After Nakatomi

In many regards, the sky­scraper is the ulti­mate mon­u­ment to Capital. The International Style, famous for the preva­lence of its glass and steel mono­liths, rep­re­sents a bold asser­tion of power com­bined with a repro­duc­tion of land val­ues and finan­cial secu­ri­ty. But sky­scrap­ers have often also reg­u­lar­ly become the tombs of their inhab­i­tants. Die Hard (1988) was set in a secure build­ing, the Nakatomi Plaza, whose own insu­lar­i­ty and defen­sive perime­ter worked against the hostages who were held there. The set for Nakatomi Plaza was pro­vid­ed, at least for the exte­ri­or shots, by LA’s “Fox Plaza”, com­plet­ed only in 1987. In other words, Nakatomi/Fox was the then “cut­ting edge” of build­ing design. Unsurprisingly, it was also one of the build­ings destroyed in Fight Club.

Fox Plaza

Fox Plaza, by Veldin963 at English Wikipedia [source]

It is the same rea­son that the Twin Towers were tar­get­ed on 9/11. Skyscrapers speak of secu­ri­ty, wealth cre­ation, and power. But these things also make them a tar­get. Amelia Taylor-Hochberg has explored the risk man­age­ment approach of London’s Gherkin (30 St. Mary Axe) build­ing.1 Developed on a site of a for­mer IRA bomb attack, this base for Swiss rein­sur­ance com­pa­ny Swiss Re con­scious­ly trans­formed that site of com­mer­cial anx­i­ety into an asser­tion of secu­ri­ty. In build­ing on that loca­tion, in a con­scious­ly “envi­ron­men­tal” and mod­ern style, they lit­er­al­ly con­struct­ed con­fi­dence, where “the Gherkin’s promi­nence as an urban icon stems in part from its suc­cess at engag­ing what we might call risk imag­i­nar­ies: the dis­cours­es, rep­re­sen­ta­tions, and prac­tices through which we under­stand and con­cep­tu­al­ize risks”. It was laid down with the first steel pile. But this act of devel­op­ment also high­light­ed the pos­si­bil­i­ty of urban ter­ror­ism. It was a smart move because it demon­strat­ed the com­pa­ny’s own con­fi­dence, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly mak­ing the case for the con­tem­po­rary “need” for rein­sur­ance.

So when Nakatomi Plaza was attacked, its own “tar­get hard­ened” form and struc­ture worked against it. A site of invest­ment and com­mer­cial con­fi­dence was trans­formed into a site of butch­ery and, thus, of anx­i­ety. It was at the build­ing’s peak that the film reached its con­clu­sion. If a sky­scraper is Capital man­i­fest, then its sum­mit is its crown.

30 St. Mary Axe

30 St Mary Axe, photo by Lucasaw [source]

The game series Parasite Eve has taken a par­tic­u­lar inter­est in this imag­i­nary of the built envi­ron­ment. In both Parasite Eve I and II, the game kicks off with an inci­dent in a sky­scraper. In both instances, the build­ing has become a mau­soleum, a site for an anx­i­ety that is not only about “ter­ror”, but about bod­i­ly and genet­ic dys­mor­phia. In both games, the prin­ci­pal ene­mies are mutat­ed genet­ic mon­strosi­ties which have emerged from the dys­func­tion­al bod­ies of the build­ings inhab­i­tants. All cer­tain­ties, even those hand­ed down by sci­ence, are turned inside out. These build­ings have become are­nas for blood­shed and the desta­bil­i­sa­tion of the myths of moder­ni­ty. Predictably, then, in Parasite Eve II we enter the sky­scraper – Akropolis tower — at its base and trav­el to its crest. Here we encounter not ene­mies – at least, not yet – but the trau­ma­tised and blood­ied remains of the SWAT team who were sent in to con­tain the inci­dent. In other words, the build­ing’s sum­mit has become a space of trans­for­ma­tive power. The “peak” of cap­i­tal has become the bur­ial ground for secu­ri­ty and the state (i.e. the police). Both pri­vate and pub­lic are ren­dered if not mean­ing­less then at least com­pro­mised. Something is eat­ing the world from inside out. Old cer­tain­ties have been carved out, hol­lowed.

Eve amidst the carnage.

These were my thoughts while explor­ing that space. The build­ing’s top floor, fea­tur­ing an exot­ic land­scaped gar­den, plants and flow­ers, stat­ues and foun­tains, elab­o­rates on its own impor­tance and wealth. It’s like walk­ing around Cato’s villa, a sense of a serene envi­ron­ment in which busi­ness­men take in the air, and the view, from such a height. It is a plat­form and a stage as much as a sim­ple ‘space’. Its design demon­strates and rev­els in its own wealth and its appeals to tra­di­tion. And yet, the blood­ied rem­nants of the SWAT team attest to the fact that this place, how­ev­er tech­ni­cal­ly secure, has become inse­cure. The game devel­op­ers chose this build­ing as the site for the genet­ic out­break because it neat­ly encap­su­lates the theme of trans­for­ma­tion and desta­bil­i­sa­tion which Parasite Eve is based on as a series. Transformation that takes place with­in the heart of neo-liberal sub­jec­tiv­i­ty. The ‘fear’ at the cen­tre of the games is fun­da­men­tal­ly about their rad­i­cal re-imagining of power rela­tion­ships, and the idea that what today is “solid” is also high­ly and dan­ger­ous­ly vul­ner­a­ble. It sug­gests that what we take con­fi­dence in is not invul­ner­a­ble; sci­ence, wealth, prop­er­ty. The NMC crea­tures lit­er­al­ly rep­re­sent the hor­ror of the unpre­dictable unknown. All of these sureties can fall apart. It is per­haps an ambiva­lent mes­sage, and it’s not lost on me that you play as part of a secre­tive gov­ern­ment agency whose role is to oper­ate out­side of the nor­mal struc­tures of the law to erad­i­cate and dis­crete­ly con­trol such events from the pub­lic eye. But I want­ed only to point out that the game makes clever use of space and archi­tec­ture in order to cre­ate its effects. This blood-letting and social col­lapse isn’t tak­ing place in a hin­ter­land or a nuclear spillage zone, but in one of the most secure and lux­u­ri­ous spaces in mod­ern cap­i­tal. It proves, again, the ways in which devel­op­ers have utilised vir­tu­al built envi­ron­ments to reimag­ine the assump­tions and myths of moder­ni­ty. The city is not the city. The body is not even the body.

  1. http://​archinect​.com/​n​e​w​s​/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​84833004​/​i​n​v​e​s​t​i​n​g​-​i​n​-​r​i​s​k​-​h​o​w​-​t​h​e​-​g​h​e​r​k​in- []