The Architecture of the High-Rise: Global Circulations and the Urbanization of Panama City

ARCH 401, Fall 2014

Studio Brief


The modern history of Panama is dominated by circulation. From the Spanish colonial project of the 16th century, where Peruvian silver loot was hauled across this Isthmus, to the prophetic schemes for its designs by 19th century techno-imperial evangelist Claude Henri de Saint-Simon, to the US geopolitical control over this narrow strip of land connecting the Pacific to the Atlantic, Panama’s fate in the world has been burdened by its geological predisposition for traffic. One could say that Panama invites this most fundamental of modern concepts in its terrestrial thinness. Following a dramatic 20th century of ‘revolutions’, military dictatorships, corrupt oligarchic rule, and proximate governmental control, the new century has brought a new sense of stability to the country. Since gaining control over the canal, its neoliberal government has opened the country up to Foreign Direct Investment, created Special Tourism Zones, the largest Free Trade Zone in the Western Hemisphere, and, most importantly, encouraged massive construction industry.

Yet its history plagues its present: still today, Panama operates as a stopover—a point of transfer of goods, people, money and resources. And its recent urbanization is the concrete outcome of this. Only a few years ago, Panama boasted the second highest hotel occupancy rate in the world, and tourism, next to canal-related trade, is one of its largest economies. Because of its small size, Panama City has become a city of high-rises, attracting architecture firms from around the world to design hotels, residential, commercial and mixed use towers, and (generally American) corporate headquarters, many of which for transient populations inhabiting the city for only weeks each year, despite a drastic need for low income housing. The result is a city whose public life is sharply divided and dispersed across its sprawling fabric. It seems that today’s dominant modes of circulation have converted the capital city into a forest of towers.

This studio will examine the typology of the high-rise within the context of contemporary neoliberal trade and against the background of 500 years of globalization to interrogate the high-rise beyond its pragmatic extrusion of space or its reduction to architectural icons. Through critical research, this studio will attempt to reinterpret the high-rise as a political and economic apparatus—we will examine it as both architecture and abstract instrument of private finance. In this way, we will understand how architecture operates both economically and politically in a world which seems to recognize only the former. If the high rise has become the ultimate materialization of the excesses of a private mode of human existence made general through neoliberal capitalism—then how can we re-conceive this typology in order to serve a more collective form of life?

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