GaWC Research Bulletin 336

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A revised version of this Research Bulletin has been published in S. Krätke, K. Wildner and S. Lanz (eds) (2012) Transnationalism and Urbanism London: Routledge, pp. 91-111, under the title 'Conceptualizing Transnational Urban Spaces: Multicentered Agency, Placeless Organizational Logics, and the Built Environment'.

Please refer to the published version when quoting the paper.


Global City Formation and the Transnationalization of Urban Spaces: Conceptual Considerations and Empirical Findings

C. Parnreiter *


In the last three decades or so, transnationalism has emerged as a powerful concept to theorize globalization processes. Studies on the organizational form of companies that own and / or control entities in more than one country constituted the first field in which the term “transnational” became widely used. Since its foundation in 1974, the United Nations Centre on Transnational Corporations advocated a terminological shift from “multinational corporation”, which was common until then, to “transnational corporation” to name the “Northern” companies owning or controlling economic activities in “Southern” countries (for current definitions of a transnational corporation see Dunning/Lundan 2008: 3 or UNCTAD 2010). This terminological modification was politically motivated and should accommodate the views of representatives of Latin American countries who argued that a multinational corporation was defined by the Andean Group of countries as a multi-state corporation jointly set up and operating under the auspices of their member countries. According to that view, decision-making in multinational corporations was plural as compared to the centralized decision-making in a transnational corporation that originated in the US or in Europe.

The differentiation between “inter-”, “multi-” and “transnational corporations”, which were introduced later by researchers, were justified quite differently. The argument here is, in short, that a “transnational corporation” is characterized by decentralized organizational strategies, which are cross-border, interdependent and multidimensional in the sense that the whole value-adding process is organized at a global scale (Altvater/Mahnkopf 1996: 249–251; Bartlett/Ghoshal 2002: 75). Although many still use the terms interchangeably, I suggest that there is much to be gained from recognizing the differences between inter-, multi- and transnational corporations (see below).

The second and currently most burgeoning field of transnationalism research is constituted by migration studies. Here, the term “transnationalism” refers to the multiple ties to and interactions between different, yet connected locations that migrants maintain, and implies therefore a rejection of binary oppositions such as emigrant vs. stayer, home vs. abroad or integration vs. links to home communities. The transnational perspective on migration stresses simultaneousness and multiple embeddedness – transnational social relations are both anchored in and transcending nation-states. As a consequence, scholars depict the emergence of a new geography – the transnational social space (see, for example, Glick Schiller/Basch/Blanc 1997; Vertovec 1999).

In the last decade two more strands of transnationalism literature emerged. The first can be summarized under the heading of Leslie Sklair's book title: “The transnational capitalist class” (Sklair 2001). The focus here is on the work and live of leading representatives of the capitalist system such as the executives of transnational corporations, professionals (mainly, but not exclusively) in producer service firms, and bureaucrats and politicians. These groups constitute, according to Sklair, a “transnational capitalist class” (emphasis added), because it owns and / or controls, on the one hand, the major means of production, distribution and exchange, and because it is, on the other hand, “identified with the capitalist system” (ibd.: 10), rather than with a particular country (see also Morgan 2001; Beaverstock 2005). The second new thread deals with transnational urbanism. Since this (still rather small) body of literature constitutes the point of departure for this chapter, I will deal with it in more detail in the following section.

The rest of this chapter is organized as follows. After a critical review of the literature on transnational urbanism, I will develop my framework for conceptualizing transnational urban spaces. Subsequently, I will discuss the specific geography of these transnational urban spaces in cities, pointing out the relationship between global city formation and transnationalization. In the sixth section, a first empirical approximation is undertaken, taking the tallest building in Latin America, the Torre Mayor in Mexico City as a case study.

Transnational urbanism – a short review of the literature

Building on the research in migration studies and assuming the definition elaborated there (transnational social relations are 'anchored in' while also transcending one or more nation-states), Michael Peter Smith broadened transnationalism studies by drawing attention to cities. Though stressing that he uses the term “transnational urbanism” as “a cultural rather than (as) a strictly geographic metaphor” (Smith 2001: 5), the author points at the importance of real – rather than only metaphoric – cities for the development and maintenance of transnational social ties.

Cities are, according to Smith, intersections of multiple networks of social relations at various geographical scales, to which transnational actors are materially connected through employment, political mobilization and cultural practices, or through the means of communication and travel, which they use for their transnational lives. Cities are therefore the places, where transnational economic, social, cultural and political flows become localized, and they are the places, where local economic, social, cultural and political practices become transnationalized. Cities are, thus, the “sites of transnational practices, contexts of transnational network formation, socially structured settings for social interaction, and mediators of the power, meaning, and effects of transnational flows ‘from above' as well as ‘from below'” (ibid.: 19). Smith is concerned primarily, if not exclusively, with the social processes ‘from below' (partly because he is very keen on criticizing the politico-economic perspectives of Castells, Harvey or Sassen). Resulting from this commitment as well as from his disagreement with the global city concept, Smith launches the term “transnational cities”, which he defines as “human creations best understood as sites of multicentered, if not decentered, agency” (ibid.: 70).

