Buildings, like other artifacts of culture like art and music, are a reflection of society and its people. As such, the process of creating architecture is deeply rooted in political and economic conditions, and aesthetics is an outcome -- a meditation -- of these conditions. All buildings say something about their place, their owners, their designers, and even its inhabitants. Like clothing fashion, a building expresses values, and architects, if nothing else, help express and establish these values. Because people will always be involved, there Is never truly an abstraction of architecture into pure aesthetics, or individual taste; there will always be larger forces that motivate these design decisions and intuitions.
What does your city value?
Take, for instance, the tallest building in your city or hometown. What is it? Is it a cathedral? Is it a corporate office tower? Is it a residential tower? Government center? Considering the immense costs behind construction and real estate financing, the tallest building in your city probably belongs to the most powerful people there, during the most powerful time in your city's history. It expresses the values of the city and society, and it demonstrates, very clearly, a very specific political and economic condition at any given time.
In Washington D.C., it is the Washington Monument, which represents American power and the belief in American democracy at the turn of the 19th century. In Chicago, it is the Willis Tower (fmr. Sears Tower), and it demonstrates the power of private corporations in the United States, especially in the late 20th century.
In Dubai, the Burj Khalifa is the demonstration of state power in the oil-rich U.A.E.
In Hong Kong, the tallest buildings were for the longest time bank headquarters, such as I.M.Pei's Bank of China and Norman Foster's HSBC. It was not until very recently that the tallest buildings became symbols of the financial exchange system itself, such as the ICC and IFC.
In Beijing, the CCTV Building is the second tallest building in the city, and it demonstrates the power and authority of the Chinese state, its vast surveillance powers, growing economic assertiveness, and monopoly over media and contemporary culture.
In New York City, the second tallest building is not a corporate office building, but is instead a residential building - 432 Park Avenue, which rises 1,396 feet. As a private condominium project, the building is a monument to speculative capital and a manifestation of the global 1%; it demonstrates the ongoing transformation of Manhattan from a business hub to a leisure, boutique city for the wealthy. If in the past, cutting-edge architects had built temples to gods, palaces to kings, monuments to the nation-state, and office towers to corporations, then cutting-edge architects today, especially in New York, build condominiums, often empty, for the billionaire leisure class, for they embody the values of global capitalism, the dominant working framework of today's society.
This reading of a building's "message" is not limited to singular, global architectural icons, however. Generic buildings and domestic houses also tap into larger design trends and ideologies.
(Continue in Part 2)