Atlántica # 56

Although the distinction between the concept of money and the concept of capital has cut across the history of political economy ever since Marx, the theoretical complexity of the relationships between the two categories continually demands representations from the cultural realm able to examine the myriad frictions and contradictions between them. Basically speaking, we might suggest that in the distinction between the two concepts lies the fundamental source of all abstraction, giving rise to the intangibility of capital, to mental deliberations on its mathematical calculation, and also to its metaphysical and spiritual dimension. Put one way, money is tangible —“bread” — while capital is virtual, volatile, and ungraspable. Capital is a process and not a thing, a process in which the circulation of money is often — though not always or exclusively — instrumentalised in order to make more money. In the cultural realm, these abstractions cannot be overlooked, and need to be brought to light in order to identify points of contact between the social and the economic realms. In more figurative language, this amounts to revealing the “seams” — both visible and invisible — that hold together the “suit” (the form) that we normally wear.

Art, as much as material production, has historically played a primordial role in the concept of capital, a concept that includes the stock of all the assets in the possession of private individuals, companies, and governments that can be commercialised in the market, regardless of whether these assets are in fact put to use in the immediate future. And to art we can add the actual space that contains it, that is, architecture. The two realms, in their interrelationship, incorporate an entire repository that determines what could be taken to be the solid core of capital: the nature or theory of value, which is to say, exchange value. But how is value created? The question encompasses property and other material things to be used within patrimonial wealth — land, assets and copyrights — as well as art collections, jewellery, and other cultural assets to the extent that these are regarded as hedge funds and investments. Among immaterial possessions, income and rent are undoubtedly the most complex and fluctuating properties. In the not always visible ties between art and architecture, one can discern an abstract representation of so-called “financial capital.”


The bonds that link the art market and the architecture market are not always obvious. Hal Foster has attempted to bring them together under the mantle of “the art-architecture complex,” though in a cursory manner and without exploring their common economic aspects in any great depth. In any case, “complex” strikes me as a fitting expression to describe the phenomenon or paradigm, because, as Foster rightly points out, the word indicates how “the capitalist subsumption of cultural into the economic often prompts the repurposing of such art-architectural combinations as points of attraction and/or sites of display.”1 Indeed, art galleries not only buy and sell artworks but also use income and real estate to create value. Appreciation in value is a retroactive and circular process, and in the art-architecture relationship (whether in the realm of public and museum collections, or in the network of private commercial galleries), each one supplies what the other lacks.

The establishment of many galleries is dependent on the price of land. It is an unwritten rule that to keep a commercial gallery flexible it has to change its location every so often. Together, these moves redraw a map of the city that often reveals profound economic and urban transformations. Today, cities collect “starchitects” and branded buildings the way that galleries used to collect modern art. Art is now highly esteemed by municipal and governmental politicians as an element in the consolidation of neoliberal urban policies of “rationalisation,” promotion, gentrification, concentration, deterritorialisation, and so on. There is a close bond between “the art of rent” and the emergence of architectural styles.

In postmodernism, the abolition of space and time through cybernetics has pushed the concept of abstraction towards a new boundary, that of the indissolubility and interaction between technology and capital. This has affected the very meaning of “abstraction” in art and in architecture. The dynamic of abstraction in cultural production is indebted to the perennial orthodox debate between concrete labour and abstract labour. If abstraction already operated within the very forms of money and capital, it is in the cybernetic and fictional state of financial capital that it finds its supreme expression, despite the fact that the term “financial capital” dates back to the last century. Since the rise of electronics and the cybernetic revolution — at least since the 1970s — capital has survived and regenerated by means of self-simulation, in which speculative credit, and speculation itself, have become autonomous realms. Overstepping all known boundaries, capital has expanded beyond mathematical control, as fictitious capital.

A Breath of Abstraction: Art, Architecture, and Financial Capital | Atlántica A Breath of Abstraction: Art, Architecture, and Financial Capital | Atlántica A Breath of Abstraction: Art, Architecture, and Financial Capital | Atlántica

Traditionally, art has been the cultural terrain that has sustained a critique of the fetishism of the commodity in the most illuminating (and almost stoic) fashion; artworks are commodities ripe for commercial exchange. Architecture, however, as an equally material practice (though one that is overdetermined by its use value), seems to have escaped this debate, perhaps because its relationship as an object is more complex and because its market is constituted by the social agglomeration of economics, politics, and power.

