These are good times for moralizers. Pride goeth so obviously before a falling Dow that we’re lapping up sermons like there’s no tomorrow (which seems like a real possibility). We live surrounded by the emblems of hubris, glittering corporate skyscrapers arranged on the skyline like trophies on a mantel. What fulminator could resist the delicious irony of two high-rise financial headquarters nearing completion just as the corporations that erected them fall to their knees? Bank of America, the country’s largest bank, is putting the finishing touches on the city’s second-tallest tower, a gracious, twisting paperweight at Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street. And Goldman Sachs is quietly slipping a 43-story glass scepter into Battery Park City.
It’s tempting to see these projects as symbols of vacuous excess, like Saddam Hussein’s gilded pleasure domes. What are these two supplicants for taxpayer alms doing building crystal castles? With Manhattan’s office vacancy rate at 12 percent and climbing, there’s something decadent—isn’t there?—about opening more cubicle acreage.
Well, no. Even decline can contribute to architectural grandeur. The Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center both famously went up during the Worst Depression Before This One. So did the skyscraper that has just ceded its second-tallest title to Bank of America and bears another troubled brand name: the Chrysler Building. (Fortunately, the company and the building parted ways 50 years ago, so it can’t be rechristened the Fiat Building.)
Large, ravishing swaths of New York represent the legacy of misguided optimism or an irrational belief in permanence. Woolworth’s is gone, but the Woolworth Building remains. The old transatlantic liners were retired generations ago, but the Cunard Building continues to bejewel the base of Broadway. Across the street, the lavishly Italianate Standard Oil Building still proclaims the primacy of the Rockefeller-family monopoly, which the government busted a century ago. Naming opportunities come and go, but an icon is forever. Philip Johnson’s Chippendale-crowned AT&T Building belongs to Sony now. But Met Life, Schmetlife, it’s still the Pan Am Building to me.
What’s left after a bubble bursts? Plenty. Not long ago, media companies blazed a zigzagging trail of midtown towers from the Time Warner Center down Eighth Avenue past the Hearst and New York Times headquarters, and then eastward into Times Square, where Reuters and Condé Nast inhabit neighboring skyscrapers. Those businesses are struggling now, but their past exuberance produced a greater city.
The current economic storm hasn’t inflicted much visible damage on architecture yet. True, the resplendent signage on the Lehman Brothers building by Times Square now glows Barclays blue, but the Times has kept its logo emblazoned on the façade of its tower, even though it’s now a renter in the home it built. Architecture tells a story that is always out of date, proclaiming former prosperity, symbolizing pride before it’s tarnished. At the same time, architecture also preaches resilience: What’s a downturn to a tower? Corporate America may totter, but its I-beams stand tall.