital investments relying on their symbolic capital.
Tall office buildings are a response to market pressure for more rentable space on a given site area. As the height increases, so does the inefficiency of the service core vs. the floorplate. That doesn’t stop the corporate tower from proliferating. Dovey focuses on how advertising helps establish the symbolic capital of these towers.
The ideal and the reality are at odds with each other. Tall stories are woven around tall storeys.
–Kim Dovey p118
Advertising is the field of discourse which frames the decision to lease, on which profit is based. It is the primary circuit of symbolic capital. From monographs to magazines, the buildings by architects with a signature style get all the attention. Architecture is more often than not judged by its looks. With surrealistic renders and strategic photographs, it portrays an ideal rather than the reality; it distorts as it mythologizes.
There’s an attempt to look at the ways in which the advertising world tries to achieve this. I Distinction I
- Portrayal of the building as a work of art, with a genius such as Da Vinci shown making the tower, the aesthetic aura masking the facts of social , political and economic process as it constructs an authenticity linked to notions of genius and authority. (You must have seen the billboards with Bollywood stars for an apartments’ ad, that’s on similar lines)
- Uniqueness of form is used to make the building a landmark, to stand out in the city’s skyline (When each new building tries to be a landmark, all it leads to is symbolic capital shifting from one to the other. Hence the craze about the next tallest building.)
- Material is used for instance to ‘stand out in the concrete jungle’, and also in order to achieve a timelessness in the expression- Eg: stone is reminiscent of the past.
Lefebvre, in his book ‘Production of Space’ theorises the monumental built form as phallic :
Metaphorically it symbolizes force, male fertility, masculine violence…Phallic erectility bestows a special status on the perpendicular.
This reminds me of Louis Sullivan and what he says in the “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered”.
What is the chief characteristic of the tall office building? And at once we answer, it is lofty. This loftiness is to the artist-nature its thrilling aspect. It must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it.
If you read what he writes after this, there is a very masculine tone in which he expresses the kind of man a man must be in order to design an office building. Also, notice how the Architect of an office building specifically is a Man of God- one who creates on the Earth.
The man who designs in this spirit and with the sense of responsibility to the generation he lives in must be no coward, no denier, no bookworm, no dilettante. He must live of his life and for his life in the fullest, most consummate sense. He must realize at once and with the grasp of inspiration that the problem of the tall office building is one of the most stupendous, one of the most magnificent opportunities that the Lord of Nature in His beneficence has ever offered to the proud spirit of man.I
I Place I
Location, location, location. It’s the most commonly understood driver of economics. Good location= good money and high prestige. The underlying thought is that places embody power. And advertisers use that as a thrust to work on people’s psychology.
I Prospect/Refuge I
The view available from the corporate tower is a primary selling point-landscapes and skylines being the most valued. (never onto a streetscape with people and city life, inevitable view into other office buildings is never advertised) One is always looking out from the tallest building in the neighbourhood and never at other tall buildings. Moreover, the view is a status symbol made accessible only to the few who have cabins or hold meetings in conference rooms. (Daylight and views inversely proportional to the number of working hours)
At the same time, advertisements and brochures claim the tech of the building as its ‘intelligence’. It is about selling a future. It tempts people to believe it is a good building. While selling global information access, buildings are also selling secrecy. Information as a commodity is protected by secure communications rooms, 24-hr security and CCTV monitors behaviour.
“With its commanding views and high levels of both spatial and informational privacy, the corporate office tower is a prime example of the prospect/refuge effect writ large” -Appleton (1975, The Experience of Landscape)
I Creative Destruction I
Advertising makes one aware of the disturbing contradictions in the production of such a built environment. The contradictions are:
Distinction: The ideal tower gains symbolic capital by its distinctiveness as a landmark, dominating its surroundings. Yet it also gains symbolically from being seen as in harmony with its context. (This doesn’t proceed beyond distorted images)
The quest for domination leads to fragmentation of the city because as Clarke says, ‘symbolic capital must distinguish itself..it must define its edges to protect itself as a symbol and to protect itself as investment. As such it cannot be “infill” in the urban continuum’.
How this translates formally is as a podium along the whole street frontage which is either the symbolic spectacle of the foyer or a parking garage. This separates the life within the building from the life of the street.
Place: The character of the neighbourhood shown in advertisements to sell locational advantages is in fact destroyed by the tall buildings. Jane Jacobs calls this the self-destruction of urban diversity.
The quest for the ‘powerful address’ leads to a clustering of towers, each higher than the other, blocking each others views eventually. The very features (i.e. view and dominance of adjacent towers) that were used to raise its capital value get devalued by the next new tower.
Symbolic capital is not so much created as it is moved around from one temporary landmark to another.
