Above: One Hyde Park, London, Rogers, Stirk, Harbour and Partners, 2009. Credit: Virilian.
Above: Penthouse of 1110 Park Avenue, New York. Credit: Toll Brothers City Living.
Above: Impression of architect Shin Kuo's Turn to the Future development; the building is planned around a sequence of independent rotating floors. Credit: Shin Design San Francisco.
The oligarchs, the wealthy trans-national elite as a de facto ruling class, disappear into the modern-day fortified citadel: the penthouse apartment of the vertical tall buildings of the modern ultracity--inaccessible, aloof, protected. On this Virilio recalls an aphorism from the nineteenth century novelist Balzac: "All power will be secret or will not be, since all visible strength is threatened (AD: 33)." The oligarch is the elite of the "comfort civilization (SP: 129)." But the strategy of the citadel residence has been in place at least since Greek antiquity as per Aristotle (384-322 BC). In considering the architecture of the fortress in its broad historical context, Aristotle wrote: "with regard to fortified places, what is advantageous is not the same for all regimes. For example, an acropolis [an elevated citadel] is characteristic of oligarchy and monarchy; [whereas] levelness is characteristic of democracy; neither of these is characteristic of aristocracy, but rather a number of strong places (SP: 99, Carnes Lord translation used)."
The oligarch's relationship to influence-wealth is inversely proportional to his accessibility. Virilio's exemplar for the behaviour of the oligarch is Howard Hughes: at first his emphasis was on being visible, gaining power-and-prestige through his well-publicized achievements, but then, at some point, Hughes became a recluse--he disappeared entirely from the public eye, living in seclusion in the top-floor penthouse suite of the Desert Inn hotel, Vas Vegas, Nevada. The billionaire Hughes carried on his business activities (acquisitions) from his suite, communicating with his associates solely through written memos and telephone conversations (never face-to-face). The irony or paradox for Virilio, is that, like Howard Hughes, the isolation of the wealthy in the ubiquitous penthouse is a horrifying and perverse seclusion: a terminal seclusion. At first the perversity of the wealthy elite is apparent in their excessive/obscene consumption; then in the second phase--under the doctrine of the aesthetics of disappearance--their perversity is manifest as manic isolation.
The skyscraper dweller who lives on an upper floor is not really connected to the country/State below in any obvious way--there is a loss of contact; there is exclusion; there is loss of identity. The inhabitant of a skyscraper actually inhabits, as it were, a piece of the sky--this is even more obvious when we think of certain new buildings each floor of which can rotate independently of the others, so the occupant is able to select their panorama at any given moment (FI: 55). Due to his disconnectedness, the inhabitant of the vertical ultracity is basically Stateless--living more or less beyond the control of the State in a no-place or non-place, with the most obvious hazard being that this disconnection tends to promote nihilism and the "end of geography (FI: 58)."
The citadel retains a highly efficient single ground-level entrance/access-point through which all attempting to gain access must pass. The rise to prominence of the near-impregnable elevated-fortified skyscraper citadel--with steep-sloping, precipitous walls, and controlled entrance-point--can be interpreted as a logical or inevitable defensive response and reaction to the mayhem-and-chaos that increasingly dominates at ground-level (FI: 58).