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“It is the same in love as in war; a fortress that parleys is half taken”*…

The AT&T Long Lines Building, designed by John Carl Warnecke at 33 Thomas Street in Manhattan, under construction ca. 1974.

Further to yesterday’s post on historic battlements, Zach Mortice on a modern fortress that’s become a go-to location for film and television thrillers…

When it was completed in Lower Manhattan in 1974, 33 Thomas Street, formerly known as the AT&T Long Lines Building, was intended as the world’s largest facility for connecting long-distance telephone calls. Standing 532 feet — roughly equivalent to a 45-story building — it’s a mugshot for Brutalism, windowless and nearly featureless. Its only apertures are a series of ventilation hoods meant to hide microwave-satellite arrays, which communicate with ground-based relay stations and satellites in space. One of several long lines buildings designed by John Carl Warnecke for the New York Telephone Company, a subsidiary of AT&T, 33 Thomas Street is perhaps the most visually striking project in the architect’s long and influential career. Embodying postwar American economic and military hegemony, the tower broadcasts inscrutability and imperviousness. It was conceived, according to the architect, to be a “skyscraper inhabited by machines.”

“No windows or unprotected openings in its radiation-proof skin can be permitted,” reads a project brief prepared by Warnecke’s office; the building’s form and dimensions were shaped not by human needs for light and air, but by the logics of ventilation, cooling, and (not least) protection from atomic blast. “As such, the design project becomes the search for a 20th-century fortress, with spears and arrows replaced by protons and neutrons laying quiet siege to an army of machines within.” The purple prose of the project brief was perhaps inspired by the client. AT&T in the 1970s still held its telecom monopoly, and was an exuberant player in the Cold War military-industrial complex. Until 2009, 33 Thomas Street was a Verizon data center. And in 2016, The Intercept revealed that the building was functioning as a hub for the National Security Administration, which has bestowed upon it the Bond-film-esque moniker Titanpointe.

Computers at Titanpointe have monitored international phone calls, faxes and voice calls routed over the internet, and more, hoovering up data from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and U.S. allies including France, Germany, and Japan. 33 Thomas Street, it turns out, is exactly what it looks like: an apocalypse-proof above-ground bunker intended not only to symbolize but to guarantee national security. For those overseeing fortress operations at the time of construction, objects of fear were nuclear-armed Communists abroad and a restive youth population at home, who couldn’t be trusted to obey the diktats of a culture that had raised up some in previously inconceivable affluence; an affluence built on the exploitation and disenfranchisement of people near and far.

By the time the NSA took over, targets were likely to be insurgents rejecting liberal democracy and American hegemony, from Islamic fundamentalists to world-market competitors in China, alongside a smattering of Black Lives Matter activists. For those outside the fortress, in the Nixon era as in the present, the fearful issue was an entrenched and unaccountable fusion of corporate and governmental capability, a power that flipped the switches connecting the world. At the same time, popular culture had begun, in the 1970s, to register a paranoia that has only intensified — the fear that people no longer call the shots. In its monumental implacability, Titanpointe seems to herald a posthuman regime, run by algorithm for the sole purpose of perpetuating its own system.

It is, in other words, a building tailor made for spy movies.

John Carl Warnecke did not realize, of course, that he was storyboarding a movie set…

How (and why) a windowless telecommunications hub in New York City embodying an architecture of surveillance and paranoia became an ideal location for conspiracy thrillers: “Apocalypse-Proof,” from @zachmortice in @PlacesJournal. Fascinating.

Margaret of Valois


As we ponder impenetrability, we might recall that it was on this date in 1780, during the American Revolutionary War, that Benedict Arnold, commander of the American fort at West Point, passed plans of the bastion to the British.

Portrait by Thomas Hart, 1776 (source)
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