simple is beautiful
New York Daily Photo: Brutal
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Tuesday, 4 December 2007


Even the plain becomes interesting when it is extremely plain and nothing beats the AT&T Long Lines Building at 33 Thomas Street for a bleak, monolithic structure. 550 feet with no windows. I have been fascinated by this building for over 20 years but never made a serious effort to learn anything about it until writing this article - I decided to get to the bottom of it all. What's going on in there? Plenty, just no people. The structure was designed by John Carl Warnecke and completed in 1974 as a telephone switching hub for AT&T, now used primarily by AT&T and Verizon. The floors are 18 feet tall - nearly double the height of a standard commercial building, so technically the building is only 29 stories. The exterior walls are made from concrete panels clad with pink-colored Swedish granite. The vertical protrusions are shafts which house the elevators, stairs and ductwork. There are large, rectangular ventilation holes at the 10th and 29th floors. It is considered one of the most secure buildings in the US, and was designed to resist a nuclear blast and be self-sufficient for up to two weeks. My understanding is that the building is essentially humanless, barring the occasional technician. On September 17, 1991, human error and power equipment failure resulted in the disabling of the central office switch - over 5 million calls were blocked, and FAA phone lines were also interrupted, disrupting air traffic control to 398 airports serving most of the northeastern US. In researching for this posting, I saw the architectural style of this building categorized as both International Style II and Brutalism (French béton brut, or "raw concrete"). Don't try to get any consensus as to its appearance - even critics are divided. Architecture critics for the NY Times, Paul Goldberger and Herbert Muschamp both seem to like it. Goldberger says it "This is the only one of the several windowless equipment buildings the phone company has built that makes any sense architecturally - it is sheathed in a warm and handsome granite, and though it looks more like a mammoth piece of equipment than a conventional building, it, in fact, blends into its surroundings more gracefully than does any other skyscraper in this area." Muschamp says: "The pink granite tower is forbidding, and it obstructs the river view I would enjoy if the building were demolished. But who cares? Obstructed views are part of what makes New York democratic. And Warnecke's building starkly frames my view of midtown as if it were a sheer Grand Canyon wall: a neat special effect." On the other hand, in one survey of architects and critics for the Ugliest Buildings in New York City, the building received the distinction of coming in 6th place ...


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