Articles

Art Deco Behemoths Communicate from NYC to the World

by Allison Meier on June 30, 2014

Manhattan with the Western Union and AT&T Long Lines buildings at center (screenshot from "Urban Giants" by the author)

Manhattan with the Western Union and AT&T Long Lines buildings at center (screenshot from Urban Giants/Vimeo)

Far from being obsolete, New York City’s early-20th-century communication infrastructure has been transformed into internet data centers. Two of its most gargantuan structures are the Western Union and AT&T Long Lines buildings in Lower Manhattan, constructed between 1928 and 1932 under the design of architect Ralph Walker.

In “Urban Giants,” a short documentary by the wife-and-husband duo of director Davina Pardo and writer Andrew Blum, shared last week by BLDGBLOG, the history and transformation of the two structures is condensed into a sweeping look at their legacy and continued role in communications.

“These buildings always seem to me to be the visible, slightly secret, hidden power of the giant, where the biggest city, the nerve center, talks to the rest of the world,” says architect and author James Sanders in the film.

Located at 60 Hudson Street and 32 Avenue of the Americas (aka Sixth Avenue), respectively, they’re also two of NYC’s greatest Art Deco structures, representing a turning point for the city from Gothic-influenced skyscrapers like the Woolworth Building to this distinctly American modernism. And you only have to contrast them to the neighboring Brutalist AT&T building at 33 Thomas Street, built in 1974, absent of windows, to appreciate Walker’s finesse with balancing form and function. As Carol Willis, founding director of the Skyscraper Museum, says in “Urban Giants”:

Walker could bring to these commissions a kind of subtlety of surface texture, an artistry of coloration, a sense of rhythm of the windows and the way they helped to create a pattern in the overall façade, and that was enormously important to the success of these buildings. They communicated far away and up close.

Now the reinforced infrastructure originally designed for telegraphs and telephones is serving over 600 data networks with 400 carriers, including the massive Telx, which sponsored the film. Watch “Urban Giants,” embedded below, to journey inside these hubs that have been central to decades of global telecommunication.

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