Jan 24, 2024

the machine that makes the land pay

Michael Sorkin, in his masterful essay built of bits and pieces in alphabetical form called “Skyscrapers from A to Z,” an entry on architect Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building called “Cathedral of Commerce”:

The idea to build a new tallest building in the world (it remained the newest until 1930) in the gothic style had come from Frank Woolworth himself, the king of the five and ten cent store, who’d been greatly taken, while visiting London, with the Houses of Parliament. Woolworth had amassed his huge fortune on the basis of three retailing principles: 1) all merchandise must be fixed at the price of 5 cents; 2) everything must be paid for in cash; 3) merchandise must be displayed on counters so that customers might see and choose each item themselves. True to his principles, Woolworth paid cash for his building. Marcel Duchamp, with perfect recognition, included the building in the category of readymades.

It should be noted that Woolworth was only the first in a line of secular cathedrals. The Paramount Building in Times Square, designed by C.W. and George L. Rapp of Chicago in 1929, was called “The Cathedral of Motion Pictures.” At the same time Charles Z. Klauder was building the “Cathedral of Learning” to house the University of Pittsburgh. Gilbert himself had a somewhat more sanguine description of the skyscraper: “The machine that makes the land pay.”

And later under “I” for “Intelligent Building.” This is from 1988:

What a concept! Colloquially, it refers to a nirvana of regulation afforded big buildings by the advent of the computer. Linked by fiber optics, central control is imposed on heating, ventilation, elevators, lighting, security, fire protection, as well as telecommunications and electronic office services. The aim, according to one avatar of such technologism, is “to make buildings behave much like living things, continually gathering information through different senses and adjusting their behavior in response.” Definitively, the walls will have ears and work will take place in the belly of the beast.

The rise of the intelligent building augurs a transformation. As the skyscraper itself becomes an organism, the living things forced to inhabit it turn subsidiary, to parasites, microorganisms. Instead of controlling their environments, they’ll be controlled by them, by the highly sensitive pantactic apparatus, by the pre-programmed statistical conceits of homeostasis. Unfit, anomalous subjects, trapped in the office when the computer lowers the temperature for the expected departure of the section for lunch, will simply have to bring sweaters.