Simulations of Industry: High Tech Architecture and Thatcherism

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History suggests that the construction of the most ambitious architectural projects immediately precedes the deepest economic slumps. The Lloyds building, for example – the grand edifice of the Citys 80s big bang boom – rapidly became the home of crippling financial crisis. And in this swift reversal of fortune we can read a relationship between architecture and the overconfidence of a moment. We can look back now and see Lloyds as an aesthetic of utility devised to cloak the aerated economics of Thatcherism, its mechanistic iconography suggesting that deregulated finance is as heavily engineered and physical as some unspecific manufacturing process: something ‘real’ and substantive rather than a massive, institutionalized system of blind gambling packaged up as intangible financial ‘product’. The grand irony is that Lloyds iconography celebrated the aesthetic of the industries that had been systematically dismantled by Thatcherism – a statement of the determined political intent to replace heavy industry with deregulated financial services. In this light, Lloyds appears a kitschy, aestheticised, shiny stainless steel simulation of the grimy infrastructure that its design seemingly pays homage to.

Post Lloyds, it would be another economic cycle before we saw the next major addition to the City in the form of Fosters Gherkin – a different, late form of High Tech, whose technology is subsumed in the single, sculptural gesture: a smart object with intricate green credentials, smooth and polished like the kind of trophy given out at industry awards.

High Tech Architecture signifies a kind of constructed intelligence: it embeds qualities of logic, clarity, purpose and science into the fabric of architecture. Because of this, it’s the ideal get up for deregulated finance to inhabit: a physical manifestation of the techno/mathematical/systemized cult of the markets.

Though of a different aesthetic order, the end game of technology-as-aesthetic might well be the phantom trading room floor constructed by Enron at the heart of its duplicitous practice. The room was designed as a stage set to play out in front of analysts in order to drive up the valuation of its stock. Enron, originally an old fashioned energy company, had mutated into an organization chasing unachievabley high returns though complex bundles of derivatives, options and futures. Its arrays of Bloomberg terminals, 36-inch flat panel screens and teleconference facilities were used as totems: devices to exude a technological confidence, devices of such technological sophistication that they seem not just to report events, but to project control over them.

Architecture is a means of constructing realities – or at least something that seems to have a number of hallmarks of the real – solidity, permanence, scale and so on. Believing architecture as a kind of truth is an easy mistake to make. Architecture remains a fiction, however grand its scale, intricate its manufacture, or the expense of its implementation.

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