According to Smith, one of the successes of research in transnational urbanism is that it has grounded the discourse of the ‘transnational' in the place-making practices of specific actors. Because people are unavoidably socially and spatially situated subjects, “the local sites of translocal practices – whether cities, suburbs, or communities of origin – are not mere empty containers of translocal articulations. The local sites of translocal processes matter” (Smith 2005: 243). Thus, te advantage that the study of transnational urbanism offers is, that it “underlines the socio-spatial processes by which social actors and their networks forge the translocal connections and create the translocalities that increasingly sustain new modes of being-in-the-world (…) (T)his concern with the historically mediated context in which transnational practices take place is important because it forces us to think about the emplacement of mobile subjects” (Smith 2005: 237f; first emphasis added, second in original).

A second strand of literature on the transnationality of cities arose from urban history. One issue being investigated are the vast transformations which big, metropolitan cities in Europe and North America experienced at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. That was a time when, as Rotenberg (2001) and Kenny (2009) have pointed out, in various cities a discourse on modernization, sanitation and housing reform emerged. This discourse was, at the one hand, the outcome of problems, which the cities shared and which arose from the parallel processes of rapid industrialization, urbanization, and polarization (with the pauperization of the workers on the one side and the emergence of the bourgeoisie on the other side). On the other hand, the discourse on sanitizing of the city was produced through travels, a shared literature, international congresses and other forms of cooperation between urban reformers and municipal officials in Europe and North America. This discourse is characterized as “transnational”, because the ways in which hygienic and housing problems in different cities were tackled was informed by a “common set of references” (Kenny 2009: 241). What emerged was a standard for urban reform (e.g. the recommendation to universally implement sewer networks or water systems) which was based on cross-borderly shared ideas such as the moralization of cleanliness (the quality of the home was seen to effect the health of the body as well as of the soul), an interpretation of the city in corporeal terms (the ailment of one limb / district jeopardizes the whole body / city), or the notion that cleaning and rationalizing the city were means “of insulating against social as well as biological contagion” and to “fit the imagined possibilities of the bourgeoisie” (Rotenberg 2001: 9).

Issues of sanitation, hygiene and housing were discussed in similar terms and implemented into similar planning solutions even in cities between which little direct contact existed. Kenny concludes, then, that we have to think of transnationalism “as the product of multiple linkages that connected western cities to one another through the many threads of an elaborate, multidirectional web (…) The case of urban sanitation and housing reform brought together specialists of different nationalities, revealing the interplay of both local and global frames of reference in this period, and demonstrating how the problems faced by individual cities like Montreal and Brussels, far from being unique, found resonance on a transnational scale” (Kenny 2009: 241).

Benmergui (2009) identifies a similar phenomenon in a geographically and historically rather different context. In the fast growing Latin American cities of the 1950s and 1960s, which faced (at least at a first glance) similar problems than European cities at the turn of the century, a discourse on modernization, sanitation and housing reform became an organizer of the production of urban space. Large public housing projects were built with external financing and in concert with bi- and multilateral development agencies. These projects arose, according to Benmergui (2009: 305), from a “transnational optimism about the role that housing might play in the modernization of the so-called underdeveloped world”. Benmergui calls the dominant way of thinking “transnational”, because the idea of the city as an agent of transformation of the individual was not imposed on local and national authorities in Latin America. Rather, the dominant groups in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro shared this language, which “was transnationally built through the constitution of networks and the encounter of actors across national and international borders in conferences, entrepreneurial meetings or in multinational organizations like the Organization of American States or the United Nations” (ibid.: 325).

A third thread of literature on the transnationalization of urban spaces has developed around architectural practices. Sklair (2005: 498) has argued that in globalizing cities iconic architecture is used by the different fractions of the transnational capitalist class “as a prime strategy of urban intervention”. Also focusing on the relationship between globalization and the recent remaking of the urban landscapes, Presas (2005: 4) maintains in her study of 12 office buildings in Amsterdam, Beijing and São Paulo, that a “new type of building has emerged – the transnational building”. This is “often planned by global developers, designers and investors as well as maintained by multinational companies and banks. More than just a local office building, the transnational building transcends the city's skyline, interconnecting urban spaces via diverse global flows”. Presas' definition of the transnational building relies on the transnational character of key actors in the production and use of this specific urban space as well as upon the function of the building as a nodal point between global flows and local infrastructures. In addition, she asserts that these buildings belong to an international property market.

