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The 'Name' Building in a Virtual Era

September 10, 2000|Anthony Vidler | Anthony Vidler, a professor of art history and architecture at UCLA, is the author of "The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely."

CBS' renewed effort to sell its "Black Rock" Manhattan headquarters, a symbol of the news organization's dignified modernity for nearly 40 years, highlights architecture's role as a "signature" art. Since the late 19th century, and coinciding with the rise of the skyscraper in Chicago and New York, corporations used architecture as a way of identifying themselves to the public. From the Woolworth Building in the 1910s to the AT&T Building in the 1970s, style and design quality have provided a physical advertisement of a corporation's taste and power.

The CBS Building was no exception. Designed by architect Eero Saarinen in 1961, its austere profile--with deep-set, black mullions rising directly out of the pavement--gave it a gravity aspired to by the TV network. It epitomized William S. Paley's vision of what CBS could and should be. Saarinen was a master of signature buildings, having also designed the birdlike TWA terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport and the machine-like Bell Telephone research labs in Holmdel, N.J. Though CBS is intent on selling Black Rock, it seems hard to imagine the building with another identity.

Yet, corporations, increasingly global and lacking ties to any particular city or area, require fewer and fewer stable locations. If they are concerned with architecture and building sites, it is more likely the architecture of their software and the design of their Web site than with any bricks-and-mortar structure. Where corporations were once preoccupied with displaying their identity with a monumental building, now this is achieved virtually.

The shift has occurred over several decades. IBM and AT&T, for example, have already moved out of their own signature headquarters. But the 21st century will be noted by architectural historians as the period when architecture finally lost all connection to corporate representation, save for its role in the advertising display of recreational facilities, as with Las Vegas or DisneyWorld.

The idea of a building conveying a message about its owner is not new: Power and luxury were traditional attributes of palaces and churches. But the notion of a building crafted specifically for a distinct entity, an institution or business, dates only from the late 19th century. The phrase "speaking architecture" was coined in the late 18th century by French architects wanting to use design to further Enlightenment ideals of reform and revolution. Architecture, claimed architects like Claude-Nicolas Ledoux in the 1780s, should "speak to the eyes," conveying the substance of its owner's occupation in its form. Ledoux designed an imagined city, filled with factories with windows that represented their products; barrel-shaped houses for those who made barrels; drain-pipe-shaped houses for water engineers. He theorized architecture would shape and be shaped for every function of the new industrial society. Then the 19th century turned Ledoux's utopia into reality, when institution after institution, from museums to factories, turned to architecture as a confirming and authorizing art.

By the end of the 19th century, corporations were quick to seize on the potential of modern structures, especially the new high-rises, to mark their own rise to prominence. Thus, the Chicago Herald Tribune held a competition in 1923 for "the most beautiful office building in the world," and all the leading traditional and modern architects of the day submitted designs. The most notable was produced by the Viennese architect Adolf Loos, a skyscraper in the shape of a huge Doric column, punning on the double meaning of newspaper and architectural column. In Los Angeles a few years later, Robert Derrah gave dramatic shape to the Coca Cola Bottling Plant and the Southern Counties Gas Co. buildings; and Gordon Kaufmann outshone the Beaux Arts winner of the Chicago competition with his monumental moderne Los Angeles Times Building.

After World War II, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe brought modernism to the United States in the pure form of the Seagram Building; his young collaborator, Philip Johnson, went on to cause almost as much of a stir with his "Chippendale" cap to the 1984 AT&T Building. It was not uncommon for entire architectural firms to dedicate their output to forging corporate identity across the country, from Lever House in New York to the John Hancock Center in Chicago. Skyscrapers vied to differ from each other in form and height, shaped like pyramids, cylinders, ovoids, trapezoids, and with distinctive caps--conical, pyramidal, pedimental. It could be said that high-quality architecture and corporate identity were synonymous from the 1900s to the 1980s.

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