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Keywords:

  • Architecture;
  • Economic Imaginaries;
  • Urban Development;
  • Office Tower;
  • Vienna;
  • Cultural Political Economy

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Cultural political economy, economic imaginaries and architecture
  5. Buildings as ‘socially classifying devices’: the question of building types
  6. Urban restructuring in Vienna since the mid-1990s
  7. The discursive and visual framing of the local office tower
  8. Misrepresentation and the practices of PR and media work
  9. Spatializing economic imaginaries
  10. Conclusions
  11. References

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.

‘If a picture or map is worth a thousand words, then power in the realms of representation may end up being as important as power over the materiality of spatial organization itself.’

Harvey (1990: 233)

Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Cultural political economy, economic imaginaries and architecture
  5. Buildings as ‘socially classifying devices’: the question of building types
  6. Urban restructuring in Vienna since the mid-1990s
  7. The discursive and visual framing of the local office tower
  8. Misrepresentation and the practices of PR and media work
  9. Spatializing economic imaginaries
  10. Conclusions
  11. References

Urban space has been analysed as a key instrument of the neoliberal shift in urban policy towards growth-oriented entrepreneurial strategies that has affected cities in recent decades (Hall and Hubbard, 1998; Brenner and Theodore, 2002). The urban megaprojects, waterfront developments and flagship buildings of the last few years have been interpreted as vehicles of socioeconomic restructuring, and as prime expressions of how the processes of globalization have come to focus on the urban (Fainstein, 1994; Olds, 2002; Moulaert et al., 2003). Urban scholars have been concerned with architecture as both representation and medium of these political-economic changes ever since David Harvey's (1990: 91) analysis of the postmodern ‘architecture of spectacle’ and the rise of urban entrepreneurialism, and Sharon Zukin's (1991: 16) discussion of the urban landscape as ‘an ensemble of material and social practices and their symbolic representation’. The critique of projects such as Baltimore Harbor, Battery Park City and London Docklands in the 1980s and early 1990s was concerned with the illusion of authenticity and diversity created by their postmodern imagery (Zukin, 1991; Crilley, 1993). However, the direct equation of postmodern styles with entrepreneurial policies was also criticized for its limited scope (Fainstein, 1994) and its lack of attention to the multiple and contested readings of architectural imagery (Ley and Mills, 1993; Hubbard, 1996). More recently, studies have examined how emblematic architectural projects are meant to attract attention, foster distinctiveness and provide instantly recognizable images, very often as part of culture-led regeneration strategies or strategies aimed at rebranding cities or urban quarters (Evans, 2003; del Cerro, 2007; Kaika, 2010). There has emerged a considerable body of work focusing on the nature of the icon (Sklair, 2006; 2010), the practices of global architects (Faulconbridge, 2009; McNeill, 2009; Ren, 2011) and also the struggles and conflicts accompanying the implementation of these kinds of prestigious architectural projects (Dixon, 2010) and their social and economic impact. It has been shown that, beyond merely providing an aesthetic spectacle, these architectural projects are deeply political. The involvement of celebrity architects enhances planning approval processes and secures public acceptance (McNeill, 2002; 2007; Charney, 2007), facilitates the implementation of large-scale urban development schemes by justifying their ‘condition of exceptionality’ (Swyngedouw et al., 2003: 264) and also serves political projects of nation-building, as evident in the case of Asian cities (Bunnell, 1999; Ong, 2011). Essentially, architectural iconicity can be understood as ‘a resource in struggles for meaning and, by implication, for power’ (Sklair, 2006: 22) which is (to varying degrees) increasingly driven by corporate interests.

However, this recent focus on the iconic and/or the international elite of architects in urban research also obstructs our view of architecture's role in urban restructuring in a twofold way: first, it tends to disregard the majority of more everyday buildings; and second, it fails to address the more fundamental way in which architecture is able to embody and refer to social and economic functions (and thus also constitute a resource in struggles for meaning) without necessarily being spectacular or remarkable. In this article, I wish to propose a manner of conceiving the role of architecture in strategies of urban regeneration which is not centred on the architectural icon. I will do this by critically engaging with the debate on cultural political economy (Jessop and Sum, 2001) and, more precisely, drawing on and extending the concept of economic imaginaries as a theoretical framework (Jessop, 2004; see also Jones, 2009). Following the work of Anthony King (1980; 2010) and Thomas Markus (1993), I wish to argue that architecture has the ability to point towards social and economic functions by referring to building types and to established conventions about which functions these types are characterized by. As ‘socially classifying devices’ (King, 2010: 92), buildings are used in place-making strategies and the reimagining of cities so as to reorder urban space and locate economic functions in the urban realm, thereby confirming their existence and naturalizing the new economic regimes. My object of inquiry is the commercial office tower and its appearance in strategies of place-making, city marketing and political campaigning, and my case study in this regard is the city of Vienna. The arguments presented in this article are based for one part on the analysis of urban development processes, real estate market dynamics and case studies of several office projects, and for the other part on a discourse- and image-centred analysis of urban planning and city marketing documents, print periodicals, public relations activities and political campaigns from the mid-1990s until 2010 (see footnote 12). Furthermore, insights into the practices of city marketing in Vienna were gained through a series of semi-structured, as well as more informal, interviews with people responsible for public relations and marketing in different departments and organizations of the City of Vienna, as well as local journalists and independent professionals in marketing, publishing and photography.1

Cultural political economy, economic imaginaries and architecture

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Cultural political economy, economic imaginaries and architecture
  5. Buildings as ‘socially classifying devices’: the question of building types
  6. Urban restructuring in Vienna since the mid-1990s
  7. The discursive and visual framing of the local office tower
  8. Misrepresentation and the practices of PR and media work
  9. Spatializing economic imaginaries
  10. Conclusions
  11. References

The co-constitutive nature of economy and culture has been at the core of recent cross-disciplinary debates within the social sciences (Ray and Sayer, 1999) and has also affected the debate on urban governance and urban restructuring (Le Galès, 1999; Amin and Thrift, 2007). Delimiting itself from the ‘soft economic sociology’ of the cultural economy approach of authors such as Amin, Thrift or du Gay, another body of work has emerged based on the concept of cultural political economy (CPE) developed by Bob Jessop and Ngai-Ling Sum (Jessop and Sum, 2001; 2006; Jessop, 2004). CPE retains a Marxist foundation in acknowledging the crisis tendencies of capitalist accumulation, and shares the concern of the regulation approach with the mediated, regulated and historically specific nature of accumulation processes. However, it proposes going beyond the regulation approach by emphasizing the foundational role of culture for — and the semiotic nature of — social relations. It uses concepts and tools from critical semiotic analysis and critical political economy, and sets out to avoid both the ‘reduction of economic or political phenomena to their semiotic dimensions (losing sight of their extra-semiotic specificities and dynamic) and the reification of sedimented economic and political relations (ignoring their semiotically and socially constructed contingency)’ (Jessop and Sum, 2010: 445). Central to CPE is the concept of economic imaginaries. These are conceived as discursively constructed subsets of the sum of all economic activities which are in their totality too chaotic and complex to be the object of analysis, management or governance. The establishment of new economic imaginaries always occurs ‘in and through struggles conducted by specific agents, typically involves the asymmetrical manipulation of power and knowledge, and is liable to contestation and resistance’ (Jessop, 2005: 148).

