Reading New York City Architecture

The commercial architecture of nineteenth century New York is the subject of a new book by MCC Associate Professor Aurora Wallace who demonstrates how newspaper companies sought to validate their prominence in the media landscape through the material edifices of their corporate headquarters—a trend that continues to this day. 

In reviewing the book, The New York Times suggests it will appeal to "news buffs and urban planners alike."

Professor Wallace speaks to us about some of the central themes in Media Capital: Architecture and Communications in New York City.

Media companies seem especially prone to reinvention, and your history shows how this played out in architecture across the city: a large-scale restoration or a newspaper abandoning an aging headquarters downtown to reinvent itself uptown with a dazzling new building. Was this easier to do in New York? In the media industry?

Perhaps more difficult in New York than in other places, actually, given the scarcity of showcase locations and the difficulty of putting together large enough parcels of land on which to build a significant structure. We’ve seen how the Times and the Daily News, among others, worked for a long time to get the space they needed. The effort that has gone into putting these structures up where they are signals how important visibility is to media buildings. These buildings are neither accidental nor perfunctory; they are built purposefully to send a specific message to the public.

You write that the facades of newspaper buildings "were used to fill in the gaps between editions," as banners and bulletin boards hung at company headquarters were continuously updated with new developments. Can you briefly discuss the sort of public congregation that evolved as competing newspapers along Park Row used their edifices to relay news?

This is another one of the key points of the book: that the buildings work to publicize their businesses around the clock. News buildings were where people went to get the latest news, whether it was an assassination, an election, or a major sporting event. News buildings used to put on great shows in the form of bulletins, pyrotechnics, and other technologies like the stereopticon and the telautograph. When there were many competing newspapers lined up next to each other, the public could see and compare coverage from different outlets by standing in one place. We tend not to think of headquarters this way now, but for a long time they provided a place for people to gather in important moments. But if we think of recent news events like the capture of Osama bin Laden, or the elections of Obama, or even New Year’s Eve, we still see people wanting to take to the streets to congregate with strangers. Times Square maintains this legacy from when the New York Times was there, even though the Times is now over on Eighth Avenue.

You describe how newspapers at the turn of the century experimented with emerging technologies like the Play-o-graph, or stereopticons, to project news onto the facades of their headquarters and entertain bystanders. What explains this openness to new forms of communication?

Newspapers have always had an interesting relationship with emergent technologies. They bought radio and tv stations, and of course now employ all manner of digital technology. People now talk of being “platform agnostic,” which points to the desire to communicate by whatever means available, but at the heart of it the goal is to get people back to the core idea, which is news dissemination. And within that goal, to be first, and to be right.

You recount how company letterhead began to feature architectural renderings of building headquarters, reinforcing the connection between one's corporate identity and one's architectural and material capital. Was this unique to the media industry that might struggle to visually brand its services?

This is not unique to media. Insurance companies, banks, universities and hotels all did it. The image of the headquarters on printed material helps to ground the operations of the business in a stately structure. It says to clients and customers that they are solid, that they aren’t going anywhere, and by extension, that they are dependable. This may be a somewhat outdated custom, with letterhead having receded in importance. No one would expect Google, Yahoo or Amazon to use an image of their headquarters as a selling point.

Many readers might expect an epilogue depicting an end to the industry's obsession with material edifices, as media companies globalize, staff decentralize, and the homepage is more often seen as the public face of a media enterprise. Yet you end with a very interesting account of the New York Times' recent collaboration with architect Renzo Piano who said "as newspapers become less tangible creations, I think they need special buildings of their own to root them in the world of the everyday, to connect them physically with their readers." Do you think the relationship between architecture and media conglomerates is here to stay?

I certainly hope so! As news, commerce, and everything else moves online, we run a very great risk of losing the very thing that makes a city a city. Physical places and built spaces are what make one place distinct from another. People come to New York because it doesn’t look like other places, and part of that comes from the fact that we have the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the New York Public Library, and of course many great media buildings. We may not gather as people did in the past, but I would hate to lose the infrastructure that makes such things possible. I am incredibly old-fashioned on this point. Buy locally and you keep the store on your block in business, and the store on your block is what makes walking around town so great. Otherwise, you might as well live anywhere.