AOL’s Faulty Towers

Photo: Kenneth Chen

Your marriage is a wreck, you hate each other, everybody thinks you should get divorced, and yet you’re still building a lavish new home together.

That, of course, is AOL Time Warner’s predicament. As the company’s stock has nosedived, its glittering new headquarters – the 80-story Columbus Circle behemoth slated for completion in fall 2003 – has just kept on rising, an insta-symbol not of corporate triumph but of astonishing hubris: A lowbrow Internet company from an airport town (Dulles, Virginia) set out to build itself spectacular offices that would tower over a circle dedicated to the discoverer of the New World. The discoverers of the New Media World – or so they thought – were taking Manhattan!

Curiously, though, AOL Time Warner Center won’t serve as a true corporate home – only about 2 percent (around 2,000) of its 90,000-plus employees will work there; it’s mostly a gleaming clubhouse for corporate apparatchiks. The bulk of AOL’s operations will remain in Dulles.

As for the Time Warner operations, it’s as if the betrothed – skittish before the wedding, hysterically miserable after – had wisely elected to keep her own apartment. “We were never supposed to move in,” says one Time Inc. executive who works at the magazine division’s stately, modernist headquarters at 1271 Sixth Avenue. “It’d make sense for us to consolidate. There’s not enough room here. But Columbus Circle is about them – the AOL assholes – not us.”

“The collective response to the new building,” says another employee, “is similar to how people are thinking about their 401(k)s: I can’t even look because I don’t want to know.”

Even the supposed star power of the center’s 191 condos has some employees down in the mouth. “All you ever hear about is how Ricky Martin bought an apartment,” says one. “Remember when he was hot? AOL used to be hot, too.”

Worse than the center’s inability to attract a celebrity with a current hit single (maybe Enrique Iglesias could get a discount on a duplex?) is the fact that it will be eerily defined by its key attribute. Nan Ellin, editor of the book Architecture of Fear, refers, unnervingly, to the center’s “twin towers” and points out that “people around the world will be reminded of the World Trade Center.” The connotation could go either way – it could be spooky and upsetting, or “it could almost seem like a tribute.”

But one thing’s certain: “The way that people end up perceiving the center,” says Ellin, “cannot be separated from the way they perceive the corporate marriage. If the marriage falls apart, people will think of that first.”

In other words, the AOL Time Warner Center could come off as the first major memorial to premillennial new-media ridiculousness, a monument to overreaching, overpromising, and overstating (earnings).

It’s vaguely reminiscent of what happened to another building from Time Inc.’s not-so-distant past. In the late eighties, Time Inc. spent $185 million to buy half of the then-burgeoning Knoxville-based media empire Whittle Communications. Part of the money went toward building a lavish Knoxville headquarters.

Within just a few years, Whittle went belly-up.

Those with little faith in AOL TW’s future might be interested to know that the Whittle HQ is now a federal courthouse, where white-collar criminals and other scofflaws get their comeuppance.

AOL’s Faulty Towers