But how does an architect conceive the question of fetishism? As a direct consequence of the existence of the commodity and of value, fetishism is intrinsic to capitalism. The central role of the commodity is to serve not only as an economic mechanism but also as the specific form which, in capitalism, subordinates and formats all others (from science to the legal system, art, and culture). The commodity is distinguished by its complete abstraction, which goes well beyond the inherent nature of objects as commodities. Drafting a theory of value in architecture is no easy task. Nevertheless, studying the evolution of architectural forms in parallel with the emergence of financial capitalism can tell us much about the evolution of styles as well as about the mutations and developments of capital. Examples of this fetishisation in technology can be found in the function assigned to transparency and the reflection of glass, and in the high-tech engineering that has emerged in architecture over the last three decades.

A Breath of Abstraction: Art, Architecture, and Financial Capital | Atlántica

Aleksander Komarov, stills from the film Estate (2008), from the accompanying book published by Torpedo Press


In his short film Estate (2008), the Belarus artist Aleksander Komarov exposes, though in a discreet and subtle manner, the close connections that the realm of capital has established with industry, the financial markets, and activities related to art collecting by banks and insurance companies. Indeed, contemporary art has become a key part of the representation of banks, though at the risk of cancelling out the critical potential of the works themselves (a potential that is unwelcome or deactivated from the outset). In the film, Komarov makes connections between economic levels that are normally presented to us as independent of each other.

The film’s first section depicts various primary industries in the Urals, such as gold, asbestos, and copper mines, and the contrast between the (inhabitable) urban space and a smoking landscape of metallurgical factories that have become linked together to form a new city in themselves; it’s an image that recalls the very origin of 19th-century industrialised capitalism. The extraction of raw material from nature and its commercialisation and global exchange is, as we know, the primary basis for the survival of the current economic system. The second section introduces a scene of apparent normality inside the Frankfurt stock exchange, with a series of changing numbers displayed on screens. A reporter is waiting to enter live on TV. The everyday routine in the stock exchange is marked by screens with numbers and graphics that take on a life of their own, without direct human intervention.2 The third part shows images from a book published by the EVN energy company, in which one can contemplate works from its art collection that are on view in the offices and public areas that frame the immediate working environment of its employees. Including works by Liam Gillick, Olafur Eliasson, Cerith Wyn Evans, Muntean and Rosenblum, and others, the collection is housed within a late-1950s architecture with a well-defined modernist look. The entrance lobby of Commerzbank in Frankfurt (designed by Norman Foster), and the Deutsche Bank Collection are other places where this alliance between economy, art, and architecture establishes a not entirely perceptible relationship. From the interior of Deutsche Bank, a neutral off-screen voice tells us how contemporary art contributes to the development of innovative ideas by revealing social phenomena before they come to the attention of a wider public.

This serves as an introduction to the “Art Works” programme which, since the late ’70s, has consisted in bringing Deutsche Bank employees and clients from all over the world into contact with art, not only in the lobby and in boardrooms but also in offices, conference rooms, and so on. As the off-screen voice notes, artworks have been placed in transparent and open offices or in networking workplaces. These afford some indication of how changes in the global market and the virtualisation of the bank have affected the everyday course of business. The focus, presentation, and emplacement of the chosen works responds to these tendencies. Special commissions intervene in architectural and communicational environments, reflecting the working environment.3 Note here the use of the term “environment” or “working environment,” that is, the acritical appropriation of a term which in the past was able to open up the rigidity and enclosure of modern design to the network of exterior connections and their context, as signalled in Reyner Banham’s critique.4

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Aleksander Komarov, stills from the film Estate (2008), from the accompanying book published by Torpedo Press

It’s virtually a mandate in business to introduce art into corporate headquarters, almost always in a manner that emphasises connections with architecture. If we’re talking about glass towers, then transparency and reflection are useful metaphors to establish thematic connections. A common factor in the use these companies make of art collections is the way in which art is highlighted as a permanent investment with continuity into the future. This part of the film is thought-provoking, disclosing as it does the continuum between the design of the interior of the offices and the materials of architecture, while also establishing different planes between the office spaces, the role of art, and the appearance of the financial district of the German city through the translucent black glass of the Deutsche Bank skyscrapers.

