Sunday, March 11, 2018

Book Review: Empire, State & Building

Empire, State & Building by Kiel Moe
Actar, 2017
Hardcover, 264 pages

Exactly four weeks ago, news broke that JPMorgan Chase would be tearing down its 52-story headquarters at 270 Park Avenue in order to accommodate its 15,000 employees in a new 70-story tower on the same site providing an additional 1 million square feet of floor area. If all goes to plan for the bank, the act would enter the history books as the largest purposeful building demolition. Given that the building was designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill for Union Carbide and completed in 1961, the demolition would also mean the building's useful life lasted less than 60 years – a long time for buildings in general but hardly long enough for one totaling 1.5 million square feet. Arguments against the tower's demolition have focused on the role of SOM senior designer Natalie de Blois, the quality of its design and the mystery as to what would replace it, and the wastefulness of tearing down a building with so much embodied energy. This last point is relevant to the book here, which examines the life a nearby Midtown site now home to the Empire State Building.

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The spread above illustrates the roughly 220 years of building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, from a farmhouse in the early 1800s, to mansions and townhouses later that century, to the famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel at the turn of the century, and to finally the Empire State Building. The ups and downs of the red line coincide with building and demolition, and the sharp drop in 1930 illustrates how the pair of hotels was torn down to make way for the Empire State Building, which was erected in just over one year. While that speed is amazing, given the building's height and size, so is the fact the hotels only lasted four decades. The architectural life of the Waldorf-Astoria would have been much longer, but it was located on a portion of the island that changed from farm to residential to commercial as the city advanced north. In other words, the site's eventual future as an office tower arose from trends beyond yet encompassing the site's footprint. The same cannot be said of the area around 270 Park Avenue, which has been commercial since at least the 1950s; JPMorgan's actions are rooted in the area's recent rezoning, not just their needs. These circumstances, combined with the embodied energy of 270 Park, make that building's proposed demolition so unsettling.

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Would things be different if Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, read Kiel Moe's Empire, State & Building? Maybe not, if he limited himself to the text, which is unnecessarily obtuse for such a broadly appealing topic. This book is clearly written by and for academics, though the illustrations – archival photos and original drawings, such as the map above – are aligned with a book accessible to a wider audience. But Moe wants to expand the scope of architects' influence to encompass territory, communication, and speed, the "three great variables" that architects are no longer agents of, at least according to Michel Foucault. An analysis of the materials and energies taking part in the numerous buildings situated at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street should convince architects of the importance of these variables, if not wholly, then maybe that they should be responsible for them. If not, architects reading the book will come away with a couple new words: emergy, which may seem like a mashup of "empire" and "energy" but was coined by ecologist Howard Odum as the amount of available energy required for a product or service; and exergy, referring to available energy. Moe describes emergy as "a form of scale analysis," and while he admits that the permanence of buildings is an illusion, it behooves architects to better understand energy inputs in a building's construction, operation and demolition, and perhaps also emergy/exergy ratios.

Matt Shaw, in an editorial at The Architect's Newspaper, makes one of the few arguments for 270 Park's demolition and that it should be done "correctly," so materials are salvaged and reused in newer buildings and they set a precedent as more mid-century towers are demolished to make way for newer, taller, "greener" buildings. A commendable argument, and one that is geared to how (some) architects already think about embodied energy. Expanding this thinking to encompass emergy, exergy, and their ratios – which, Moe writes, "accounts for complete historical inputs, current use, and potential for future feedback" – wouldn't necessarily dissuade 270 Park's destruction, but it might ensure that its replacement will last as long as the Empire State Building.


  1. Shaw's argument for tearing down the building - and all buildings from this era, essentially - is that they are banal and creations of [name your SJW indictment du jour].

    The reality is underneath its banal skin is a perfectly serviceable and huge frame for which the idea of recycling is absurd: the amount of matter & embodied energy that will be lost in the effort, not to mention the amount of pollution unleashed in the demo - is disgusting.

    And for what? Another glass-clad tower that receives some benediction (spin the building four times! count the imaginary BTUs! presto, Gold! Platinum!) in advance of using even more BTUs per occupant than the prior while ignoring the energy destroyed in its building?

    Architects are happy to rationalize away anything that gets in the way of glossy new things. JP Morgan could easily refurb this building to improve its energy performance and house the missing workers in a nearby building, but that doesn't have the same glossy sex appeal of the new Big Tower. So be it.

    But lets not hear the AIA coming out and saying any of this is "green", or "sustainable", or "carbon neutral" or any of the other BS terms they/we use to explain this rapacious use of resources.

    And if Shaw were really interested in justice as his SJW terms suggest, he'd make that indictment too - but that doesn't sell architectural newspapers, does it?

    1. This comment does bring to mind the irony that JPMorgan's interior renovation of 270 Park from 2012, which earned LEED Platinum, will last less than a decade.


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