The Tower of the Digital Divide

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Nicolai Ouroussoff has just published his review of Frank Gehry’s new residential tower in the financial district of Lower Manhattan. Ouroussoff makes three basic claims about the 8 Spruce Street building: 1. the tower is “the finest skyscraper to rise in New York since Eero Saarinen’s CBS building went up 46 years ago.” 2. Gehry’s building “crystallize[s] a particular moment in cultural history, in this case the turning point from the modern to the digital age.” 3. The building is “democratic at heart.”

Without seeing the building in person, I can’t comment on the first claim. It would be exciting if a consensus formed around that evaluation.

The second claim is a bit muddled, especially when Ouroussoff likens Gehry’s tower to the nearby Woolworth building, which straddled the machine and handcraft eras. The tower crystallizes the transition between how many eras? In any case, Ouroussoff raises an interesting question about what constitutes a building in the digital age. Offhand I’m not sure computer-modeled panels are sufficient to make a building characteristic of a digital age, but it’s a topic worth exploring more in depth.

The third claim is the troubling, though. He compares the Spruce Street project to the bombastic and dishonest ground zero project, concluding rhapsodically,

Mr. Gehry’s building, by contrast, doesn’t try to dominate the skyline. Its aims (beyond the obvious commercial ones) are comparatively modest: to celebrate the joy that can come out of creative freedom and, by extension, to reassert the individual’s place within a larger social framework. His interest lies in the clashing voices that give cities their meaning; it is democratic at heart.

Yet here’s the basic structure of the building: the six-story base of the building houses a school and a medical facility. Sitting on top of them are 70 stories of luxury apartments. Gehry designed 10,500 individual steel panels to clad the building’s exterior, but not a single classroom. Even Ouroussoff realizes, “students may ask why the pampered young professionals living above them get to live in apartments designed by an architectural superstar while they will have to make do with a no-name talent.” With rents reported to be around $80 per square foot per year, the building is firmly in luxury housing territory. The stretch-limo ready lobby makes the building feel “more like a luxury hotel than a classic Manhattan apartment building.” Not that the tenants will have to be driven very far. The building may turn its ugly backside to Wall Street, but its developers managed to wedge it into Manhattan’s financial district, a place that seems more and more like a threat to democracy, not the expression of its highest values.

Here’s a building with crass divisions of public and private space, with nakedly elitist divisions of labor, that’s accessible only to wealthiest 1% in the nation–is this what democracy in the digital age looks like?


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