According to Presas, another salient feature of transnational urban spaces is that they are becoming globally homogenized, standardized and even McDonaldized, what also implies a local decontextualization: “This similarity can be noticed in buildings individually, as they start applying similar designs, construction techniques, equipment, and so forth, a fact that is largely related to the intense participation of foreign contractors, designers, auditors, suppliers and clients. And it can also be observed at the district level, as the density of the tissue of such major cities is extremely increased” (ibid.: 24).

While Sklair and Presas deal with the transnationalization of architecture in very recent time, Orillard (2009) and Shoskes (2009) use the cases of the European Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM) and of the editorial policy of the British Architectural Review (AR) to posit that the transnationalization of architectural discourse dates back into the 1940s and 1950s. Orillard, for example, confirms that the transatlantic transfer of the ‘Townscape' discourse in the AR was an important source for the research programme ‘Studies in urban design', launched by the Rockefeller Foundation in 1962.

The studies considered here offer constructive insights into how to conceptualize and to operationalize research on transnational urban spaces, and they provide valuable empirical evidence. However, they also suffer from some serious limitations, which I will briefly address in the next section.

Where is the space in transnational urbanism?

The first flaw, which is found in most studies on transnational urbanism that depart from migration studies, is the poor understanding of the spatiality of the asserted transnational urban spaces. Smith, who claims to draw attention to the place-making practices of transnational actors, comprehends space in a reductionist way, because he merely alludes to social relations and practices. Transnational cities are, for example, seen as “spaces pregnant with […] power relations – i.e. social relations of domination-accommodation-resistance” (Smith 2005: 242). In a similar vein, Rogers (2005: 406) suggests to think “of places in less territorial terms, as nodes, sites of exposure, connectivity, juxtaposition, and trajectory” (emphasis added).

I wonder, now, where is the space in these transnational spaces? Where is the city? To be sure, spaces in general and cities in particular are made by actors. Yet, spaces or cities are more than the social practices which constitute them. Each city is both “physical and social environment” (Abu-Lughod 1991: 15), or “urban form” as well as “urban process” (Soja 2000: 8). Thus, space cannot be reduced to a metaphor, because unavoidably it has material dimensions, which matter in people's daily life. An appropriate way to grasp the social as well as the physical dimension of space is the analysis suggested by Löw (2001). She asserts that space is constituted by the corresponding practices of spacing (that is, by the placing and arranging of social goods, creatures or [symbolic] markers) and synthesis (that is, the assembling of the ‘spaced' goods, creatures and markers through the perception, imagination or memorization). Only if both dimensions are considered, space, its production and the ways in which it affects people's actions can be fully comprehended.

Yet, in Smith's work the material dimension of the transnationalization of cities, the processes in which migrants produce transnational spaces through the spacing of, for example, concrete physical artefacts, remain as underexposed as in other contributions to the debate. Because of this unawareness of the material sides of cities, Smith' plea to study the place-making practices of transnational actors remains unfulfilled in his own work – we learn a lot about “multicentered, if not decentered, agency” (Smith 2001: 70), but little about what human beings actually build, when they create “transnational cities”.

The second frequent shortcoming is an often unspecified use of the term “transnational”. In the contributions to the special issue on “Transnational Urbanism in the Americas”, which was published by “Urban History” in 2009, for instance, the term was barely defined. Even more rarely was the claim substantiated, that specific practices were “transnational”. Orillard (2009: 301), for example, calls the translation of ideas from the UK into US urban planning a “transnational Anglo-American dialogue”, without specifying why he doesn't call this transfer an inter-national agenda. Similarly, in Benmergui's debate of social housing projects in Latin America one might ask whether the optimistic discourse on modernization and development in the 1960s really was of transnational character. Though leading representatives of modernization theory such as Rostow, Hirschman, Rosenstein-Rodan, Parsons or Hoselitz were either immigrants to the United States or sons of immigrants, I doubt that they had a transnational life as understood today. Moreover, their contributions to development theory were written in a time when they had established themselves at the most prestigious and influential US educational institutions such as the MIT or the Universities of Yale, Harvard, Chicago or Columbia. In short, I suggest that modernization theory and discourse were deeply rooted in the Cold War United States and thus both an outcome of and a means to guarantee US hegemony after World War II.

Conceptualizing the study of the production of transnational urban spaces

From this critique follows, firstly, that we have to be careful in defining what is meant by “transnational” (in particular as opposed to “international”). In building up my own definition, I rely both on Glick Schiller et al. (“Transmigrants are immigrants whose daily lives depend on multiple and constant interconnections across international borders and whose public identities are configured in relationship to more than one nation-state” [Glick Schiller et al. 1997: 121]) and on Smith (“transnational social relations as “anchored in” while also transcending one or more nation-states” [Smith 2001: 3]). I also make use of Bartlett and Goshal's (2002: 69) definition of a transnational corporation, which they characterize as having a “complex configuration of assets and capabilities that are distributed (across borders, C.P.), yet specialized. Furthermore, the company integrates the dispersed resources through strong interdependencies”. Such interdependencies are frequently “specifically designed to build self-enforcing cooperation among interdependent units.”