The fourth and final section displays panoramic views and everyday architectural situations in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg (the main cultural and industrial city of the Urals) and the German city of Frankfurt, focusing attention on urban and architectural spaces and on the respective skylines. The sequence of the four sections and their apparent independence leaves it to the spectator’s imagination to fill in the thematic connections; mediation ceases to be an artist’s literary device and becomes instead an obligation demanded of the active spectator. These distinct recourses inevitably create a rapid association between real estate in Frankfurt and Yekaterinburg and the abstract values of the stock exchange and art collections (the German and global stock exchanges and the Deutsche Bank collection). In addition, a distinction is made between matter and form (or, if you like, between material and form), not just in the allusion to the exportable raw materials that determine a large part of the world’s energy and consumption — including the cybernetic technology needed by capital, copper wire, an so on — but also in the formal appearance (in architecture and city planning) seemingly intrinsic to this material. As such, it seems inevitable to draw connections, on the one hand, between the mining and primary industries of the Urals and the appearance of the city of Yekaterinburg and, on the other, between the sequence of the stock exchange and the art collections and the peaceful, aseptic urban planning of Frankfurt. The globalised style of contemporary architecture is matched by an equally globalised capital, though, as we can see here, it’s still possible to distinguish a semiotics of the differentiated built environment.

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Aleksander Komarov, stills from the film Estate (2008), from the accompanying book published by Torpedo Press

We know what postmodernism’s solution was: to integrate vernacular and autochthonous elements into the interior of the modern “machine.” Regarding the prehistory of financial power itself, of the industrial city, or the chain of factories, it’s hard to find formal analogues, with the exception of high-tech’s triumph in re-semanticising the functionalist remedies of buildings. It strikes me that Richard Rogers’s solution for the headquarters of Lloyds of London (1978-1986) is probably the first financial architecture that casts a knowing nod towards factory architecture through brazen display of pipes and conduits (much like the Centre Pompidou, which Rogers had designed a few years previously with Renzo Piano). This knowing nod is the defining feature of a period in which the industrial past was subsumed into the new symbiotic relationship between culture and economy.

Komarov’s film affords a parallel between the immaterial and intangible quality of the bank and the precise forms of individual artworks. And it does so without forgetting the allusion to gold, through images of the mine and the precious mineral encrusted in a rock with stock exchange speculation. Here we have a notable allegory of the theory of value that, as we know, is the public form adopted by any economy of trade exchange and the main pillar of the capitalist system.

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Richard Rogers, Lloyd Headquarters, London, 1978-1986.


In his essay “The Brick and the Balloon: Architecture, Idealism and Land Speculation,” Fredric Jameson maintains that a period of productive development of a region in industrial terms is followed by another marked by the preponderance of financial capital.5 Here the theorist strives to insert a mediation between the economic or infrastructure level (land speculation, financial capital) and the superstructure (the aesthetic form of architecture). The dialectic ambivalence of this relationship is revealed when considering that “land speculation and the new demand for increased construction opens a space in which a new architectural style can emerge,” but not without first warning us of the dangers, given that “it equally seems ‘reductive’ to explain the new style in terms of the new kinds of investment.”6 For this reason, it’s necessary to look at other factors, such as aesthetics, fashions, cultural influences, in order to explain the “semi-autonomy” of the cultural.