The CPE approach (and particularly the notion of ‘economic imaginaries’) has been drawn on to conceptualize processes of urban and regional restructuring and strategies of urban entrepreneurialism (McGuirk, 2004; González, 2006; 2011; Moulaert et al., 2007; Dannestam, 2008; Ribera-Fumaz, 2009; Moulaert and Mehmood, 2010). While these studies, which follow CPE to varying degrees, are instructive in trying to reconcile discourse-centred and structuralist perspectives, they also reveal the difficulties involved in empirically grounding CPE. Jessop and Sum offer an evolutionary framework for recognizing the complex interplay of structure and agency in social transformations, building on the system's theoretical concepts of variation, selection and retention (Jessop, 2004). However, none of the studies in urban research which draw on CPE employs this framework; also the notion of economic imaginaries is mostly used rather freely (e.g. Phelps et al., 2011: 418; Jayne, 2012: 34), often only by stating their existence but without explicating their content (e.g. Colomb, 2012: 29) or problematizing how to validate their performativity. Sara González (2006: 839) has argued that CPE lacks methodological tools for ‘carrying out detailed and fine-grain analysis of the construction of the “economic imaginaries” ’. Indeed, the empirical grounding offered by Jessop and Sum themselves remains limited. The studies of the knowledge-based economy (KBE) as hegemonic economic imaginary provided by the authors are mostly built on very brief case studies (e.g. Jessop, 2008). The most in-depth analysis of a case study by Jessop and Oosterlynck (2008) succeeds in showing how selected discourses gain plausibility and performativity in the formation of regional economic policy in Belgium due to path-shaping economic, linguistic and religious identities. However, even here the framework of variation, selection and retention is referred to rather loosely. As a consequence, so far the relationship between the KBE and competing economic imaginaries (which according to Jessop exist simultaneously without however achieving hegemony) remains unspecified. The KBE tends to be presented as a vast and all-encompassing master narrative; there is a lack of studies showing how economic imaginaries on the local level relate to that narrative. The absence of empirical evidence is also one main point of critique put forward by Bas van Heur (2010a) in his extensive analysis of CPE. Another critique of his is that the approach is still too state- and capital-centred and runs the risk of functionalist explanations by privileging ‘an interpretation that ontologically prioritises the state's reproduction of capitalist relations and structurally downplays not only non-capitalist state–citizen relations … but also the existence of other social systems and the lifeworld’ (ibid.: 435).

Without resolving all the issues at stake in the debate between Jessop, Sum and van Heur contained within the pages of New Political Economy (such as emergence and complexity, state-centrism and non-state regulation, and ontological versus epistemological foundations of CPE — see Jessop and Sum, 2010; van Heur, 2010a; 2010b), I wish to respond to van Heur's call for a closer and empirically grounded consideration of the lifeworld in making new economic imaginaries meaningful. This echoes the interest of González (2006: 838) in her study of scalar narratives in Bilbao, trying to show ‘how actors make use of discursive resources to select specific material practices as relevant and significant above others’. My interest, therefore, is in practising CPE:2 exploring how economic imaginaries are articulated, communicated, visualized and reproduced beyond purely strategic operations of the state. The focus here is on the practices of those professionals and employees concerned with the public presentation and communication of urban policies as part of their everyday job routines: how do these actors (re)produce economic imaginaries when writing about urban policies or when visualizing urban development strategies? My argument in this article is that discursively and visually anchoring economic imaginaries in urban space and the built environment is one (indeed a particularly powerful) way of (re)producing economic imaginaries and connecting them to the lifeworld of citizens. This in turn makes economic imaginaries a useful concept in understanding the role of architecture and the built form in political-economic restructuring. Paul Jones (2009: 2519), who has already argued along these lines, has described the crucial role of architecture with regard to urban regeneration strategies in providing ‘a culturalized frame within which economic transformation is embedded’. In his words, CPE is potentially helpful in understanding how ‘corporate and state actors and institutions mobilize architecture as one way of making political-economic strategies socially meaningful’ (ibid.: 2520). While I agree with this, I think that the exemplification of that argument through the case of iconic architecture remains too centred on architecture's primarily aesthetic impact. Jones’ description of the ‘visually consumable’ nature of iconic architecture, which targets the outside and the external gaze, is certainly valid and resonates with other accounts on the nature of the icon (Kaika and Thielen, 2006; Sklair, 2006). However, it does not necessarily clarify why ‘star architecture’ or iconic architecture serves as ‘a way of embedding broader political-economic urban restructuring in a socially significant and sufficiently resonant form’ (Jones, 2009: 2526). The overwhelming concern with form in the design of these buildings does not explain their meaningfulness with regard to political-economic restructuring; it doesn't answer what kind of meaning they actually promote.

Interestingly, Maria Kaika (2010), in her recent examination of the tall buildings debate in London, has offered a new reading of iconic architecture by drawing on Cornelius Castoriadis’ (1987) notion of the ‘radical imaginary’. She suggests understanding the new towers as symptoms of an institutional and identity crisis on the part of the Corporation of London, the authority governing the City of London (i.e. London's central business district). The Corporation of London was obliged to permit institutional reforms and embark on a strategy of rebranding in the early 2000s, which has led to the emergence of architectural form and the urban skyline as symbols of historic change and constitutive signifiers of a new radical imaginary. Kaika's reading of London's reconfiguration of its skyline as an expression of institutional change is convincing, and recalls what John R. Short (1999) has described as the ‘crisis of representation’ brought about by the spatial reorganization of the capitalist space-economy, increased interurban competition and the need for new urban imaginaries. However, Kaika fails to dwell on one important point: the moment of ‘reorganization’ she speaks of refers to changes in power relations within the city's elites, institutional structures and expressions of collective identity. She does not, however, connect this notion of reorganization to the economic imaginary — even though she explicitly cites Castoriadis’ assessment of the economy as the most significant imaginary construct of Western societies, which ‘exhibits most strikingly the domination of the imaginary at every level’ (Castoriadis, 1987, cited in Kaika, 2010: 457). Thus, the new towers are understood as markers and symbols of change by virtue of their height and emblematic design. The fact that these buildings are office towers, after all, and that they are meant to provide a very specific spatial and technological infrastructure is, in my view, underestimated.

Buildings as ‘socially classifying devices’: the question of building types

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Cultural political economy, economic imaginaries and architecture
  5. Buildings as ‘socially classifying devices’: the question of building types
  6. Urban restructuring in Vienna since the mid-1990s
  7. The discursive and visual framing of the local office tower
  8. Misrepresentation and the practices of PR and media work
  9. Spatializing economic imaginaries
  10. Conclusions
  11. References

In order to shift the focus from architecture's singular aesthetic impact to its capacity to refer to social and economic functions, we need to examine architecture as a social and cultural product that is — beyond the immediate physical and affective experience of the built environment in everyday life — also a system of social meaning. While architectural styles as coherent systems of signification have little importance in contemporary architecture, I wish to argue that the building type is a crucial concept in guiding (or sometimes misguiding) the interpretation of built form in urban space and, even more so, in visual representations of urban space. Architecture is interpreted by citizens with regard to its purpose, the uses it allows, and the social and economic functions it accommodates. This interpretation is open, contested and context-dependent, but nevertheless based on a set of established and non-explicit conventions that users and citizens rely on in their interpretations of buildings. These conventions relate to the material, formal and spatial characteristics of a building that are associated with certain uses, functions and intentions.

At the same time, we certainly need to acknowledge that architecture is not primarily experienced by individuals on a conscious reflexive level. Providing a multisensory experience, it is experienced through affect, emotion and embodied practices (Borden, 2001; Kraftl and Adey, 2008). It has also been argued that architecture is rarely experienced as an isolated autonomous object; urban space is rather encountered as being connected, made up by interrelations between buildings rather than the impact of buildings on their own (Degen and Rose, 2012). Furthermore, the burgeoning literature on how architecture can be conceived from a practice-sensitive and actor-network-theory perspective has indicated the important role buildings have in ‘scripting’ specific routines and behaviour patterns (Lees, 2000; Jacobs and Merriman, 2011).