In my use, practices and social relations are called “transnational” when they develop from activities which unfold on a continuing basis across national borders, what necessarily implies that they are not only cross-border, but also attached to specific places in more than one nation state. In addition, my definition borrows from the notion that because there is no strict and unbroken hierarchy between the activities in different places, identities are formed in relationship to more than one nation-state. Applying this definition of “transnational”, I find Smith' characterization of transnational cities as “human creations best understood as sites of multicentered, if not decentered, agency” (Smith 2001: 70) absolutely useful.

Yet, the second lesson to be learnt from the previous section is that space has to be taken more seriously – and, above all, more materially – than Smith does. As suggested above, the literature on the production of space is fitting here to overcome the flaws in the “transnational urbanism” research because it offers the advantage to capture both aspects – the social actors, their practices and the various social relations in the making of specific geographies as well as the concrete outcome of these practices – the built environments and other (wo)manmade geographies (see also Presas 2005).

The various strands of the literature on the production of space also have the advantage that they suggest distinct perspectives as regards the scales involved in the making of geographies. While Harvey (1985: xv) applies a macro-perspective (“I am primarily concerned with how capitalism creates a physical landscape of roads, houses, factories, schools, shops, and so forth in its own image”), and Werlen (e.g. 1999) focuses on the individual subject as the only agent who consciously can produce geographies, Löw (2001) and Soja (1989) advocate a double perspective both on structural forces and on individual agency. In addition, the focus on the literature on the production of urban spaces also allows to include the making of symbolic dimensions of transnational spaces. The placing of symbolic markers is, according to Löw (2001), part of the “spacing”, and that is why “(b)uilt environments are more than brute matter, however. Their human occupants endow environments with symbolic significance, with meanings. Places, and the concrete constructions that are implanted on them, are envalued by their inhabitants through associations and emotions of awe, love, attraction, fear, hate, revulsion, and even banal indifference” (Abu-Lughod 1999: 5).

Finally, this envaluation of (wo)man-made material artefacts through people points to a further necessary broadening of the definition of transnational urban spaces, namely the consideration of their utilization and functioning. Who are the inhabitants and users of transnationalized (parts of) cities? For whom are they built? How do these people conceive the spaces they inhabit (for shorter or longer periods of time)?

Having established that in an analysis of the making of transnational urban spaces the focus on social actors, their activities and their cross-border relations must be complemented by an assessment of the concrete built environments produced by these actors, I will return to the issue of social practices. My contention here is that these cannot be reduced to individual, subjective action. Rather, social practices are framed by organizational logics, by which I mean principles that pre-structure what actors (from ‘above' as well as from ‘below') do and how they do it. These principles are themselves the result of previous social practices which have become institutionalized (e.g. in norms and / or rules), what endows them with the authority to guide further social action (compare Biggart 1991: 222f; Castells 1996: 151f).

For the study of the production of transnational urban spaces this is important because it helps to relate social practices, which are always spatiotemporal specific, to more structural dynamics of societies. The critical questions arising are: who creates the organizational logics that cross-borderly guide the production and the use of transnational urban spaces? Where does this production of organizational logics take place? Castells (1989: 170), writing on transnational corporations, contends that their organizational logics are “placeless, being fundamentally dependent on the space of flows that characterizes information networks.” He then continues that the consequences of this are “far-reaching, because the more organizations depend, ultimately, upon flows and networks, the less they are influenced by the social contexts associated with the places of their origin. From this follows a growing independence of organizational logic from the societal logic.” (ibid.).

To sum up: I use the term “transnational urban spaces” to refer to city spaces, that is, to physical and social environments, which are produced and used

  • by actors, who have no clear-cut national identity, because their social practices are anchored in more than one nation state and because they regularly engage in cross-border activities;
  • according to organizational logics, which can neither be related to one specific location or nation-state. Rather, the guiding principles for the production and use of transnational urban spaces are created in global-local networks by actors who themselves have no clear-cut national identity.

Building upon this definition, in section 6 I will undertake a first and still very tentative empirical discussion of the Torre Mayor in Mexico City, the tallest building in Latin America. Before going into details of the production and use of the Torre Mayor, I will briefly reflect on the geographies of transnational spaces within specific cities.

Locating transnational urban spaces: The intersections of global commodity chains and the world city network

The particular geography of transnational spaces within a city is to a good part determined by the resources different actors command. Some of the practices of spacing, notably the allocation of material artefacts, depend critically on actors' assets and on conditions such as the price of land. Thus, transnational spaces produced ‘from above' and ‘from below' will, at least in principle, be located in different areas (however, as in real life patterns of segregation become more complex, at least in Latin American cities, the geographical distance between the places constituted ‘from above' and ‘from below' might be small). With regard to the transnational spaces produced ‘from above', with which I am concerned here, a critical point for the understanding of their specific geography is the relationship to global city formation: “The space constituted by the worldwide grid of global cities (…) is perhaps one of the most strategic spaces for the formation of transnational identities and communities” (Sassen 1999: 142).

