Iwant to think aloud today about a fundamental theoretical problem—the relationship between urbanism and architecture—which, alongside its own intrinsic interest and urgency, raises a number of theoretical issues of significance to me, although not necessarily to all of you.footnote1 But I need to ask for some provisional interest in those issues, and in my own work in relationship to them, in order to reach the point of being able to formulate some more general urban and architectural problems. For instance, an investigation of the dynamics of abstraction in postmodern cultural production, and in particular of the radical difference between that structural role of abstraction in postmodernism and the kinds of abstractions at work in what we now call modernism, or if you prefer, the various modernisms, has led me to re-examine the money form—the fundamental source of all abstraction—and to ask whether the very structure of money and its mode of circulation has not been substantially modified in recent years, or in other words during the brief period some of us still refer to as postmodernity. That is, of course, to raise again the question of finance capital and its importance in our own time, and to raise formal questions about the relationships between its peculiar and specialized abstractions and those to be found in cultural texts. I think everyone will agree that finance capital, along with globalization, is one of the distinctive features of late capitalism, or in other words of the distinctive state of things today.

But it is precisely this line of inquiry which, reoriented in the direction of architecture itself, suggests the further development I want to pursue today. For in the realm of the spatial, there does seem to exist something like an equivalent of finance capital, indeed a phenomenon intimately related to it, and that is land speculation: something which may have found its field of endeavour in the countryside in years bygone—in the seizure of native American lands, in the acquisition of immense tracts by the railroads, in the development of suburban areas, alongside the seizure of natural resources—but which in our time is a pre-eminently urban phenomenon, (not least because everything is becoming urban) and has returned to the big cities, or to what is left of them, to seek its fortunes. What is then the relationship, if any, between the distinctive form land speculation has taken today, and those equally distinctive forms we find in postmodern architecture—now using that term in a general and chronological, hopefully rather neutral, sense?

It has often been observed that the emblematic significance of architecture today, and also its formal originaliry, lies in its immediacy to the social, in the ‘seam it shares with the economic’: and this is a rather different immediacy than even that experienced by other expensive art forms, such as cinema and theatre, which are certainly also dependent on investments. But this very immediacy presents theoretical dangers, which are actually themselves fairly well-known. It does not seem preposterous to assert, for example, that land speculation and the new demand for increased construction opens a space in which a new architectural style can emerge: but, to use the time-honoured epithet, it equally seems ‘reductive’ to explain the new style in terms of the new kinds of investment. It is said that this kind of reductionism fails to respect the specificity, the autonomy or semi-autonomy, of the aesthetic level and its intrinsic dynamics. In fact, it is objected, bald assertions of this kind never seem to descend into the detail of the styles they thereby stigmatize; they are able to neglect formal analysis, having as it were discredited its very principle in advance.

One might then attempt to enrich and complexify this interpretation (of ‘the origins of postmodernism’) by introducing the matter of new technologies, and showing how those dictated a new style at the same time that they responded more adequately to the aims of the investments. This is then to insert a ‘mediation’ between the economic level and the aesthetic one; and it can begin to give an idea of why, for the immediacy of an assertion about economic determination, we would do better to elaborate a series of mediations between the economic and the aesthetic; of, in other words, why we need a revitalized conception of the mediation as such. The concept of mediation is posited on the existence of what I have referred to as a ‘level’, or in other words (those of Niklas Luhmann) a differentiated social function, a realm or zone within the social that has developed to the point at which it is governed internally by its own intrinsic laws and dynamics. I want to call such a realm ‘semi-autonomous’, because it is clear that it is still somehow part of the social totality, as the term function suggests: and my own term is deliberately ambiguous or ambivalent, in order to suggest a two-way street, in which one can either emphasize the relative independence, the relative autonomy, of the area in question, or else, the other way round, insist on its functionality and its ultimate place in the whole—at least by way of its consequences for the whole, if not its ‘function’ understood as a kind of material interest and slavish or subservient motivation. So, to use a few of Luhmann’s more obvious examples, the political is a distinct ‘level’, because, since Machiavelli and since the emergence of the modern state under Richelieu, politics is a semi-autonomous realm in modern societies, with its own mechanisms and procedures, its own personnel, its own history and traditions, or ‘precedents’, and so forth. But this does not imply that the political level does not have manifold consequences for what lies outside it. The same can be said for the realm of law, the legal or juridical level, which might in many ways be said to be the model and exemplar of just such a specialized and semi-autonomous domain. Those of us who do cultural work will no doubt also want to insist on a certain semi-autonomy of the aesthetic or the cultural—even though the relationship between those two alternate formulations is today once again a very contested topic indeed: the laws of storytelling, even for television series, are surely not immediately reducible to the institutions of parliamentary democracy, let alone the operations of the stock market.

And what about that—the stock market itself? It is certain that the emergence of the market, and of the theory of the market, from the eighteenth century onwards, has formed the economy over into a semi-autonomous level, if it was not one before. As for money and land, well, those are precisely the phenomena that will concern us here, and which will allow us to test the usefulness of both the concept of mediation and its related idea, the semi-autonomous instance or level: it being understood in advance that neither money nor land can constitute such a level in its own right, since both are clearly functional elements within that more fundamental system or sub-system which is the market and the economy.

Any discussion of money as a mediation needs to confront the work of Georg Simmel, whose massive Philosophy of Money (1900) pioneered what we would today call a phenomenological analysis of this peculiar reality.footnote2 Simmel’s subterranean influence on a variety of twentieth-century currents of thought is incalculable, partly because he resisted coining his complex thinking into an identifiable system; meanwhile, the complicated articulations of what is essentially a non-Hegelian or decentred dialectic are often smothered by his heavy prose. A new account of this life work would be an indispensable preliminary stage in the discussion I want to stage here.footnote3 To be sure, Simmel bracketed the economic structures themselves, but is very suggestive for the ways in which the phenomenological as well as the cultural effects of finance capital might be described and explored. Clearly, this is not the moment for any such full-dress study, and so I will limit myself to a few remarks on his seminal essay, ‘Metropolis and Mental Life’, in which money also plays a central role.footnote4

It is fundamentally an account of the increasing abstraction of modem life, and most particularly of urban life (in the Berlin of the late nineteenth century): abstraction is, to be sure, precisely my topic, and still one very much with us, sometimes under different names—Anthony Giddens’s key term disembedding, for example, says very much the same thing, while directing us to other features of the process. And in Simmel’s essay, abstraction takes on a remarkable multiplicity of forms, from the experience of time to some new distance in personal relations, from what he calls ‘intellectualism’ to new kinds of freedom, from indifference and the ‘blasé’ to new anxieties, value crises, and those big-city crowds so dear to Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin. It would be an oversimplification to conclude that for Simmel money is the cause of all these new phenomena: not only does the big city triangulate this matter, but in our present context surely the concept of mediation is a more satisfactory one. In any case, Simmel’s essay places us on the threshold of a theory of modern aesthetic forms and of their abstraction from older logics of perception and production; but it also places us on the threshold of the emergence of abstraction within money itself, namely what we now call finance capital.footnote5 And within the Benjaminian collage of phenomena that makes up the essay’s texture we also find the following fateful sentence: discussing the new internal dynamics of abstraction, the way in which, like capital itself, it begins to expand under its own moment, Simmel tells us this: ‘This may be illustrated by the fact that within the city the “unearned increment” of ground rent, through a mere increase in traffic, brings to its owner profits which are self-generating.’footnote6 It is enough: these are the connections we have been looking for; now let us retrace our steps and begin again with the possible kinships between modern or postmodern architectural form and the self-multiplying exploitations of the space of the great industrial cities.