All this, in fact, suggests a shift away from an object-centred approach typical of the discipline of architecture — of which the concept of the building type is certainly a part. Nevertheless, I wish to argue that for the discussion of architecture's role in rendering social and economic strategies meaningful, the notion of the building type is crucial. However, this needs to be a sociologically and historically informed view of the building type that differs from the use of typology as a static and descriptive classification system in architectural history and theory. Seminal contributions to such a sociology of building types have been made by two scholars in particular, Anthony King (1980; 2004; 2010) and Thomas Markus (1993). Following King (2010: 29), we can understand building types ‘as socially classifying devices, providing us with insights into how social formations are organized, both spatially and temporally, and with reference to institutions and social relationship’. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that a type is always an abstraction, it is ‘a classification that does not link buildings to their site or place of origin, but to other, usually social and functional classifications, devoid of local references’ (Guggenheim and Söderström, 2010: 5).

This understanding of building types as both social products and means of social classification and abstraction allows us to integrate the critical evaluation of ‘place-making’ by means of architecture with the notion of economic imaginaries. Examining the way in which buildings are deployed in order to explicate, classify and abstract social formations is the key to understanding how architecture is mobilized to render urban political-economic strategies socially meaningful. The empirical question is then how architecture is presented to refer to building types, and what kind of social and functional classifications that reference implies.

Surely, this kind of analysis poses some challenges. Processes of specialization and diversification have affected the building industry, and the number of building types has grown steadily over the last decades. In addition, the clear-cut connection between form and function has eroded in recent times. Markus (1993) argues that this process of erosion began in the nineteenth century with the ‘typological explosion’ of the industrial revolution. As a consequence simple functional labels fail to embrace the complexity of many contemporary built spaces with overlapping heterogeneous systems of usage and appropriation. However, the rejection of conventional typological referencing by parts of contemporary architectural production and its inadequacy to properly describe some of the innovations occurring today does not imply that building types as socially classifying devices are no longer valid. Innovation in architecture has always been bound to social and functional changes that fostered the introduction of new building types (King, 1984) without questioning the category of the building type as a whole. The conscious reinterpretation of existing building typologies and the deconstruction of architecture as a coherent system of representation which we observe today can be taken as proof of the continuing existence of conventions. There still exist socially established conventions about categories of building types, their functions and their occurrence. These are enforced by the mediated nature of contemporary architectural knowledge, and the proliferation of repetitive generic images sourced through image banks and city archives (Grubbauer, 2010). In the next sections, which deal with the case study of Vienna and the role of its local office architecture in the construction of economic imaginaries, I will show how architecture as a signifier tends to be coded with reference to conventional building types.

Urban restructuring in Vienna since the mid-1990s

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Cultural political economy, economic imaginaries and architecture
  5. Buildings as ‘socially classifying devices’: the question of building types
  6. Urban restructuring in Vienna since the mid-1990s
  7. The discursive and visual framing of the local office tower
  8. Misrepresentation and the practices of PR and media work
  9. Spatializing economic imaginaries
  10. Conclusions
  11. References

Vienna came late to the neoliberal shift in urban politics. In the postwar years, Vienna constituted the outmost periphery of the Western European economic system. Cut off from its former hinterland, the urban economy was oriented mainly towards regional markets. The geopolitical changes of 1989 and Austria's accession to the European Union in 1995 placed Vienna back in the middle of a Central European region. The sudden increase in competition and easier access to the neighbouring Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries fostered economic restructuring and the internationalization of the urban economy. Until that point Vienna had sought to counter national neoliberal policies by resorting to local Keynesianism, but by the mid-1990s the Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (social democrats — henceforth SPÖ) government finally began restructuring the local state according to entrepreneurial approaches, creating new organizational structures and implementing public–private partnership models (Becker and Novy, 1999; Novy et al., 2001). However, the local government has been careful to preserve its economic and political might, preferring various forms of outsourcing to excessive privatization. Wien Holding GmbH, a private limited company, and Wiener Stadtwerke Holding AG, a publicly held corporation comprising all urban infrastructure services — both 100% percent owned by the City of Vienna — have steadily taken charge of the municipal administration's tasks and departments over the last decade, increasing their turnover by half in the period 2003–10. Outsourced enterprises are no longer included in Vienna's balance of accounts, which enhances their flexibility and diminishes parliamentary and public accountability, while the exertion of strategic influence is ensured through well-directed staffing policies and informal networks. In addition, the transformation of Vienna's administrative structure and communal enterprises has allowed the city to reduce the number of employees (especially those with the status of civil servants) dramatically since the mid-1990s. The number of employees in Vienna's administration reduced by more than a half, from 61,772 in 1996 to 29,387 in 2012 (City of Vienna Statistical Yearbooks, 2007–13).3 The restructuring of the city's economic and administrative base is clearly reflected in the budget policy and the declining public expenditure quota (19.5% in 1996; 14.8% in 2008). Most significant is the reduction of expenditure on fixed assets by 64% in absolute numbers, and by almost three-quarters in relation to running costs, between 1998 and 2012 (source: own calculations based on City of Vienna Statements of Accounts, 1998–2012).

Parallel to this restructuring, the local government has enacted a series of measures in order to sharpen the city's economic profile. The main line of argument since the mid-1990s (and the one promoted most visibly) has been the marketing of Vienna as an international business location and centre for corporate regional headquarters with a unique selling point: the city's situation ‘between east and west’ (Stadtentwicklung Wien, 2005: 33f, 88, 119f). Vienna has been promoted as the ‘hub and competence centre for business with Central and Eastern Europe’ (Wieninternational.at, 2010) because of its central location, and the city's historical (and now re-established) links within the region. Vienna and the eastern region of Austria have, in the words of the city's mayor Michael Häupl (2004: 4), ‘regained the geo-political, economic and cultural position that is rightfully theirs — in the heart of Europe’. In order to support these efforts the city's business promotion agency, the Vienna Business Agency (VBA), has undergone reorganization and acquired a range of new responsibilities. Focus has shifted towards sector-specific schemes, promotion was reorganized by setting up subsidiaries for the technology sector (in 2000) and the creative industries (in 2003), and competitive tenders for all funding programmes were gradually introduced.4 Furthermore, the VBA is increasingly engaged in the development of offices and specialized real estate properties, all financed through public–private partnership models. According to data provided by the VBA, the annual investment of private sector companies in Vienna resulting from monetary business promotion halved in value between 2003 and 2011 (206 million euros in 2003; 102 million euros in 2011) while private investment effected by real estate activities of the VBA5 has been rapidly growing, curbed only by the economic crisis of recent years (21 million euros in 2003; 67 million euros in 2011) (Stadt Wien, 2012: 203).

In parallel to these new promotional policies, the external presentation of Vienna, in terms of raising its profile as a business centre, has been considerably strengthened by a range of measures. In the area of city marketing and municipal public relations, a very clear process of professionalization may be observed over the last decade. In 1999–2000 Vienna's Press and Information Service (PID) was rearranged and decentralized. Since 2005 a corporate design handbook has been in use; it is intended to form the basis for specialized public relations across all departments. In order to standardize the portrayal of Vienna, a cross-departmental working group was set up with the participation of the Viennese Chamber of Commerce, the Vienna Business Agency and the Viennese Tourism Agency, which created a position paper and a working handbook for international Viennese activities for the period 2007–16 (Stadt Wien, 2007). Furthermore, the city's foreign-focused initiatives were considerably enhanced or expanded — a German–English print newspaper (Enjoy Vienna) has existed since 2000, and an English-language website (http://www.wieninternational.at) since 2006. Finally, there is also a series of publications, produced by the City of Vienna since 2006, called Business Location Vienna, and in 2010 ‘Expat Centre Vienna’ was launched (operated by the Vienna Business Agency, for senior staff of international companies in Vienna).