Empirically, the search for transnational urban spaces produced ‘from above' has to begin therefore with the identification of global city zones. These are characterized by a high concentration of producer service firms and by a very dynamic real estate market with booming constructing activity, soaring prices and the massive inflow of foreign investment. In many cities, and particularly in the global cities of the South, the production of new office spaces, which are a prerequisite for as well as a consequence of global city formation, was accomplished in new areas, leading thus to a changing corporate geography within the global cities in the making (Haferburg/Oßenbrügge 2009; Parnreiter 2009).

Conceptually, transnational urban spaces produced ‘from above' are found where the cross-border networks of global cities and global commodity chains intersect. This junction of these two types of spaces of flows (and, accordingly, of two literatures on globalization, which have developed separately with little or no cross-referencing), follows logically a) from the very raison d' être of global cities, which is to articulate economic activities at different geographical scales into the world economy, and b) from the fact that the provision of producer services is indispensable in linking dispersed production and consumption along commodity chains (Brown et al. 2010; Parnreiter 2010). The hint at the intersections between the networks of global cities and global commodities is particularly important for the purpose of this paper, because both networks are constituted and maintained by actors which in various ways can be characterized as transnational. Against the background of my conception of transnational urban spaces, this implies that the nodal points where the world city network and global commodity chains come across are supposedly the places where transnationality ‘from above' emerges as a distinct physical and social environment.

Torre Mayor, Mexico City

The Torre Mayor is located on the Paseo de la Reforma, at the crossroads with the Circuito Interior, one of the city's main transportation corridors. Paseo de la Reforma has been for long one of the principal avenues in Mexico City, which was at the heart of the traditional CBD. Yet, with the demise of import substitution in the 1980s this old CBD has lost much importance vis-à-vis the new business areas, which were built in Western parts of the city (Santa Fe, Bosques de las Lomas and Lomas Palmas) and which I have identified as global city zones in Mexico City (Parnreiter 2009). Yet, different to other parts of the old CBD, the Paseo de la Reforma is very recently undergoing processes of massive upgrading through the construction of new office towers and luxury apartments. This ‘re-appropriation' of the traditional CBD through investment that is linked to the ‘globalization era' of Mexico City's transformation has been pioneered by the construction of the Torre Mayor.

The Torre Mayor opened in 2003. It has 55 levels with 73,900 m2 of first class office space and four basement levels with 2,000 parking lots. It was developed by Reichmann International, held by Paul Reichmann, who became famous as co-owner of Olympia and York, a property development firm based in Toronto. Until its collapse in the early 1990s, Olympia and York belonged to “the cream of the industry” (Fainstein 2001: 160), having realized projects such as First Canadian Place (1974), an office building in the financial district of Toronto, the World Financial Center in Battery Park City in New York (1986–1988) and Canary Wharf in London's Docklands (1992). Reichmann holds 70 per cent of the Torre Mayor, while the rest is owned by the Union Investment Real Estate AG, which in 2005 invested some $ 102 million to purchase 30 per cent of the Torre Mayor.

Design for the Torre Mayor came from Zeidler Partnerships Architects with head office in Toronto, which is, with a yearly fee income of $ 30 – 39 million, worldwide the 76th biggest architecture firm (Building Design 2008: 12f). Detailed planning for the Torre Mayor was accomplished by Adamson Associates, which is also Toronto-based. In Mexico City, Idea Asociados de México was responsible for conducting the detailed construction documents and for supervision the construction, which was carried out by the also Mexican firm A.D. Tec Gerencia de Construcción. The leasing of the building was done by Cushman & Wakefield, one of the big global real estate firms. Finally, the security provider is Tyco International, in its own words the world's largest provider of electronic security and alarm monitoring.

Regarding the use of the Torre Mayor, four fifths of the tenants are foreign firms, including Apple, Barclays Capital, Deloitte, Hewlett Packard, McKinsey and Company, Santander Global Property, SAS and Western Union. Amongst the Mexican tenants, the financial service provider IXE stands out. It is also remarkable, that the vast majority of firms in the Torre Mayor are service providers, with companies in financial services making for the biggest sub-group.

Analyzing this information against the background of my conception of transnational urban spaces, two questions have to be answered. Firstly, are the main actors in production and use of the Torre Mayor identifiable as transnational in the sense that their social practices are anchored in more than one nation state and because they have no clear-cut national identity? Secondly, are the organizational logics, which have structured the production and which still structure the use of the building, transnational in the sense that they are not related to a specific location or nation-state?

