The second time I met the man I would eventually marry, we sat down to Thai food in Brooklyn, and he asked me what my favorite building was in New York. Relatively new to the city, he posed the question as a litmus test, it seemed, to see who would answer honestly and who would strain to offer a contrarian response. Without any hesitation, I said that I loved the Chrysler Building beyond any other, and he laughed appreciatively at my total lack of interest in saying something original.
The Chrysler Building is beautiful, but that alone does not explain the unequivocal, emotional reaction it provokes. Like all skyscrapers of the Modernist period, it conveys the grand ambitions of a new machinist age. But it also suggests something more intimate, that aspirations do not always play out predictably — that how you imagine you will experience the pinnacle is not, in fact, how you might actually experience the pinnacle. Distinctively, the building literalizes this view, forcing us to look up — delivering circularity rather than conclusion, surprise over certitude. Designed in the 1920s and completed in 1930, the spire was assembled the day before the stock market crashed in 1929.
The Chrysler Building, currently owned by an Abu Dhabi wealth fund and the Tishman Speyer real estate empire, is now going up for sale. There is not an obvious buyer. Despite its significance, it is plagued by the same problems that face so many office buildings in the city that went up between the 1920s and the 1970s, many of them, like the Chrysler Building, on the east side of Midtown. They lack the light and efficiency of contemporary working spaces, and they are hugely expensive and time-consuming to repair and modernize, with warrens of rooms, interior columns and low ceilings.
Beyond that, these buildings encode an entirely different understanding of the culture of work than the one we ascribe to today — an ethos of “Mad Men”-era closed doors and misbehavior. The notion of how transparent the 21st-century workplace has really become is belied by the prevalence of a design style that seeks to erase perceptions of hierarchy, secrecy, obfuscation, deceit. We look at one another — through glass, over low-framed cubicles — all day. How much can really be hidden? Among the many misconceptions the #MeToo movement has exposed is the fallacy that deviance was bound to be mitigated, or even expunged, with the arrival of the open-floor plan.
Regardless, that paradigm is religion. Whoever buys the Chrysler Building will have to compete in a universe in which WeWork is the now largest office tenant in New York.
WeWork has branded itself as a purveyor not just of office space but also of office life — in particular, a kind of life where the distinctions between work and nearly everything else are eradicated. Just this week, WeWork’s chief executive, Adam Neumann, announced that the company, whose valuation stands at $47 billion, is changing its name to the We Company to better reflect its goals to encompass all aspects of people’s lives, as he put it in an interview with Fast Company.
At one WeWork building in Manhattan, there is a WeGrow school for young children, meant to appeal to parents who rent desks in the building. The school offers yoga and a play space designed by the architect Bjarke Ingels, and children get to spend one day a week at a farm upstate and then sell produce at a student-run WeWork farm stand, because isn’t it better that they are nudged into becoming Danny Meyer rather than task-mastered into conjugating verbs??
If this is the way of the future (and the company does plan to expand schools), it is hard to envision 6-year olds selling locally sourced rhubarb in the lobby of the Chrysler Building.
Hudson Yards will contain millions of square feet of office space — and gyms and stores and restaurants — but also Snark Park, an exhibition space with childlike, immersive art installations that could, for instance, involve jumping around in bubbles. And isn’t doing that healthier than a Maker’s Mark on the rocks after a fight — I mean, temperate disagreement — with your boss?
The future of legacy buildings — especially now that much of Midtown East will soon see a new cluster of high-rise office buildings — might be that they are collected as art, by billionaires for the fun of it. One real estate executive suggested as much to The Wall Street Journal this week, saying that she could imagine a scenario in which someone bought the Chrysler Building to say he owned the Chrysler Building.
This week, to the joy of many theater lovers, Lin-Manuel Miranda and partners bought the Drama Book Shop on West 40th Street to save it from extinction. It had meant something to him when he was coming up as a young writer and composer. It may be that the survival of many great things in New York will ultimately depend on the affinities of rich nostalgists.
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