In sum, even though Vienna is still far from being the kind of entrepreneurial city discussed in the context of the US and UK (Hall and Hubbard, 1998; Brenner and Theodore, 2002; Hackworth, 2007), its urban economy and related regulatory framework have undergone profound changes over the last 15 years. First, the restructuring and reorganization of its public administration and municipal enterprises have facilitated the establishment of new modes of urban governance and public control. Social democratic corporatism has been replaced by informal networks of politicians, economic leaders and external experts. This has been most notable in the field of urban planning, with the establishment of a range of consultative bodies (or strengthening of pre-existing institutions). Second, economic success and urban competitiveness are now largely tied to the city's economic internationalization. It is the explicit aim of the local government to increase the number of multinational companies located in Vienna, and generate more international trade in the goods and services offered by Vienna-based companies. Given the traditional lack of lead sectors and the dominance of small-scale businesses (explained by Vienna's history as imperial capital and administrative centre), specialization as a regional hub has since 1989 been regarded as Vienna's unique selling point. Third, urban development has been profoundly transformed by the shift from public to private initiatives and the turn towards public–private partnership models. The city has withdrawn from public housing provision since 2004. Social housing is allocated through commercial and non-profit housing developers, who are assigned lots on the basis of competitive bids. At the same time, the city is involved in a range of large-scale development projects through various subsidiaries of Wien Holding GmbH, Wiener Stadtwerke Holding AG and the Vienna Business Agency. This property-led development strategy relies heavily on office development, and is highly dependent on negotiations and informal networking between public and private stakeholders. At the same time traditional comprehensive planning has proved largely ineffective in exerting strategic influence on the market. A study of the municipal planning department documented that the majority of office developments from 1995 to 2004 were erected outside the designated commercial zones as defined by the 1994 urban development plan (Stadtentwicklung Wien, 2003: 110) and concluded that ‘the urban development plan is not known to most of the actors in the real estate business or has only marginal influence on their decisions’ (ibid.). The subsequent urban development plan from 2005 refrained from defining specific zones of development, and instead sought to define target areas and strategic projects. As a result, urban development is now largely project-driven, and commercial real estate development has gained influence over the use and shape of new urban spaces to an extent unknown prior to the mid-1990s. This does not imply that the City of Vienna has withdrawn from intervening in urban development, but rather that the logic of intervention has changed to follow the premises of an internationalized and financialized real estate market.6

The prioritization of capital accumulation in driving urban development is highly significant in a city which used to figure as a paradigmatic example of a Western European city and municipal local welfare state, with powerful influence exerted by public administration on urban development, high rates of public landownership and a strong tradition of town planning (Häußermann and Haila, 2004). In contrast to the US and UK, this strategic (and rhetoric) shift in urban politics is still relatively new in Vienna, having been articulated only over the last 15 years. So far, it has been politically successful: there have been no political ruptures, the SPÖ having held power continuously7 with Michael Häupl serving as mayor since 1994. Despite criticism from architects and planners regarding the mediocrity of most of the urban development projects (Seiß, 2007), the property-led development has been surprisingly uncontested; public debates occurred only in those cases where the integrity of the historic city (a UNESCO world heritage site since 2002) was threatened (most notably in the case of the redevelopment of Bahnhof Wien Mitte, a railway station and traffic node adjacent to the historic Ringstraße). My argument is that this kind of political success has only been possible because of a fundamental change of meaning in the way the urban economy is conceived, a change that the ruling SPÖ was able to accomplish. This new interpretative framework is made plausible, as I will show in the following sections, by recurrence on the urban landscape and its materiality. The assignment of socioeconomic changes to structures constituting built-up space serves to naturalize the new economic regime. The building type that is central to this reconfiguration and reconceptualization of the local urban landscape is the office tower.

The discursive and visual framing of the local office tower

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Cultural political economy, economic imaginaries and architecture
  5. Buildings as ‘socially classifying devices’: the question of building types
  6. Urban restructuring in Vienna since the mid-1990s
  7. The discursive and visual framing of the local office tower
  8. Misrepresentation and the practices of PR and media work
  9. Spatializing economic imaginaries
  10. Conclusions
  11. References

Office development projects constitute the major part of recent urban reconstruction. Occupying focal points across the city, they are the largest and most visible new structures. Available office space has risen from 7.3 million m2 in 1991 to about 10.5 million m2 in 2010, with a notable trend towards larger projects (providing more than 10,000m2 of rentable office space). While these buildings accounted for about half of new office space constructed between 1992 and 2000, they provided more than three-quarters of the newly constructed office space in the decade 2000–10.8 The most prestigious project has been Donau City, a mixed-use development currently offering about 125,000m2 of office space on the left bank of the River Danube, next to Vienna's UN headquarters (Novy et al., 2001). Apart from Donau City, there are a number of private development projects across the city, such as Wienerberg City, another mixed-use development in the south of Vienna, Millennium City on the right bank of the River Danube, boasting the Millennium Tower (currently the highest building in the city), and Euro Plaza, a business park with 120,000m2 of office space. Since 2009, development has slowed down and vacancies have increased. However, rental prices in Vienna have remained largely stable compared to other cities in Europe, and the City of Vienna has continued its engagement in public–private partnership projects with high proportions of office space, the most important examples being Viertel Zwei,9 TownTown,10 and — currently the largest inner-city development project underway — the urban quarter around the new central rail station Bahnhof Wien — Europa Mitte,11 comprising an area of 109 hectares in the south of the city.

Vienna's SPÖ government has been presenting the new office towers as hallmarks of contemporary urbanity, promoting Donau City in particular as the new modern centre of the city.12 Twenty years ago the print periodical of Vienna's administration, Unser Wien (1992: 3), promised that Donau City would constitute the ‘the quintessential city of the twenty-first century’,13 guaranteeing ‘Vienna's status as a European metropolis for the next millennium’ (Unser Wien, 1993: 7). This equation of high-rise structures with modernization processes is well known and has been part of urban imaginaries since the beginning of the twentieth century. In comparison with recent high-rise structures in London or the globalizing cities of Southeast Asia and Arabia, Vienna's newly built towers are much more modest. Their architecture is unambitious; most of the buildings are characterized by commonplace design solutions, standard all-glass façades and unremarkable shapes. In addition, several projects have serious shortcomings with regard to issues of urban design and planning (e.g. lack of infrastructure, limited access to efficient public transport and little sensitivity towards the immediate context). In fact, most of the recent development projects in Vienna (including Donau City, with its unfortunate layout and incoherent urban design) very clearly reveal the influence of private developers, deciding upon their projects’ location and form on the basis of commercial interests (Seiß, 2007).

What is crucial for the discussion of economic imaginaries is the way these new office structures — irrespective of their questionable architectural quality or their commercial success (some towers have been standing almost completely empty for several years) — have been discursively framed and visually mediated to represent a new urban economic order. Their primary function is clearly defined by the goal of attracting international companies, as shown by numerous statements in official documents and publications of the city's public relations department, exemplified in a statement from the 2005 urban development plan (Stadtentwicklung Wien, 2005: 139):

The development of larger office and commercial projects is a major focus in the development and positioning of the whole city as a prime location in a region that is forming itself anew … These projects will ensure that possibilities are preserved and opportunities used to participate in the activities of the superregional economy (global network economy) by means of the availability of space, accessibility and the provision of information.

