A fortified skyscraper to house telecommunications hub, shield NSA spying

AT&T owns a unique skyscraper in Manhattan that may also serve as a key node in the government’s snooping into phone calls:

They called it Project X. It was an unusually audacious, highly sensitive assignment: to build a massive skyscraper, capable of withstanding an atomic blast, in the middle of New York City. It would have no windows, 29 floors with three basement levels, and enough food to last 1,500 people two weeks in the event of a catastrophe.

But the building’s primary purpose would not be to protect humans from toxic radiation amid nuclear war. Rather, the fortified skyscraper would safeguard powerful computers, cables, and switchboards. It would house one of the most important telecommunications hubs in the United States — the world’s largest center for processing long-distance phone calls, operated by the New York Telephone Company, a subsidiary of AT&T.

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.”…

It is not uncommon to keep the public in the dark about a site containing vital telecommunications equipment. But 33 Thomas Street is different: An investigation by The Intercept indicates that the skyscraper is more than a mere nerve center for long-distance phone calls. It also appears to be one of the most important National Security Agency surveillance sites on U.S. soil — a covert monitoring hub that is used to tap into phone calls, faxes, and internet data.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. Telecommunications equipment and other vital infrastructure has to go somewhere in major cities. It is often covered up in a variety of ways. But, a 500+ foot building is difficult to disguise completely.
  2. Americans tend not to spend much time thinking about how many features of modern life happen. That such a large building is needed to house a “large international ‘gateway switch'” hints at what is needed behind the scenes when people use a phone to dial people outside the country.
  3. The article may be suggesting that the architecture of the building matches its sinister use. This sounds like post hoc theorizing. When construction started in 1969, the architecture fit what was needed: a protected building. I don’t know if it is possible to make such structures more beautiful or appealing. On the other hand, perhaps some can see past the functional approach used in the design of many infrastructure housings and admire such particular designs. Chic infrastructure?

Just how much is the Willis Tower worth?

News is that the Willis Tower in Chicago is up for sale and one insider suggests it could go for $1.5 billion:

The owners of the Willis Tower have hired Eastdil Secured to seek a sale, according to an offering book already given to potential buyers. The property’s owners are being advised in the deal by Chicago-based Stephen Livaditis and New York-based Douglas Harmon, senior managing directors at Eastdil, according to the materials…

Chicago is coming off the strongest year of office building sales downtown in seven years. Boosted by low interest rates, a strong real estate appetite for U.S. real estate by domestic and international investors and comparatively higher pricing in coastal cities such as New York and San Francisco, Chicago in 2014 experienced some of its biggest office deals…

Industry newsletter Real Estate Alert, which first reported Willis Tower was being shopped, estimated it could sell for about $1.5 billion. That would be almost $400 for each of the tower’s nearly 3.8 million square feet of office space.

But because of its huge size and unusually broad sources of revenue, experts say Willis Tower’s value is more difficult to pinpoint than a traditional office property.

Sounds like a thriving market right now. Building occupancy is up in recent years and several other large office buildings have sold for high prices in the last year or so.

It would be fascinating to see what happens if the name changes again. How would Chicagoans react? The Willis Tower switchover never completely happened – hard to believe that was over 10 years ago now – so would a new name work? We are not there yet but could be headed toward a world where major buildings consistently change names as they change owners or even develop sponsorship deals to have particular names?

Adding the Chicago Spire to the Chicago skyline

New tall buildings may be exciting but they can dramatically alter a skyline. See what the revived Chicago Spire would do to the Chicago skyline:

The supertall skyscraper’s hasn’t quite had a Cinderella story, as the project has gone through name, design and ownership changes since it was conceived in 2005. If completed, the 2,000 foot building would become the tallest structure in the Western Hemisphere.

The various proposals are quite interesting. Two things to note, beyond the proposed height:

1. The Spire has a unique location that helps it stand out from other buildings in the skyline. It is positioned in front, closer to the lakefront and Navy Pier than other tall buildings in Chicago which are closer to the business district or Michigan Avenue.

2. The design helps it stand out as skinny, unusual because of its twists, and unusually tall.

Contrast this with the last major addition to the Chicago skyline, the Trump Tower:


While the Trump Tower dominates the approach in and out of the Chicago River, it is near a bunch of other taller buildings and it has a more traditional design (glass and steel in stacked sections). In contrast, the Spire stands out in front of other skyscrapers and has a more unique design.

If built (and this is still a big if), how long before the Spire becomes a “normal” part of the Chicago skyline? How will it actually cohere with the rest of the skyline?

Architect Jeanne Gang opposed to sprawl

An interview with Chicago architect Jeanne Gang, designer of Aqua in the Loop, reveals her dislike for sprawl, and, along the way, the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright:

“Urbanization is the huge issue of our time,” she says. “We can’t survive if we can’t solve the problems of population growth, loss of clean air and water and loss of biodiversity.”

Gang and her firm, Studio Gang Architects, are pioneers in ecological urbanism, a field of design that considers rising populations and dwindling resources. Cities are key laboratories, and Gang says they must become denser and more nature-friendly.

She hasn’t hesitated to take on global icon Frank Lloyd Wright with her anti-sprawl approach. Chicago’s — and America’s — most famous architect spent decades promoting single homes on suburban lots where residents would savor nature far from downtowns and connect with society in cars.

“I want to turn Wright’s legacy upside down,” Gang says with no hint of doubt. “The way to be ecological is not by spreading out. It’s by clustering together. It’s by having a better relationship with nature in the city than you can have in a far-out suburb.”…

Taking on Wright is not an easy task. While he may have designed a number of single-family homes, he also designed a mile-high tower. Particularly in Chicago, Wright is someone revered for his ability to design in a Midwestern sort of way, drawing upon prairie influences and helping Chicago grow up. But, I’m sure Gang could find many people who agree that sprawl uses too many resources. Additionally, if new designs like that of Aqua can be more ecologically friendly, attract residents and business, and give cities iconic buildings, city leaders are likely to see this as a big win.

Competition for Empire State Building on NYC skyline

A developer has proposed a new skyscraper near the Empire State Building (ESB) in New York City and the ESB’s owner is arguing against it:

The tower would spoil the famous view of the 102-story skyscraper for millions of tourists, the Empire State Building’s owner, Anthony Malkin, testified Monday at a City Council hearing. It “defines New York,” he said.

“We view this as an assault on New York City and its iconography,” said Malkin, whose grandfather founded the Malkin Holdings company. It’s “the end of the image of New York City that billions of people hold dear.”

The City Council is to vote this week on whether to allow a developer to erect a 67-story tower that’s only 34 feet lower than the 79-year-old Empire State Building, the city’s tallest skyscraper.

The proposed tower’s developer, David Greenbaum, says 15 Penn Plaza would provide critically needed and state-of-the-art office space to midtown Manhattan, creating at least 7,000 new jobs.

“The fact is, New York City’s skyline has never stopped changing, and I certainly hope it never will,” testified Greenbaum, president of Vornado Realty Trust’s New York chapter.

This is an interesting example of many development battles: someone wants to make money with a new building and someone else wants to preserve what the neighborhood (and perhaps wants to protect their own investment).

I have a hard time buying the argument that the building shouldn’t be built because it is “an assault on New York City.” As the developer notes, skylines change pretty frequently. There could be other arguments to make against the building but preserving the skyline doesn’t sound reasonable. In fact, the changing of the skyline is often part of what makes cities interesting; they are consistently changing.