Architecture, Economic Imaginaries and Urban Politics: The Office Tower as Socially Classifying Device


  • I wish to thank Susan Fainstein, Susanne Heeg, Roger Keil, Anthony King, Christof Parnreiter and Maros Krivy for helpful comments on various earlier drafts of this article. Many thanks also to the three anonymous IJURR referees for their valuable comments and critical reflections.


In recent studies on the role of architecture in urban restructuring, city marketing and the related struggles for meaning, there has been a focus on high-profile architects and iconic architecture. In this article I wish to examine architecture and building types as ‘socially signifying devices’, in order to take more everyday buildings and their images into account as well. Using Vienna as a case study, I explore how the commercial office tower is utilized to represent the internationalization of the local economy and render new urban political-economic strategies socially meaningful. This is done by examining recent shifts in urban policy, and the means, channels and practices of discursive and visual representation of the local office architecture. Connecting the concept of economic imaginaries from cultural political economy (CPE) with a sociological approach to building types, I argue that economic imaginaries gain in plausibility if they are discursively and visually anchored in urban space. However, it is also shown that this kind of spatialization of new economic imaginaries is constructed on a selective visual representation of buildings: the assignment of international economic activities to local office towers is revealed to be only partially true in the case of Vienna.