The connection drawn between the city's economic development and the new office projects is twofold. On the one hand, these projects (and especially the new office towers) have been used to demonstrate the success of Vienna as an international business location, presenting them as the result of an increased demand for office space on the part of international actors. A Vienna Business Agency brochure (VBA, 2008: 24) states that:

The demand for office space became hugely dynamic due to the expansion of numerous large companies and the increasing importance of Vienna as a location for the Eastern European headquarters of international firms.

On the other hand, office buildings have been justified and legitimated by highlighting their importance for the future attraction of international actors and the envisioning of Vienna as an eastern gateway. The office architecture is presented as a necessary means to secure future urban growth and strengthen the city's competitive position:

New city attracts investors. The Donau City: a modern urban district is intended to reduce the burden on the traditional city centre … With the Donau City the new city districts will receive an excellent centre in terms of urban planning and architecture. Such large projects should bring international investors to Vienna — thus safeguarding jobs. (Unser Wien, 1994: 2).

While the above statement from the pages of Unser Wien in the 1990s refers to Donau City, the latest project promoted by the local planning authorities and local government as ‘city of the future’ is Aspern Seestadt, a new urban quarter developed by the VBA as a public–private partnership project on the site of a former regional airport in the north of Vienna. The phrasing, however, has remained remarkably similar, as the description of the project on the English-language website demonstrates:

Named ‘Seestadt’ (‘Lake City’) it is to become a model city that combines modern living, high-tech businesses and research with a perfect infrastructure and serves as a hub for the neighbouring countries in Central and Eastern Europe … A trend-setting new ‘city’ of the 21st century — with 8,500 apartments, 25,000 workplaces and a science park — will be built on the huge 600-acre area in the northeast of Vienna … A modern high-tech and business centre that is attractive for international investors and companies is emerging along the strategically important connection Vienna–Bratislava in the middle of the booming Centrope region (Wieninternational.at, 2012).

In effect, this kind of discursive framing makes internationalization the leitmotiv of both economic and urban development strategies. In the position paper formulating the strategy for future international activities of the city authorities from 2007 to 2016 (Stadt Wien, 2007), the position of Vienna as a ‘mid-European economic and financial centre’ is clearly justified by the number of international companies located in Vienna. The explicit goal is to attract headquarters and company offices specifically targeting the markets of CEE, and the city government makes a huge effort to regularly point out efforts made in that direction by publishing numbers and lists of international companies located in Vienna every year. At the same time, it is made clear that urban development also follows the paradigm of internationalization with regard to building structures: in the city's 2004 strategic plan (Stadt Wien, 2004: 15) it is clearly stated that ‘for the internationalization of the business location Vienna, a connection between Vienna-specific identities and innovations through international typologies’ is important, and former city councillor Rudolf Schicker put it bluntly in an interview: ‘Development in the global business requires new office buildings’ (Capacity, 2005: 2).

The decisive twist in the argument is the causal relationship established between the two forms of internationalization: office architecture is presented both as evidence of a successful strategy of economic internationalization and as a precondition for the future internationalization of the local urban economy. Thus, the central function of the local office architecture in the discursive construction of local economic imaginaries in Vienna is, in my view, to imply the existence of economic activities of international reach through the paradigmatic materialization of international building typologies and standards: office architecture is presented as the preferred place of international economic activities and necessary means to allow ‘the city’ to participate in global economic networks, whatever ‘the city’ might be in that case.

The discursive justification and instrumental use of the office building by verbal expression is accompanied by the extensive use of related images. Office buildings — and in particular the new office towers — have been the leading motif in the visualization of the heightened economic profile sought by Vienna over the last 15 years. In the case of Vienna, office architecture is clearly the preferred motif when addressing issues of economic policy and economic development, and virtually the sole outstanding motif when issues of economic development are depicted by images of urban spaces and structures constituting the built environment. This finding stands in contrast to the culture-led regeneration strategies of many other cities, which — under the influence of the creative-city discourse — seek to emphasize their cultural and social capital in their PR activities. However, Vienna already benefits from abundant cultural attractions and is highly valued as a tourist destination. Against this background the city's government sought to build another, altogether different, image — of an international business location and headquarters centre — which also entailed deploying photos that would contrast with the established image of Vienna as cultural capital.

Interestingly, it is not necessarily the architectural spectacle and the tower as a landmark that is placed to the fore in these images. Rather, these images — used to present Vienna as a business location in PID and VBA publications or on the relevant websites, deployed as visuals in campaigns of the SPÖ or to illustrate articles on Vienna's economic development in the city's print periodicals — tend to be highly typified and formatted with respect to three recurrent strategies of photographic depiction: as architectural fragment, as solitary office tower and as skyline. In all three cases, typification is achieved most importantly through the decontextualization of the building or urban scene. The photographer or graphic designer purposely omits individual features, such as aesthetic attributes and outstanding design solutions, but also the people who inhabit and use a building, and traces of living and working in a building, as well as its relationship to the immediate urban surroundings (additional aspects that enhance typification include, for instance, the conventional lighting, the unrealistic depth of focus and the customary blue sky). In the first case, the local office architecture is depicted as a fragment that allows few conclusions to be drawn about the whole object (Figure 1). The example is taken from the 2005 urban development plan (Stadtentwicklung Wien, 2005: 119). The photo is used as a visual intro to the chapter ‘Economy and Work’ connecting to the title of the chapter and subsequent text (explaining how today's cities compete as international business locations). Photographic images are polysemic by nature; accompanying captions and text fragments have a crucial role in ‘anchoring’ — and thus containing and controlling — the potential meaning of images, as Roland Barthes (1993 [1978]) has famously argued. In this case, the aim of the depicted building fragment is to exemplify the globally linked, forward-looking and innovative world of business without distraction through the identification of the specific building. This is supported by a typified depiction of the businessperson in a scene of everyday work life.

figure

Figure 1. ‘Economy and work’ (photo by Mario Lang; © Stadtentwicklung Wien, 2005, reproduced with permission)

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In the second strategy of visual typification, office towers are depicted as solitary objects without showing the urban context in which they are situated (Figure 2). These towers are sometimes presented as the premises of specific international companies that are also explicitly referred to in the accompanying text. In most cases, however, the office tower as a solitary object is used to represent economic internationalization, economic success and forward-looking change in general terms, as in the example taken from a 2008 promotional booklet (Stadt Wien, 2008: 4). In the same way, it serves for example as a cover photo for Vienna's economic facts and figures publication (Stadt Wien, 2006) and to illustrate headlines such as ‘Vienna is changing!’ (Unser Wien, 1998: 1), ‘Vienna is a top location for business’ (Stadt Wien, 2004: 4), ‘The Business Centre of Vienna. We want to reach new heights’ (VBA, 2006: 1) or ‘Vienna, the Business Engine’ (ibid.: 3). In these cases the buildings are very often depicted in frontal view, avoiding perspective distortions and emphasizing the objectifying character of the image. Narrative elements are avoided, there is no visible background and the images have little depth. These images are coded in reference to an analytical pattern of representation (Kress and van Leeuwen, 1996: 90). The third strategy employed to depict the new office architecture is to deploy it in the form of a skyline, most often along the water. With Manhattan as a role model, the skyline has come to figure as an ‘iconic growth graph’ (van Leeuwen, 1988: 115) that establishes a connection between the growth of the high-rises and economic prosperity (see also Jansson and Lagerkvist, 2009). Recently within the global city discourse (and following the role models of New York, London and Tokyo), the skyline of office towers has become a marker of global city status and of the city as a world financial centre (King, 2004: 3–22). In the case of Vienna, it is Donau City in particular that has been depicted against the skyline and used as a motif in high-profile political and public relations campaigns over the last decade. The example here (Figure 3) shows an SPÖ poster titled ‘Thank you for your trust in the future’, used to thank voters after the 2005 city council elections. The skyline of Donau City appears here, to both testify to the successful work of the local government and promise a successful future. Typification is achieved here, on the one hand by means of conventional image composition: the viewpoint is located on the opposite side of the Danube, a little above water level, presenting a frontal view of the ensemble, the towers clearly silhouetted against the sky. On the other hand, visual typification is enhanced through the subtle obscuration of the urban scene with regard to the ‘modality’ of the image (Kress and van Leeuwen, 1996: 159ff). The wide-angle view makes the waterfront appear bigger than it really is; the night-time illumination and collapsing of different spatial layers produce the impression of an animated urban scene — concealing the fact that the public spaces of Donau City are not currently connected to the waterfront promenade and it remains completely isolated from the rest of the city.

