Skyscrapers inhabited by machines

Project X building, lower Manhattan at 33 Thomas Street, NYC

This week, The Intercept ran a fascinating article– well, quite disturbing actually — describing the possible surveillance roles of building Project-X, an AT&T owned property in the middle of Manhattan, sitting on top of some major telephone and communication switches (and apparently many other buildings like this in the USA and most probably elsewhere).

It even becomes super scary if you read the article with the backdrop of the first names and background of some of the people appointed in the last couple of days in the Trump administration.

The building was designed by the architectural firm John Carl Warnecke & Associates, whose grand vision was to create a communication nerve center like a “20th century fortress, with spears and arrows replaced by protons and neutrons laying quiet siege to an army of machines within.”
Some of Warnecke’s original architectural drawings for 33 Thomas Street are labeled “Project X.” It was alternatively referred to as the Broadway Building. His plans describe the structure as “a skyscraper to be inhabited by machines” and say that it was “designed to house long lines telephone equipment and to protect it and its operating personnel in the event of atomic attack.”

I spotted the article just two days after I saw a short 7-minute documentary (hence Doc7) on Belgian television about artist Renato Nicolodi

Renato Nicolodi — a young artist from Flanders — makes architectural models of buildings that are not intended to be built.

Pulpitum II by Renato Nicolodi, 2012
Long Island Building NYC, by John Carl Warnecke & Associates

That made me think about my time as student in Architecture in Ghent, were we were allowed — or should I say incentivised? — to design buildings that never had to be built (at least in the first two years of the study). Full creativity nirvana, quoi.

The work of Nicolodi resonated with me for another reason. They are actually mausoleums that have a place in the memories of his grandfather, who spent the Second World War in various prisoner of war camps, which he meticulously describes in the conversations Renato argued with him. The recordings of those calls still are daily source of inspiration for Renato.

It woke up old memories from my youth when — at the age of 6 or 10 — I was visiting my grandmother, who lived in a place called Ledegem, a little village 17km east of Ieper, a town that will be remembered forever for the first time use of poison gas in World War One.

It makes me wonder about the working and selectiveness of my memory. Since I started my sabbatical begin Nov 2016, I feel restless.

Being disconnected from work — “the job” — gives me plenty of space for reflection, experimentation, silence, being alone — I love the sound of silence of the morning-house before the rest of the family has woken up.

But this stillness also seems to bring back many old memories, going way back to my childhood, things that I never thought about anymore in the last 50 years. On the other hand, it seems my short-term memory is getting very selective — almost ignoring mode. Up to a point that my lovely wife sometimes wonders if I should not go and see a doctor, but I think I am doing fine.

Ledegem WWI cemetery today in 2016

At the end of her garden was a cemetery holding 85 Commonwealth burials and commemorations of the First World War in this cemetery. I remember playing on the walls and the crucifix of the cemetery. In my memory, the place was much bigger than in this recent picture. I also remember some of the bunkers that you still find here and there scattered throughout the landscape in this region. I remember playing in one at the seaside before they were closed off for general public. I remember the smell of wet sand.

German WW1 Command Bunker, Ypres Salient

The memory also put me in contact with another aspect of my onlyness (I am currently reading the draft manuscript of Nilofer Merchant’s next book), where I am coming from. My father is from a family of 7 kids, that all needed to be to taken care of by my grandmother all alone, as her husband died in a tragic car accident (he was on a bike) just before the start of the second world war. So, it was surviving on a shoestring.

Deep in my (un)consciousness, there is the fear for this shoestring poverty. That we’ll have to hide again in the coldness and humidity of bunkers in the polders. A dystopian threat of dark secrecy, manipulation, corruption and a fundamental loss of trust.

That is what bunkers and secret buildings do to me. Even if they are just architectural models that are not intended to be build.

The new models don’t seem to be intended for humans, they are intended to host machines. How can we reclaim back our humanity?


Originally published at petervan.wordpress.com on November 19, 2016.