Switch

In New York City last weekend I walked several times past this building:
33 Thomas Street December 1991
The building is known as 33 Thomas St.. The Wikipedia article calls it “an extreme example of the Brutalist architectural style”, which seems like a perfect description to me. You have to walk by at the tail end of dusk, and crane your neck to search for the top, to realize how imposing this building is. Its windowless granite faces are folded into geometric forms but unbroken save for rows of massive cooling ducts. By height, it would be 9th tallest building in Boston, or a sinister mechanical match to the Washington Monument.

I could hardly guess its mysterious purpose, so I looked it up … and in fact, the building is a switch, a massive monolithic machine whose sole purpose is to redirect incoming signals immediately to their intended destination. It’s connected to myriad subterranean copper and fiber-optic cables, originally routing telephone calls but now arbitrary data. If the scale of this doesn’t inspire awe, then you haven’t considered the capacity of a building’s worth of single-mode fiber.

On the way home I walked by the James Farley Post Office:
Manhattan New York City 2009 PD 20091129 065
The building is immense and gleaming, spanning two city blocks and featuring the largest colonnade ever built. At its peak it was open to process mail 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s surrounded by a moat wider than most city streets, maybe just to show off that it extends as far below ground as above. As I walked by, I realized: this thing is also a switch, a great machine only slightly less automated than the network routers that have made it obsolete.

The coup de grâce, though, happened when I walked around the post office to reveal this perspective:
Acela nearing 9th Av jeh
Sixteen lines of heavy rail run directly under the post office. The grand switch of the paper age sits directly above an underground railyard, which is itself a packet switch for rolling steel.

3 thoughts on “Switch”

  1. Some of the most hated buildings are “Brutalist” style — Boston city hall is famously hated and, at Caltech, the Millikan Library is very unpopular. On the other hand, in my hometown at UCSD, the Geisel Library is extremely cool — it is featured in the logo for the school. It gets used as a backdrop & setting for filming and by Vinge in Rainbow’s End. (Geisel, by the way, is more well known as “Dr. Seuss”.)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geisel_Library

    Although most of brutalist architecture is hated, I think this library can be cited as a great success. It’s interesting how opposite the Geisel Library is to 33 Thomas Street, they seem to mark ends of a spectrum in the style. It’s surrounded with windows, dynamic in its varying horizontal “spaceship” levels, and rather than excluding people with featureless bulk it has eliminated all building but structural support & connection on a ground level (the “missing 3rd floor”) to created an outside forum for people to use.

  2. Actually, it is not “coup de gras”, but “coup de grâce” (pronounced “koo de grasse”, not “koop de gra”).

    Coup de grâce means “deathblow” (more litterally “blow of mercy”, I’d say)
    Coup de gras means “blow of fat”

    Now go away or I shall taunt you a second time!
    Jean-François

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