figure

Figure 2. ‘Vienna is a top location for business’ (photo by Julius Silver; © MA 53, Presse- und Informationsdienst der Stadt Wien, reproduced with permission)

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Figure 3. ‘Thank you for your trust in the future.’ SPÖ poster used after 2005 city council elections (photo by Herbert Schludermann, Vienna; © SPÖ Wien, reproduced with permission)

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Thus, the discursive link that is established between economic internationalization and office architecture as the paradigmatic materialization of international building typologies and standards is supported and strengthened by visual means. The logic of typification is to show nothing unusual, nothing too specific and as few distracting details as possible. Visual typification builds on architecture as a building type rather than a singular object; it is this typification that allows the building to function as a ‘socially classifying device’ by implying specific activities taking place inside. At the same time, this kind of typification makes Vienna more comparable to other cities: these images of office buildings are not necessarily used because the buildings look like any other building (in terms of aesthetic uniformity), but rather because they look like they could be in any other place. Paradoxically, international economic activities are located in the urban realm through decontextualizing the building, negating the physical, cultural and social context in order to make the implied international standards and typologies more plausible. However, the representational strategy described here is a conflicting one and involves misrepresentation, which becomes clear upon looking more closely at the economic circumstances of office development in Vienna.

Misrepresentation and the practices of PR and media work

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Cultural political economy, economic imaginaries and architecture
  5. Buildings as ‘socially classifying devices’: the question of building types
  6. Urban restructuring in Vienna since the mid-1990s
  7. The discursive and visual framing of the local office tower
  8. Misrepresentation and the practices of PR and media work
  9. Spatializing economic imaginaries
  10. Conclusions
  11. References

Significant internationalization and restructuring of the urban economy has certainly taken place in Vienna since 1995. This is most visible in the increased volume of trade with neighbouring CEE countries, the rapid rise of foreign direct investment (henceforth FDI) by Vienna-based companies in the CEE region and the (at least partial) internationalization of the service sector (Mayerhofer et al., 2010). However, demand for new office space in Vienna from the early 1990s was clearly not driven by the influx of new international clients. Rather, it can be explained by the continuous overall growth of office occupation since the mid-1990s, which increased by an average rate of about 1% per annum in the period 1995–2004 (Investkredit, 2005), as well as the restructuring of the market due to the relocation of companies to larger, more flexible and technologically up-to-date buildings. The high proportion of office space in historical buildings dating from the nineteenth century, the limited floor space available in these buildings and the high costs of adaptation made this kind of relocation within Vienna the main reason for the rise in demand for new office space. In the years between 2000 and 2006, about two-thirds of all contracts concluded were due to relocation. In recent years, the proportion of relocations has been even higher. This misrepresentation of Vienna's office towers as primary locations for international headquarters becomes even clearer when we look at the companies located in some of the most important developments. The Vienna Business Agency provides a list of currently (as of February 2012) 185 multinational companies with regional headquarters in Vienna. The comparison between these companies and the list of tenants of the largest office developments reveals only a few correlations. Of the 185 companies on the list, only three are located in Donau City and 16 in three of the other new office locations.14 Also, some of the developments had substantial difficulty finding tenants before and after completion. In fact, in several cases the local government has been actively assisting development projects by relocating administrative bodies and enhancing the value of these premises through long-term contracts (Seiß, 2007). From 2001 to 2006, national and local administrative bodies and semi-public organizations made up about 20% of the contracts and were responsible for the largest deals in terms of rented space. From 2007 to 2010 this figure was almost 25%. Finally, on a more general level, the gateway argument is gradually losing relevance because of the ongoing integration of the CEE markets and the recent eastwards expansion of the European Union. The establishment of new corporate headquarters in Vienna is becoming less likely as investment in the CEE region is moving eastwards. While Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia — the CEE countries closest to Austria — received about 85% of the inward FDI stock in CEE in 1993 and were still getting 75% in 1995,15 by 2010 this share had fallen to 40% (source: own calculations based on UNCTAD, 2011 data) as countries further away from Austria and with weaker historical links (such as the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Rumania, Bulgaria and the Baltic states) have become more attractive to investors. Thus, the argument of physical proximity and established political, economic and cultural links in the region that Vienna's government uses to substantiate the city's position as gateway to the CEE region is becoming ever weaker.

These figures indicate that socioeconomic change does not come with an immediate physical transformation and functional reorganization of the built environment, and Vienna, with its extensive historical urban fabric and careful protection and conservation of its monuments, might here be an extreme example of the opposite. On the one hand, agents and institutions obviously acquire new tasks and expand their range of operations internationally without necessarily changing the location of their headquarters in the city. Of all the companies based in Vienna, Austria's banks and financial institutions have certainly been the most successful in increasing their sphere of influence in the CEE, as documented by their high share of FDI in the region and the number of employees at subsidiary enterprises in the CEE countries (Mayerhofer et al., 2010). All head offices, however, remain located in their original buildings (mostly residences from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) located in and around the historic city (this applies for example to Bank Austria, Vienna Insurance Group, Raiffeisen Zentralbank Österreich AG and Erste Group). On the other hand, an important part of the economic activities and practices characteristic of the shift towards a post-Fordist mode of production has no physical and visible manifestation in the urban space, at least for the time being. These activities and agents, most notably in the creative and service sectors, remain invisible, either because they occupy spaces in former industrial structures or historic buildings, or they are not dependent on fixed sites of production but are instead organized in multi-locational collaborative networks.

However, the local urban elites need to communicate and legitimize the shifts in urban development strategies and the political agenda. To this end, the means of visual communication is extremely important. The new office buildings and towers are more visible than any other type of building in Vienna's homogenous urban fabric. In fact, they constitute the only buildings that are sufficiently visibly new and visibly different from the existing structures so as to embody the city's self-reinvention as an international business location. This kind of institutionalized discursive framing that we find in the use of the photos of office architecture does not imply that the circulated images are always used deliberately or that they always involve a conscious manipulation of knowledge, quite the contrary.

Naturally there are high-profile image campaigns every few years with new tailor-made motifs. The photo depicting Mayor Häupl in front of Donau City's skyline shown above (Figure 3) had already been used for various PR purposes before being selected for the post-election poster in 2005, a rather unusual move since these kinds of posters rarely carry visuals justified by the strength and the success of the motif (as a press officer of Vienna's SPÖ explained, interview, 20 January 2006). However, for most PR and media purposes, editors and designers routinely resort to images sourced from the city's own archive or from commercial agencies. This has to do with limited budgets (assigned photographs are expensive) and time constraints, but also with the different purpose of such low-key images, used for example in the magazine wien.at, as teasers on the city's website or as visuals for low-key advertisements and promotional materials that various departments need on a daily basis: these images are not meant to carry a highly politicized message, nor are they expected to be studied carefully. They are selected and inserted in a particular context, which is dependent on the routines, experiences and interpretations of individuals working in administrative departments, editorial offices and creative agencies. However, even though the motivation in selecting a particular photo can be totally apolitical — purely aesthetic, technical or founded on personal preferences — the selection is by no means arbitrary. There are two reasons for this.

