Liquid Assets

Money has long demanded its own architecture: You bank it much more readily in a building with commanding pillars and pediments. But inside the New York Stock Exchange, the imposing Greco-Roman temple front gives way abruptly to the fluid world of pixels. The circular trading altars in this sanctum sanctorum of the global economy are festooned with computers that stream data, and collectively the screens have taken over a space originally designed like a banking hall. In the seventies, large trading kiosks under a macho octopus of tentacular electronic feeds sidelined the classical decoration, turning the room into a datascape of fleeting numbers.

Wall Street may project a lingering image of wood paneling and polished brass, but no industry is more technologically driven. The transformative proliferation of computers in these august precincts was not lost on the architects of two recent renovations to the trading floors, who handled the screens as more than retrofitted afterthoughts. In both cases, they tried to make the micro environment of the computer macro, using the screens as the building blocks of a new kind of space founded on information rather than on concrete. Who knew the NYSE was so hip?

The ramp between the main trading hall and the adjacent Blue Room has always been a throwaway corridor, but Asymptote, a young New York firm, recently renovated it as an operations-control center that makes virtuality palpable. Grabbing air space from an adjacent stairwell, architects Hani Rashid and Lise Anne Couture, with project architects Elaine Didyk and John Cleater, widened the ramp and installed a glass wall of blue light that takes the glow of pixels and makes it environmental. Against the depthless blue, the designers arrayed banks of screens that float above lavalike metal counters resting on curving cabinets that swan up into position from the lower ramp. In the ceiling, Rashid and Couture carved an indirectly lit oval oculus placed at an angle next to an LED ticker tape that unzips the ceiling, destabilizing the whole space with upside-down movement. The architects have re-created the luminous fluidity and spatial indeterminacy of the screen. Traders step into and through the ramp, with its reflective and translucent surfaces, as though into the space of a screen. Conceptually, the architects have shifted the basis of design from solid to plasma: matter liquefied.

Compared with most large projects, this is a bagatelle, but the surreptitiously radical design that makes such poetic sense of the pixel is a gutsy move. Yet after this success, the NYSE somehow blinked when it commissioned the design of the much larger trading annex that is poised to open in several weeks. Despite the persuasive environment created by Asymptote, the NYSE capitulated to the more conservative side of its complex nature, hiring the blue-chip New York firm Skidmore Owings & Merrill.

SOM has created a pleasant space – a light-filled, light-colored hall in which the clunky circular kiosks of the main trading floor have been straightened out and lined up within regular structural bays. The wit is that the architects realized the flat screens that replaced consoles can be used physically as panels to enclose trading booths. Once the designers stationed the computers across and down the trading hall, they formed alcoves in one direction, and framed long perspectival vistas in the other. They deployed the screen as a space-defining element. Though modern and abstract, the tasteful beige environment is tacked-down and tame. With the annex, the NYSE retracted its toe from the fluid world. Too bad.

The lapse at the NYSE will remain a private institutional loss, but at the “crossroads of the world,” millions will be affected by another missed architectural opportunity. Design/Development: Times Square, the current exhibition at the Skyscraper Museum, just a few blocks away from the Stock Exchange at 110 Maiden Lane, displays the development of six high-rise projects in Times Square with small wooden models that document the design steps. The most elegant by far is the fractal crystal by the New York firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, designed for Boston Properties, at the southwest corner of Seventh Avenue and 42nd Street. The architects transpose the geometry of Broadway, slicing through the city’s grid into the building’s floor plan and onto the façades, creating an intriguingly fissured volume. Designers William Pedersen and Douglas Hocking have composed a building of angular beauty, created in a process of surgical subtraction.

The KPF maquettes culminate in a lithe design, which was precisely the problem for the 42nd Street Development Project, officiating here as the local design police. The mission of the committee is to make sure messy vitality prevails over the pin-striped corporate visions that stifle visual energy. But after requiring the usual billboards at the base of the towers, the committee overstepped its mandate by making the architects zoot up the cool, clear shards with horizontal bands that defeat everything the architects achieved.

Urban energy is a good thing, especially in Times Square, which in the eighties narrowly missed a coven of look-alike towers with mansard roofs designed by Philip Johnson. But the members of the committee – Robert A.M. Stern and his associate Paul Whalen, and Wendy Laventer and her associate Naresh Kapadia – should have the eyes to spot and support good architecture when they see it, even when it comes in an elegant package. How many collagist high-rises can Times Square take? Forty-second Street, from the United Nations complex to the McGraw-Hill building, has a long tradition of elegant towers that would never have survived this board’s red pencil. There are multiple contexts at play on this corner, and the committee imposed a narrow and myopic interpretation that erases the individuality of the KPF design as it fosters homogeneity.

The process of designing and reviewing a major building usually happens behind closed doors, but the show at the Skyscraper museum sheds light on what New Yorkers usually experience as a fait accompli. Carol Willis, the one-woman band who founded and now directs the shoe-string operation, simply scooped up existing models collecting dust on architects’ shelves and planted them on tables next to video monitors that feature designers explaining their creations. Without her initiative, we would not know there is a 1 million-square-foot camel in the offing.

Liquid Assets