The question that is easiest to answer concerns the tenants, because the vast majority of floor space is in fact occupied by firms with a clear transnational profile. Deloitte stands out, because it has rented about a fourth of all office space in the Torre Mayor, and because it is by definition a firm without a national centre: Deloitte is, as the self-profiling at the website states, a “brand under which tens of thousands of dedicated professionals in independent firms throughout the world collaborate”. This very structure of the firm implies that there is no global headquarter in the stricter sense of the word, nor a clear cut hierarchy between the offices operating under the brand of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu: “DTT helps coordinate the activities of the member firms but does not itself provide services to clients. DTT and the member firms are separate and distinct legal entities, which cannot obligate the other entities”. Deloitte also sticks out because it is probably the best example for the intersection between the world city network, created by producer service firms, and global commodity chains. Deloitte is one of the ‘Big Four' global accountancy firms, which in Mexico provides audit services to 24 per cent of the publicly traded companies (220 of the 300 biggest firms in Mexico) and which sells legal and tax services to 66 of the 100 biggest firms in Mexico. Many commodity chains run therefore through the officers of Deloitte in the Torre Mayor. Accordingly, a fourth of the office space in the building is occupied by a firm which is part of a cross-border network of firms rather than being the Mexican branch of a Swiss company. Because of this and because social practices such as knowledge creation are accomplished within this network (Parnreiter 2010), Deloitte qualifies without any doubt for the characterization of a transnational firm.

Yet, the same is true for many other companies in the Torre Mayor. Some of them appear in the Global 2000 of Forbes, such as the Spanish parent company of Santander Global Property, which is the ninth biggest firm in the world. In addition, Hewlett Packard (36), Barclays (77), Apple (113) and Western Union (908) are amongst the biggest company in the world (Forbes 2009). Since bigness does not necessarily make a company transnational, more qualitative information is appropriate to support my claim. Apple, for instance, controls retail outlets in many countries and also commands production facilities in Asian Pacific Rim countries and in Ireland. The iPod was designed in-house in Cupertino, California, while the remaining four hundred-plus intermediate components were outsourced to domestic and foreign contractors. The assembly was done in Chinese factories owned by Taiwanese companies (e.g. Inventee Appliances, Foxconn), and software production was outsourced to U.S. firms (Pixo, PortalPlayer) (Lo 2008). Thus, Apple is a transnational corporation, certainly according to the definition of Dicken (“a firm that has the power to coordinate and control operations in more than one country“ [Dicken 2007: 106]), and likely also according to the definition proposed above, which refers to cross-border organizational strategies.

Relating to the actors involved in the production of the Torre Mayor, the picture resembles the one of the users – at a first glance at least. Though the developer Reichmann International is registered in Toronto, its owner Paul Reichmann is not identified in reference to Canada or Toronto (see, for example, the respective chapter in Fainstein 2001). Rather, Reichmann is known for the immense impact Olympia and York had in New York and London – either in form of success-stories (such as the World Financial Center) or of the flop Canary Wharf. Reichmann is also known for his innovative business practices, which have been characterized by a very high tolerance of risk (especially in taking short-term loans), by the introduction of public-private partnerships, and in pioneering new construction methods and office design (ibid: 160–164). In addition, both Reichmann's current company (Reichmann International) and his former one (Olympia and York) are / were engaged in practices anchored in more than one nation state. This applies also for the second owner, the Union Investment Real Estate AG. Despite having an address in Hamburg, the funds is not ‘German', because neither does it manage exclusively money from German investors, nor are its activities restricted to Germany. Rather, close to 60 per cent of the funds' capital are invested in 18 countries in Europe, Latin America and Asia, with France (20 per cent), the United Kingdom (10) and the United States (8) having the biggest shares (Union Invest Real Estate 2008).

With reference to the architects, Zeidler Partnerships Architects have realized projects amongst others in Beijing, Seoul, Jakarta, Moskow, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, London and Berlin. Adamson Associates realized most projects in New York (e.g. the Hearst Tower, the headquarters of Goldman Sachs, and the new World Trade Center) and London, but also in Beijing, Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur. Thus, the business practices of both firms are certainly cross-border, what is underscored also by the fact that both companies maintain a network of offices in several cities (Zeidler Partnerships Architects has, in addition to its headquarters in Toronto, offices in Calgary, Vancouver, Victoria, Beijing, Berlin, London and West Palm Beach; Adamson Associates has, also in addition to Toronto, offices in New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and London).

The architecture of the Torre Mayor is place-unspecific, except maybe for the curved front, which to some looks like a curve in the Paseo de la Reforma (while the name indeed seeks place-specificness, because it alludes to the Templo Mayor, the main temple of the former Tenochtitlán). Yet, it is precisely the architectonic unspecificness of most of the new office towers that were built in the last two decades around the world which allows, according to Grubbauer (2009), city governments to equalize high rise buildings made of steel and glass with global cityness and economic potency. The intended message is: We look like New York, we are like New York. Accordingly, in a press conference held shortly before the Torre Mayor was finished with the then mayor of the Federal District (the inner part of Mexico City), the left-wing populist Manuel Lopez Obrado, Paul Reichmann stated that the Torre Mayor is a physical representation of Mexico's economic vigor (Voice of America, 29.08.2002).