TIMELESS FASHION (Building trends of timelessness)
The corporate tower tries to achieve an image of timelessness which is paradoxically subject to accelerating cycles of fashion.The quest for symbolic capital goes with the varying flow of public opinion as the signifiers of success and domination become those of failure. Eg: Banks collapsed in 1930’s neo-classical imagery of buildings was undermined, Melbourne building had its façade removed to renew its symbolic capital.
I Space = Social Structure I
When Dovey talks about views and advertising, he states how the four types of spaces in the office are portrayed:
- The executive office- as a highly personalised and masculine domain
- Reception– in a glossy corporate fashion, served by young women
- Board Room- as a ‘dramatic high tech board with expansive views of the central city’(usually a man holding the meeting)
- Open plan work stations- as identical and computerised, where flexibility of interior space is highlighted
Taking this view of the image of women within the workplace forward, in the chapter “White Blouse Revolution” of Cubed, Nikil Saval talks in the context of the USA 1920 onwards.
The unskilled segment of the force was the supply of women, who were doubly subordinated: they could be set up at machines that kept them doing monotonous work (stenographers) and there was no chance for them to climb a career ladder and become managers. “You’re good at your job, but you can’t move up in the world; your reward is that you can marry someone who can.” Apart from typewriter girls, they could be personal secretaries- a highly sexualised role. The prestige of the secretarial profession derived less from work satisfaction than from one’s proximity to masculine power and prestige. (They came to be called office wives because the men were closer to their secretaries than their wives) Moreover, the presence of women in the workplace gave men, especially managers confirmation of their own middle class superiority and power. The entry of women into the office space also coincided with cause for women’s suffrage. Sexual harrassment was abound. Women were expected to use their ‘potentialities’ to command power over men in the workplace- to use sex for favors or higher wages. Compare that to today’s time, we are still struggling with these issues as women who have to continuously prove that we are intelligent beings, not just beautiful objects. To prove that we are worth a firm’s investment even though we may get married and will need a maternity leave. More women are contributing to the workplace now, more than ever. (Check out the recent ad by Mia Tanishq? Naari Shakti!)
A woman’s career is blocked by lack of openings, by unjust male competition, by prejudice and, not least, by inadequate salary and recognition.- Katie Gibbs pg 95 of Cubed
Within the architectural profession, in spite of the wide scoped education and fairly liberal views about inclusivity and equality, the record for the survival of women is the worst. It remains a male dominated field and the reason for that according to Katerina Ruedi (in the book ‘Architecture, Ethics and Globalization’) is the non reflexivity of the discipline. She speaks for the UK and USA and says that if in architectural education male:female is 60:40, in the profession it drops to 90:10. This speaks of some invisible processes in the profession which highlight internal contradictions that need to be examined.
“..we unconsciously reproduce the very things we don’t believe in.”
Michael Benedikt mentions in the same book ‘Architecture, Ethics and Globalization’that what worries him about identity formation in architecture school is that , even with 52% of the students as women, the architecture that they’re taught is male. They are taught male patterns, shown male heroes.“The maleness of architectural theory runs extremely deep in how we see the world, the way we manipulate it, the way we think of it constructively, and rather aggressively.” I couldn’t agree more with this. I saw a documentary called “Women in Architecture” on a flight, and I feel like we need more awareness regarding women in the field, beyond star architects like Zaha Hadid.
This post was supposed to be about the office building as a manifestation of male ego, and it’s come to women in architecture. I couldn’t resist including anything related to gender and spaces. 🙂
*I have only a certain degree of understanding of gender and the built form. All this might not even make much sense and be just my brain dump. I designed an office building last semester and read these two books by Dovey and Saval. I struggled with my thoughts, trying to break down my building’s form to avoid being a phallic because it was in a low rise- low density context. I felt disconnected from the actual office space and users since doing layouts is very subjective and the ‘interior designer’s job’.
I, on the other hand, hope for things such as social service as part of my architectural education because I feel the disconnect from humans is only increasing and there’s not much of real interaction with people and their needs to make me feel anything as a designer. So, beware of my biases-I’m interested in people and I’ve realised I’m not a big fan of commercial architecture.
Thanks for reading, if you made it this far! 😀 If you too have some views about gender and spaces ,office buildings, men/women in architecture or anything on those lines, do let me know! 🙂
Sources to check out: (I haven’t checked out all, this is my list too! 🙂
- Bartleby the Scrivener (based on the book by Herman Melville- the movie is slow and repetitive but poignant)
- Baby Face
- Working Girl
- Women in Architecture
- Cubed-A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval
- The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered by Louis Sullivan
- The Office Wife by Faith Baldwin
- Framing Places: Mediating Power Through the Built Form by Kim Dovey (Chapter 8 Tall Storeys is about Office Buildings)
- Architecture, Ethics and Globalisation by Graham Owen
The illustrations are made by Kanchan Joneja using Wacom Intuos Pen and Touch and may not be used for commercial purposes.