“Wars and panics on the stock exchange,
machinegunfire and arson,
starvation, lice, cholera and typhus:
good growing weather for the House of Morgan."
–John Dos Passos, U.S.A., 1938
Before it was Zuccotti Park, it was Liberty Plaza Park. The old name reflected the realities of Manhattan real estate, binding the park by association to the building that stands just north of it: One Liberty Plaza, a 54-story tower that necessitated the park’s very existence. The Park formerly known as Liberty Plaza, surfaced in granite and shaded by honey locusts, was a result of New York’s idiosyncratic zoning laws, in particular a provision dating to 1961. Known in bureaucratic parlance as a POPS, a “privately owned public space” — a phrase that blithely overlooks the inherent contradictions masked by its cheerful acronym — Liberty Plaza Park came into being as a tradeoff, a civic amenity provided in exchange for more generous zoning on the remainder of the property.
Before the tower was One Liberty Plaza, it was U.S. Steel. Again, the restoration of the older name unravels something of its role in the urban economy — this time, signaling the financial origins that brought the building into being. The United States Steel Corporation was the world’s first billion-dollar conglomerate, once known on the New York Stock Exchange simply as “The Corporation” in deference to the vastness of J. Pierpont Morgan’s interests, virtually co-extensive with industrial capitalism itself.
Do you remember what U.S. Steel looks like? Very possibly not. A matte black monolith, only slightly less austere and cryptic than the one in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, one might be tempted to call it a paragon of the supposed “semantic silence” of the post-Miesian skyscraper, a term most often associated with the Seagram building at 53rd and Park Avenue. But U.S. Steel speaks, if sotto voce. Its oversized structural steel girders form a relentlessly modular exoskeleton that provides clear-span floors inside, and those beams advertise the very material that helped construct Morgan’s wealth. While the more famous “House of Morgan” is sited in neoclassical splendor a few blocks south at 23 Wall Street, the giant at Broadway and Liberty offers a more candid, if perhaps less overt or opulent, depiction of magnate capitalism. SOM does not display it on their website.
Before there was U.S. Steel, there was the Singer Building, a different building altogether this time, occupying only the southwestern portion of the block on which U.S. Steel would sit. Designed by Ernest Flagg, a devotee of Beaux-Arts ornamentation, the Singer Building was belatedly completed in 1908. Its snub-nosed, needle-like tower was added on top of Flagg’s already existing fourteen-story base from 1899 — an “architectural afterthought,” as Rem Koolhaas has it, that briefly made it the tallest building in the world. Singer sold the building in 1961 to move to Rockefeller Center. The buyer was the developer William Zeckendorf, who in turn sold the site to U.S. Steel in 1964, just a year before the establishment of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee. The Singer Building’s removal began in 1967, with the LPC powerless to stop it; at some 47 stories and 600 feet high, it was (and remains, even after the Deutsche Bank) the tallest structure ever peaceably demolished.
The Singer Building was doomed as soon as Zeckendorf bought it. Having made his fortune gathering and packaging properties, his methods here were unexceptional. This was one of dozens of deals and demolitions that reshaped Lower Manhattan in the 1960s and 1970s, but the specific reason for his interest in the site is notable. Wall Street had grown cramped; in the 1950s, each major financial institution was “living with its hat on, ready to jump uptown,” as Zeckendorf put it in his autobiography. And so he engineered a number of real estate transactions designed to keep the major players downtown — the “Wall Street Maneuver,” it was called — and offered his own startling vision for nothing less than a new stock exchange, filling the block that the Singer tower was part of, and then some. His architect, Henry Cobb, of what was then I.M. Pei and Associates, designed a “beautifully tapered Mayan temple” swooping up from a massive base containing a new exchange floor located in the vast column-free interior three stories above the street. This was enabled by hanging the 40-odd office floors from taut cables that tied the floor plates to the roof, a tower’s worth of bankers suspended over the new stock exchange in an ongoing structural drama invisible to the eye. Zeckendorf used Cobb’s plans, highlighting his novel use of structural steel at a time when concrete was gaining ground in highrise construction, as a selling point when he unloaded the property to U.S. Steel, later complaining that they built “a most conventional structure” when compared with Cobb’s more dramatically shaped silhouette and innovative use of tensile steel.
It’s fitting, this turning point. Had Zeckendorf been successful in luring the NYSE away from Wall Street, then the Occupy encampment would have been located quite precisely at the doorstep of its rhetorical target. But had untapered U.S. Steel never been built, there would have been no legal need for the plaza that became Zuccotti Park, a whim of zoning that the occupation needed to survive for its two months of residency. Capital may be mobile, and markets immaterial, but the urban and architectural embodiment of the “very sensitive and defensive institution” of Wall Street, as Zeckendorf called it, was decidedly neither — and so the block bounded by Broadway, Church, Liberty, and Cedar was cleared and marked with the “X” of U.S. Steel. Even now, as the public image of Zuccotti Park oscillates between retrospection and immediacy, with the tug-of-war over the park’s “publicness” still ongoing despite the clearing of the encampment on the morning of November 15, 2011, Occupy’s experiment in laying claim to the space of the city has much to say about the relations between architecture and the practice of public speech, between the built environment and the construction of political narratives.
The site of U.S. Steel was a subtle but oddly perfect scene on which to stage a conversation about the architecture of finance and the city. It was also an impossible one, framed by an architecture that resists translation into images from the level of the street. The corporate architecture in question intentionally projects an air of taciturn inevitability, a gridded form that revels in its own silence, like the grids of avant-garde painters who purposefully offered no symbolic content to relate to or oppose.