Two further firms importantly involved do not qualify as transnational actors. Idea Asociados de México and A.D. Tec Gerencia de Construcción are Mexican firms with no foreign activities reported, though they have been involved, together with foreign companies, in the production of buildings of the global city spaces in Mexico City (Idea Asociados de México cooperated in the construction of Paragon Santa Fé, A.D. Tec Gerencia de Construcción built, amongst others, the Mexcian Stock Exchange and the Torre Citibank, both along Paseo de la Reforma).

Nevertheless, for key actors engaged in the production of the Torre Mayor my definition of transnationality holds: They are active in more than one nation state, and they are not nationally identified. Yet, at a second glance the picture turns out to be more complex. Firstly, the two main architecture firms and also the service provider originally came from Toronto (Tyco International came to be responsible for the Torre Mayor because it bought ADT, which itself has bought the original security provider, the Toronto-based company Intercon Security), where they still have their headquarters. The interesting point which deserves further investigation is that Toronto is the home-base of Paul Reichmann. Thus, geographical closeness might have played an important role in forming the co-operation between the respective firms, particularly because the Reichmanns are said to be secretive and trustworthy, what allows them “to consummate deals with a handshake” (Fainstein 2001: 163). Though physical closeness is not a precondition for handshake-deals, but the occasion to frequent face-to-face contacts certainly helps. In any case, there seems to operate a specific form of glocalization, in which local intersections provide the basis for joint global activities.

That leads to a second point that needs closer attention. The globalization of architecture firms has developed differently compared to the globalization of other producer service firms. Though big and / or iconic architecture firms might have projects all over the world, they are usually engaged in a city only for a period of time and leave it once the building is finished (different to, say, Deloitte, that has to do in Mexico City as long as companies in this country are integrated into global commodity chains). Given that a worldwide network of offices is very costly, architecture firms often prefer the praxis of designing ‘at a distance'. Architects might work from their home base or from a small number of offices for projects in any city, as long as they constantly undertake travels to visit clients and the sites where they have projects. These architects might be truly global – even without a global network of offices (McNeill 2008; Faulconbridge 2009). These trends are remarkable since the option of designing ‘at a distance' is likely to give even more importance to the possible ‘Toronto connection' mentioned above, because it allows for a triangular contact between the developer, the designing architect, and the architect responsible for detailed planning.

Finally, I will address the issue of organizational logics that have guided the production and that still guide the use of the Torre Mayor. Yet, because of the incipient status of the research presented here, I have to confine myself to two points, of which the first one is of more general nature. An important organizational logic which currently is in the making and which is implemented in ever more real estate markets (particularly in emerging markets such as Mexico), refers to the transparency of the market. Jones Lang Lasalle, one of the truly global real estate firms, has created a “Transparency Index”, for which markets in 82 countries are reviewed and judged (JLL 2006, 2008). The decisive point here is that neither transparency nor the indicators Jones Lang Lasalle uses to generate the index are self-evident categories. It is Jones Lang Lasalle's “transparency”, which has been created by actors in the firm's cross-border network.

The “Transparency Index” is becoming a guiding principle at real estate markets insofar as it creates standards which market participants have to meet if they aspire to attract cross-border investment. Jones Lang Lasalle unambiguously asserts that “(t)he steady improvement of transparency is closely linked to the forces of globalization. These forces drive investors to move across borders in search of higher risk-adjusted returns. (…) This movement of capital and corporations around the world has created a growing need for information about markets. It has also created an incentive for governments to streamline bureaucratic practices that prevent foreigners from injecting capital (…). Not all governments have embraced these changes, however, as revealed by the wide dispersion of transparency scores” (JLL 2008: 2f; my emphasis). Yet, “(f)oreign investors are likely to shy away from countries where they face a competitive disadvantage due to the complex web of local regulations and legal dealings” (JLL 2006: 15). These quotes show an unmasked request: Either actors at specific markets perform according to certain imported standards, or they will not be part of the cross-border market which is in the making. Transparency, thus, is “itself a constructed and conditioned outcome that often is in the interests of certain actors” (Sassen 2006: 202).

The “Transparency Index” provides an example for the creation of a new organizational logic which is, according to my definition, transnational in character, because it did not emerge in one specific location or nation-state. Rather, knowledge creation in producer service firms typically is accomplished not in knowledge centres (which might have coordinative tasks) but at various nodes of the firm's global network. In addition, Jones Lang Lasalle itself has no clear national identity: The firm, which in 1999 emerged from the fusion of the London-based Jones Lang Wootton & Sons with the Chicago-based LaSalle Partners, today operates in 700 cities in about 60 countries. Finally, the new organizational logic which is created around the strive for transparency is intended to be globally implemented – its principles apply, according to interviews with real estate agents in Mexico City, also to transactions of prime office (and other) spaces in Mexico City.

