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.
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.
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.
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.