First, the selection of a particular image to represent Vienna as a business location and regional hub is necessarily based on plausibility. The tower depicted in the photo with the caption ‘Vienna is a top location for business’ as shown above (Figure 2), was built in 1998. At the point of publication of the booklet in 2008 it was of no particular economic importance to Vienna; in fact, it was only 50% occupied and awaiting renovation, and dwarfed by the Twin Tower (arguably one of Vienna's best examples of high-rise architecture) which has stood right next to it since 2001. Also, the text on the page makes no reference to that building at all. In short: there was no reason whatsoever to choose this particular photo other than plausibility. The selection of the photo was necessarily based on the assumption that the link between the typified image of the office tower and the caption would be evident to the viewer. Ultimately, this conventionalized text/image composition relies on the adoption of globally circulating narratives and images of global cities as command-and-control centres of the world economy (Grubbauer, 2010).

The second reason for the non-arbitrary nature of image selection is the scarcity of available images. Even though city marketing campaigns have a long history, starting with New York's ‘I Love NY’ campaign of the 1970s (Greenberg, 2008), systematic cross-departmental harmonization of marketing strategies and outsourcing of production to private agencies and publishers has only occurred during the last decade in the cities of Austria and Germany. As described above, it is only since 2000 that the organizational framework of PR and city marketing in Vienna has changed significantly; the same is true for Berlin and Hamburg. Therefore, image archives are still not integrated systematically and PR practices are highly dependent on sourcing suitable images. Free images readily available for everyday use in PR and marketing are limited both in numbers and in variety of motifs. While non-place-specific motifs are now obtained mostly from commercial agencies, place-specific photos pose more of a challenge. In an interview (28 November 2006), a VBA press officer testified to the difficulty of sourcing appropriate high-quality images of modern local office buildings for marketing materials. Thus, individuals in charge of sourcing, selecting and editing these everyday low-key photos are in fact immersed in socio-material practices decidedly shaped by the logic and the constraints of keyword-based image archiving and retrieval.

Spatializing economic imaginaries

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Cultural political economy, economic imaginaries and architecture
  5. Buildings as ‘socially classifying devices’: the question of building types
  6. Urban restructuring in Vienna since the mid-1990s
  7. The discursive and visual framing of the local office tower
  8. Misrepresentation and the practices of PR and media work
  9. Spatializing economic imaginaries
  10. Conclusions
  11. References

Coming back to the concept of economic imaginaries, it is legitimate to assume that the assignment of socioeconomic changes to structures constituting built-up space enhances their plausibility. We are more inclined to believe in the existence of certain phenomena if we are able to see their manifestation in material space: ‘Because they are easily visualized, spatial changes can represent and structure orientations to society. Space stimulates both memory and desire; it indicates categories and relations between them’ (Zukin, 1991: 268). In the struggles for meaning that define economies as specific subjects, sites and objects of regulation, the exemplary connection (discursive and visual) of economic processes and activities with objects of built space may enhance the plausibility and visibility of interpretations considerably, especially if we think of the public debate and not a specialist audience. It is the spatialization of economic imaginaries that seems to advance them from the realm of abstract reasoning to the lived and experienced world. Thus, the typified images of office architecture, linked to economic activities of international reach, not only shape viewing habits; they serve to locate these functions and activities in the urban space. Moreover, this connection naturalizes the socioeconomic changes, creating facticity: it becomes more difficult to contest the validity of Vienna's internationalization policy if the office architecture is deemed to be its physical testimonial as well as justification. The reference to building types as socially classifying devices is an important (but not necessarily the only) way of anchoring economic imaginaries in the lifeworld; one can imagine how typified images of infrastructures or green spaces could serve the same purpose.

How effective is this discursive construction of local economic imaginaries? Jessop points out how competing economic imaginaries always exist on different scales and at different sites, each of them based on a particular and necessarily selective representation of social reality; how can we be sure that an economic imaginary is successfully installed? There can be no final evidence of this; the effects of discourses and image politics are difficult to assess. The performance capability of such a discursive reconstruction of the urban economic system must be argued by drawing on various types of sources and by combining different methodological approaches. In the presented case, the performativity of the new economic imaginaries is suggested by three aspects in particular: first, the specific political and institutional setting of city marketing and PR activities in Vienna which accounts for their high visibility; second, the uncontested nature of the recent paradigmatic shift in urban economic policy; and third, the incorporation of the new narratives into the routines and practices of everyday PR work of public actors as well as private media.

Vienna and its local government draw on an exceptionally broad range of channels and tools in PR terms. The public relations department has 120 employees and its annual expenditure amounts to 50 million euros (source: Statement of Accounts, 2010). This is extraordinary compared to the PR departments of other Austrian cities such as Graz or Linz, which have only a handful of employees, as well as those of other European cities, such as Frankfurt/Main (21 full-time employees in the press office, 2.4 million euros expenditure in 2010) or Berlin (32 full-time employees in the press office, 20.7 million euros expenditure in 2010). The size of the PID is explained by a historically grown bundle of competencies (national and international communication, image promotion, press work) and Vienna's position as city as well as federal state. Between 1998 and 2012 the PID's share of expenditure increased by half in relation to total running costs (source: own calculations based on City of Vienna Statements of Accounts, 1998–2012). All this indicates an enormous media presence, permitting the presumption that the circulated narratives and images are highly visible to the public. The Viennese government, the administration and the SPÖ simply have a strong presence in the city, both in the media as well as in urban space, with the boundaries between the actions of these three agents being blurred (a legacy of long-term SPÖ rule). The magazine wien.at (together with various supplements and thematic issues) is distributed for free to all households every month; in addition there exist separate periodicals for every district. High visibility is also achieved by advertising in a range of widely read print media (also serving as a form of concealed subsidization); among others this includes the free Metro newspaper distributed on urban public transport. In sum, according to estimates by opposition parties, the City of Vienna and its enterprises spend up to 100 million euros on advertising and PR activities each year (twice as much as the Austrian government or the Austrian Tourism Agency). Visibility in public space is achieved by the efficient use of outdoor advertisements (e.g. billboards at bus or metro stations, or SPÖ notice boards on public housing estates). Strategic influence is secured through shares held in the advertising enterprise Gewista. Founded as a municipal department in 1921, Gewista was privatized in 1993 and is today jointly owned by JCDecaux, the world's largest outdoor advertising corporation (holding two-thirds of the shares) and by a subsidiary enterprise of the SPÖ (holding a third of the shares). High visibility alone does not imply performativity though. It is the ongoing political success and the astonishing lack of contestation of property-led urban development which suggests that the strategic shift in urban development policy has been largely accepted. This is not to say that more critical and alternative readings of urban change in Vienna do not exist; of course they do, albeit largely without influencing the public debate. Even in the financial crisis years since 2008, the financialization of urban (re)development in Vienna has not been substantially questioned. Finally, the routines and practices of everyday PR work also point to the performativity of the economic imaginaries centred on the local office architecture, and the representation of Vienna as a headquarters centre and regional economic hub. In my analysis of documents and periodicals for the period 1995–2010, I found the circulated images to be much more persistent and long-lived than initially expected: seemingly useful images have been reused repeatedly for years, reinforcing existing narratives and thereby crossing the PR boundaries between the SPÖ, city administration and local government (as in the case of the photo in Figure 3). The constant depiction of typified buildings and spaces in recurrent contexts reinforces the intended meaning through narrativity: ‘Mobilized potentiality acquires meaning and reality because it has been cited and seen before’ (Frosh 2003: 166, original emphasis). It is on this level of socio-material practices that new economic imaginaries get articulated, visualized and reproduced beyond strategic state action.