My second example for the implementation of new organizational logics reveals another feature of transnationalization. Rents in the Torre Mayor are paid in USD, which is an important detail because money is more than a purely means of exchange. Monetary policies are of chief importance for the governance of economic activities, e.g. through the fixing (or not fixing) of interest and exchange rates. In general, the dollarization of a market changes the rules of the game and alters therefore the relations between specific actors.

In the case of Latin America, the dollarization is meant to protect investors against the risk of devaluation of national currencies. Thus, investors in the Mexican real estate economy on the one side wish to cash the premium for an investment that is likely more risky than in New York. It is because of this higher risk that returns in Mexico City are twice as high as in New York, yielding to about 7.5 per cent (DEGI 2008: 43). On the other side, investors strive to reduce their risk – e.g. through transparency or through the neutralization of the devaluation danger through the dollarization of the market. For the owners of the Torre Mayor this worked out: If the rents (which are said to amount to $ 50 per square meter) would have been paid in Mexican Peso, Reichmann and Union Investment Real Estate AG would have had shortfalls of more than $ 20 million – after all 6.5 per cent of the supposed costs of the building. Deloitte, by contrast, would have saved some $ 5 million, if it could have paid in the Mexican Peso.

Now, can we justify speaking of transnational organizational logics if the used currency is the one of the United States? My tentative answer is: Yes, because, firstly, it was global real estate firms which implemented the USD at the Mexican market. Secondly, the USD is used as global money – e.g. in cross-border trade. Thirdly, and as a result of the second point, the regulation of the USD has de facto become denationalized. For example, China (including Hong Kong) holds, according to the US Department of Treasury, $ 942 billion in Treasury Securities (October 2009) – more than a fourth of all Treasury Securities issued. Controlling such an amount of the US currency, the Chinese government has got a big hand in its regulation – if it would sell its Treasury Securities at once, the USD would certainly be devalued.


Based on a critical reflection on the literature on transnational urbanism, I have put forward a conceptualization, which consists of two parts. As of transnational urban spaces I define physical and social environments in cities, which are, firstly, produced and used by actors who regularly engage in cross-border activities and whose social practices are therefore anchored in more than one country. As a consequence, these actors have no clear-cut national identity. Secondly, transnational urban spaces are being produced and used according to organizational logics, which are created in global-local networks by actors who themselves have no clear-cut national identity. Thus, these organizational logics have no national identity, neither.

Deriving from this conceptualization, I have presented some very preliminary evidence on the formation of transnational urban spaces in Mexico City. Many of the actors involved in the production of the Torre Mayor correspond to my definition of transnational actors, while the majority of office space in the building is rented by firms that clearly are transnational corporations. In addition, the implementation of private, cross-border principles such as transparency and the use of the USD at the Mexico City market for prime office space suggest that organizational logics are in the making, which also can be labelled as transnational.

Yet, though these insights might be useful, more research is necessary to scrutinize the notion of the emergence of transnational urban spaces. Two voids have been mentioned: the particular constellation of actors in the case studied demands to investigate more in depth the role o physical closeness, emerging from a shared home-base in Toronto, where some of the firms involved in the production of the Torre Mayor have their headquarters. In addition, the practice of designing (and, more generally, building) ‘at a distance', which characterizes the globalization of architecture, also needs closer attention, because it might demand an adaptation of the common definitions of transnational corporations.

Yet, future research on transnational city spaces should entail at least two more aspects. Firstly, the role of planning and of urban governance has not been touched here, although public-private-partnerships have been critical in the production of Mexico City's new CBD (particularly, but not exclusively, in Santa Fe). Secondly, the analysis of the production of transnational city spaces itself should become cross-border. As Sassen asserts, a transnational space is both “embedded in particular and strategic sites, and also transterritorial, because it connects sites that are not geographically proximate yet are intensely connected to each other” (Sassen 1999: 142). The creation of such cross-border connections of specific urban spaces in various cities can be studied in form of an analysis of particular flows (of people, information, etc.), but also through an investigation that follows Löw's (2001) sociology of space: The latter is only constituted if and when actors integrate physical artefacts and (symbolic) markers at different locations. Thus, only the material and imagined connections between the Torre mayor and similar buildings in other cities would actually create a transnational urban space.


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* Christof Parnreiter, Department of Geography, University of Hamburg, Germany, email:


Edited and posted on the web on 10th February 2010

Note: A revised version of this Research Bulletin has been published in S. Krätke, K. Wildner and S. Lanz (eds) (2012) Transnationalism and Urbanism London: Routledge, pp. 91-111.