Jameson’s mediation relates Marx’s theory of land value as “fictitious capital” (a concept marginal to his general theory of labour value)7 to the question of ground rent and land speculation. Therein lies the novelty: to connect these uses of rent with forms of urban growth and specifically with the formation of architectural styles. In short, it’s all about establishing relationships between the peculiar abstractions of financial capital and those to be found in cultural forms and texts.8

A Breath of Abstraction: Art, Architecture, and Financial Capital | Atlántica

Jameson’s intuition is now of great use, as we search for an equivalent to the hard-to-assimilate idea of financial capital in land speculation (something that has been practised for centuries). Along these lines, he undertakes a forensic investigation into the origins of New York — and specifically Rockefeller Center — and how it became the world’s greatest finance centre to the detriment of its former industrial and commercial activity.9 Jameson focuses on Robert Fitch’s book The Assassination of New York, which describes the process through which production was deliberately driven out of the city in order to make way for the offices of finance, insurance, and real estate companies, in such a way that “the policy is supposed to revitalize the city and promote new growth, and its failure is documented by the astonishing percentage of floor space left vacant and unlet — so-called ‘see-through’ buildings.”10 This process of upending the situation by replacing New York’s manufacturing industry with a policy of FIRE (an acronym of Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) is explained as the result of a “conspiracy” within the city’s power structure over a period of more than fifty years, with its foundational moment in Rockefeller Center. The argument of Fitch’s book is that this conspiracy was motivated by the nearly tenfold difference between the rent for factory space and that obtained from prime office space. This policy destroyed the urban fabric but created a new symbolism in the form of a new architecture — designated as “financial architecture” — that must be analysed from its inevitability, that is to say, making plausible the fact that “the cultural icing” has little to do with “the ingredients out of which the cake has been baked.”

Jameson’s reading of Manfredo Tafuri — and later of Rem Koolhaas — is grounded precisely in the fact that the interesting buildings are those that try to resolve these contradictions through more or less ingenious formal and stylistic innovations, and that instead of resolving these problems and tensions through design, Rockefeller Center specifies and underscores them, viewing the centre as an organism that defies all rules of proportion and stands by itself as a unique event that adds greater symbolic value to the American skyscraper as an architectural typology. Koolhaas, on the other hand, responds enthusiastically (in Delirious New York) to the contradictions that Tafuri denounces and makes of this resolute embrace of the irresolvable a new aesthetic faithful to his “schizophrenic” idea of “resolving the agglomeration by creating more agglomeration.” The difference between Tafuri and Koolhaas can then be explained, according to Jameson:

A Breath of Abstraction: Art, Architecture, and Financial Capital | Atlántica

The work may thus turn out to be a symbolic act, a real form of praxis in the symbolic realm: but it might also prove to be a merely symbolic act, an attempt to act in a realm in which action is impossible and does not exist as such. I thus have the feeling that for Tafuri, Rockefeller Center is this last — a merely symbolic act, which necessarily fails to resolves its contradictions; whereas for Koolhaas, it is the fact of creative and productive action within the symbolic that is the source of aesthetic excitement.11

This kind of affirmation puts the stress on the symbolic, and the characteristic evolution of recent architecture — what has been called iconic architecture — takes on a protagonism and a preponderance raised to levels of paroxysm and caricature. Yet this should not make us forget the interest that architects have in becoming artists, and more specifically in borrowing from sculpture precisely the symbolic quality and the sign of art as a guarantee that transcends “mere” engineering. This situation has recently become inverted, with artists inflated by the market now finding a new measure in the social dimension of the “starchitect” (I am thinking of Anish Kapoor’s sculpture-architecture ArcelorMittal Orbit built in London for the 2012 Olympics, which is at once a celebration of and a monument to the world metallurgy giant ArcelorMittal and its founding magnate Lakshmi Mittal). It is a tribute to (still industrial) capital in the era of its specular and phantasmagorical becoming.

The connection between the price of land and financial capital opens the door to specific “futures” — both in the financial and temporal meanings of the word — by including future expectation as a valorised and speculative projection, much the way in which art acts as a future investment, embracing a range of possibilities for the reception of tomorrow as well as planned obsolescence and other futures, and reminding us that capitalism trades in futures.

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Sarah Morris, Capital (2000), still from video.

Financial futures, or simply “futures” in economic-speak, are units of exchange that are based on a business agreement between two contracting parties that will be fulfilled only at a pre-established future time. Obviously, ninety percent of these future contracts are not fulfilled at all but are modulated in function of the daily swings and evolution of the value of the commodity in question. Money is no longer a currency for buying or selling but rather an exchange object in itself, a fact that modifies its very value. This analysis describes an architecture of capital that is now being widely expanded in Dubai, Qatar, and other tourist and tax havens.