Conclusions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Cultural political economy, economic imaginaries and architecture
  5. Buildings as ‘socially classifying devices’: the question of building types
  6. Urban restructuring in Vienna since the mid-1990s
  7. The discursive and visual framing of the local office tower
  8. Misrepresentation and the practices of PR and media work
  9. Spatializing economic imaginaries
  10. Conclusions
  11. References

In this article I have explored how architecture has the ability to point towards social and economic functions by understanding the building as a ‘socially classifying device’ which is used in urban development strategies to reimagine urban space and locate economic functions in the urban realm. I have argued that new economic imaginaries might be installed more efficiently if they are discursively connected to and visually represented by buildings in urban space, as this enhances their plausibility and visibility. Rather than explaining the ideological function of architecture by the spectacle it provides, architecture operates here as a building type: it abstracts from the specific context, renders urban space meaningful and delivers explanations for the functioning of the urban economy and its mode of production. Thus, urban economies as objects of economic regulation and governance are constituted and produced by means of discursive practices, i.e. urban representations and images of architecture. To illustrate this argument, I have examined the shifts in urban political strategies in Vienna, and the means, channels and modes of discursive and visual representation of the local office architecture. Taking a look at how buildings are deployed in order to explicate, classify and abstract social formations, I have argued that visual typification is used to make Vienna more comparable to other cities, paradoxically locating economic functions of international reach in the urban space by decontextualizing the depicted architectural fragments, buildings and spaces.

A primary motor of urban development in cities around the world has been private capital in search of investment. The internationalization, financialization and diversification of real estate investment have fuelled large-scale building projects in all of Europe's major cities. In Vienna, too, commercial real estate development has — not without the consent of city planners — gained influence over the use and shape of urban spaces to a hitherto unknown extent. The consequences of this creative destruction for the qualities of urban space and the city's inhabitants must be legitimated by those in power. It is in the interest of the local state to explain this physical transformation of urban space, account for it and render it meaningful. An effective way to do this is to assign the new office developments key functions in the urban economy, and to make them the visible physical evidence of the new economic regime. Thus, the related transformation of urban space becomes an unquestionable political necessity while the logic of capital accumulation that drives commercial real estate development remains largely removed from public debate.

Finally, the relevance of this case study with regard to discussions about urban politics and modes of local regulation lies, in my view, particularly in the banality and implicitness with which interpretations of how the urban economy functions are related to architecture and more precisely to building types. These uniform, unremarkable, repetitive images that draw on the truly global architecture of today (the banal and everyday office tower) might be as efficient in shaping public discourse as our era's greatest architectural icons.

Footnotes
  1. 1

    A total of 13 interviews were conducted between 2006 and 2008. In addition, another 24 interviews were conducted with actors involved in the development of several office development projects (architects, developers, investors, etc.), as well as urban planners and real estate professionals. The latter series is not particularly relevant for the aims of this article and therefore not referred to here. A more detailed discussion is provided in Grubbauer (2011).

  2. 2

    I am grateful to one of the anonymous reviewers for pointing towards that notion.

  3. 3

    This massive reduction can be explained above all by the conversion of Wiener Wohnen (the public housing agency) and the Krankenanstaltenverbund (KAV, the communal health services authority) into companies in their own right. In 2008 the Magistratsabteilung 30 — Wien Kanal (responsible for municipal wastewater treatment) was the latest to be reformed into a commercial entity. If we include the staff employed in these companies, the result is an effective staff reduction of 5.8% in total, and 33% among civil servants (over the period 1996–2012).

  4. 4

    To emphasize the new profile of the VBA, its name was changed to Wirtschaftsagentur Wien in 2010 as part of a complete relaunch of its corporate identity.

  5. 5

    This category includes investment undertaken by the VBA as real estate developer, as well as investment by private sector companies which locate in premises belonging to the VBA (email communication with VBA's project leader on economic policy, 2 May 2013).

  6. 6

    In particular, Austria's accession to the European Union in 1995 provided a turning point for real estate investment in Vienna, because premises suddenly became attractive for a range of institutional investors from across the European Union.

  7. 7

    Absolute majority of votes was lost in 1996, leading to a coalition between the SPÖ and the conservatives in the years 1996–2001, but was regained in the 2001 elections. In 2010 the absolute majority was lost again; this time a coalition between the SPÖ and the greens was formed.

  8. 8

    The figures on the office market in Vienna, here and on subsequent pages, are calculated on the basis of annual market reports by CB Richard Ellis and the Vienna-based real estate agency EHL (formerly CPB) published between 2004 and 2011, as well as a data set provided by Investkredit AG for the period 1992–2003.

  9. 9

    Occupying a site next to the Prater recreational area, Viertel Zwei is jointly developed by Wien Holding GmbH, IG Immobilien GmbH (a subsidy of the Austrian National Bank) and IC Projektentwicklung GmbH (an Austrian private real estate developer).

  10. 10

    Located halfway between the city centre and airport, TownTown is a joint project of Wiener Stadtwerke Holding AG, Swiss engineering company STC Development and Viennese project and asset management company Donau-Finanz.

  11. 11

    The name translates as ‘Station Vienna — Europe Center’, again pointing to the importance attributed to the presentation of Vienna as a regional hub and centre bridging east and west.

  12. 12

    The discourse-centred study referred to in the following section consisted, in a first step, of a qualitative content analysis of key policy documents, i.e. the 2004 strategic plan (Stadt Wien, 2004), the 2005 urban development plan (Stadtentwicklung Wien, 2005) and the position paper ‘Vienna 2016’ (Stadt Wien, 2007) on the strategy for future international activities of the city authorities from 2007 to 2016. This analysis identified the argument structure related to the presentation of Vienna as a business location, and examined the functions attributed to the local office architecture within this argument. In a second step, the findings were verified by comparing them with key documents of city marketing and PR, i.e. the English-language website (http://www.wieninternational.at), a marketing brochure (VBA, 2008) of the Vienna Business Agency from the year 2008, plus articles on economic and urban development appearing in the magazine wien.at. This is the main print periodical of the city's administration, published monthly on behalf of the City of Vienna's Press and Information Service (until 2001 under the title Unser Wien) and distributed free to all Vienna households. For the study all issues of wien.at from 1986 to 2009 were examined, relevant articles identified (around 450 in all) and coded in relation to the argument structure identified in the first step. The image-centred part of the empirical study drew on a series of case studies of various types of documents, i.e. the 2004 strategic plan and the 2005 urban development plan, selected campaigns and materials of the Vienna Business Agency as well as the local SPÖ from the years 2005–10, and illustrated articles on economic and urban development published in wien.at from 1986 to 2009. Case studies were selected from the total set of images sourced for the study (about 650) based on the comparison of recurring motifs within specific discursive contexts. Furthermore, a qualitative analysis of compositional elements and strategies of visual typification was performed drawing on the methodological framework of social semiotics provided by Kress and van Leeuwen (1996). For a detailed account of the empirical study including the documentation of a selection of 75 images, see Grubbauer (2011).

  13. 13

    All of the following quotes from official documents and periodicals published by the City of Vienna have been translated into English by the author if not stated otherwise.

  14. 14

    Wienerberg City, Millennium Tower and Euro Plaza.

  15. 15

    CEE: Albania, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, Poland, Republic of Moldova, Romania, Russian Federation, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Cultural political economy, economic imaginaries and architecture
  5. Buildings as ‘socially classifying devices’: the question of building types
  6. Urban restructuring in Vienna since the mid-1990s
  7. The discursive and visual framing of the local office tower
  8. Misrepresentation and the practices of PR and media work
  9. Spatializing economic imaginaries
  10. Conclusions
  11. References
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