However, the conceptual opposition between concrete and abstract is also expressed in other ways. Jameson borrows the title of his essay from the distinction that Charles Jencks has made between the weight of the brick and the lightness and dematerialisation of the “contemporary balloon,” and this could be read as an analogy of the opposition between the concrete and the abstract. These two basic features of late modernist semiotics, the “extreme isometric space” and “enclosed skin volumes,” would form the characteristics of an extreme version of “modernism to the second power.” The image to express this would be the brick and the balloon, decreasing mass and weight while enhancing volume and contour. “The ‘enclosed skin volumes’ then illustrate another aspect of late capitalist abstraction, the way in which it dematerializes without signifying in any traditional way spirituality […] in the same way, where the free plan posited an older bourgeois space to be cancelled, the infinite new isometric kind cancels nothing, but simply develops under its own momentum like a new dimension.”12

A Breath of Abstraction: Art, Architecture, and Financial Capital | Atlántica

Sarah Morris, poster for Capital (2000), design by Liam Gillick.

Perhaps the artist who has captured this mutation in the Miesian space most literally is Sarah Morris, whose abstract paintings and films have concentrated on architectural details of the isometric space and the critical sensibility of psychology of environments. Morris has made countless paintings inspired by steel and glass architecture (skyscrapers) drawn from the style of Max Bill. In the current context, these paintings appear as geometric, cold, and contemporary actualizations that reflect the buildings and corporate interiors of financial capital. We should include as well the artist’s incursion into video in her film Capital (2000), shot in Washington during the final days of the Clinton administration, which depicts a series of places and centres of power against a sonic background of a mechanical, repetitive soundtrack.

Confirming many predictions about the financial crisis, Jameson’s diagnosis of land speculation as a form of systematic action anticipated by more than a decade the moment of the “brick” as a causal element of the economic crisis in various areas of the West. The “brick” has come to stand as the euphemistic emblem of a longstanding politics of speculation. This bubble swollen with air (the balloon again) is necessarily the appropriate form of a financial capitalism that has taken its abstract and immaterial condition as its defining feature. To this we would have to add the autonomisation of economic speculation as a financial casino and the very idea of cyberspace.

A Breath of Abstraction: Art, Architecture, and Financial Capital | Atlántica

Aleksander Komarov, stills from the film Estate (2008), from the accompanying book published by Torpedo Press

– 1  Foster, Hal. The Art-Architecture Complex. New York: Verso, 2011, p. xii.

– 2  See the companion book: Komarov, Aleksander. Estate. Oslo: Torpedo Press. 2010.

– 3  An example of this cohabitation is Waldish Screen #2 (2001), a work by Liam Gillick in the EVN collection. It’s interesting to note the way in which these structures “function” — literally, spatially, and metaphorically — in the interior of the idealized abstraction of the white cube of the art gallery and the museum, and also in the spaces of the corporate offices from which they have borrowed their formal qualities. See Aguirre, Peio. “Elusive Social Forms.” in Szewczyk, Monika, ed. Meaning Liam Gillick. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2009, pp. 1-27.

– 4  See Banham, Reyner. The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

– 5  Fredric Jameson. “The Brick and the Balloon: Architecture, Idealism and Land Speculation,” in The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998. New York: Verso, 1998.

– 6  Jameson, op. cit., p. 163.

– 7  Here Jameson cites David Harvey and his experiences to explain the relationships between geography, city planning, and financial capital. See David Harvey, Neil Smith. Capital financiero, propiedad inmobiliaria y cultura. Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and MACBA, Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2005.

– 8  It’s no accident that the cover of Jameson’s The Cultural Turn reproduces the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank headquarters designed by Norman Foster and completed in 1986, an instance of high-tech architecture whose cutting-edge engineering would define to perfection the flow of financial capital typical of the period.

– 9  The texts Jameson studied are Robert Fitch’s The Assassination of New York (London, 1996); Manfredo Tafuri’s “The Disenchanted Mountain,” published in Dal Co, Francesco et al., The American City. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1983; and Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan, originally published in 1978.

– 10  Jameson, op, cit., p. 167.

– 11  Jameson, op. cit., p. 183.

– 13  Jameson, op. cit., pp. 186-7.