Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'


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In describing Stalinist architecture, Jonathan Meades stated that it is the despot’s ideal to have a building that imprisons the mind without imprisoning the body. To facilitate this, Stalin had commissioned works that attempted to eschew western thought while stealing every western architectural idiom of god-worship – a hypocritical hodgepodge of the last few centuries of western architecture, a smash-and-grab of pre-modernist ethos in the service of Soviet modernism, rendered as near total surrender to ostentatious ornamentation and executed above all else in huge monumentalist scale.

The unbuilt Palace of the Soviets, a 1300-foot tall shrine to the living god that was its totalitarian dictator, is both the highest fantasy of such a creature and an odd polyp of history in that it has now been more than doubled in height by the shrine of a faceless consortium of oil magnates in the United Arab Emirates. The unspeakable grotesqueness of the communist pride has been eclipsed by the unspeakable grotesqueness of raw capitalism. It’s that facelessness that bugs me most.

It’s an even more faceless but otherwise just as monumentalist architecture that most defines our corporate capitalism today. Across the street from Rockefeller Center, that gleaming edifice of brand-name avarice that once commissioned famous muralist Diego Rivera before discovering that he was a communist (and even then, true to amoral capitalist form, not caring provided he didn’t show his communism; his fame was all that was paid for), is its post-war extension, uncreatively but aptly dubbed the “XYZ buildings.” At 700 feet, they’re notable for being some of the tallest buildings in America and on the Earth, but absolutely and utterly anonymous besides – not only are they invisible due to a plethora of similarly-sized buildings abutting them, but they are strikingly devoid of any hint of architectural ornament or style.

One can hardly even ascribe post-modern internationalism to them; their relationship with the style so muted as to not even bother filing the serial numbers off. They are a poor homage to the Seagram Building on Park Avenue, itself a poor homage to the Lever Building a few blocks up. They are, at heart, middle-brow inoffensive massings that do not attempt to communicate anything but their own conscious inability to ascribe any sort of ethos to their tenants. They are disposable because their tenants are disposable. Any corporation can come in, slap its logo on the side, and leave just as anonymously. And they do.

What they have in common, however, is that monumentalist scale. They dwarf their inhabitants, mute ambition, end thought of other ways. They are every bit as totalitarian as their diametrically opposed counterparts. They turn people into peons, as is their wont. As one such peon, it has been culture shock to not only witness but partake in such a facade. Never have I felt so alienated from my own goals and understanding of this city and what it stands for. I am not the only one.

There is a secretary (AA in bureaucraspeak, to match the EAs and MDs and EDs in CCS and WMA and IB; comprehension of these terms is not necessary for their continued use) whose beehive hairdo and Brooklyn Italian accent is so stereotypical one almost doesn’t notice her Ukrainian surname. She presents the good-natured, personable ideal of the archetypal lonely secretary, and her job of late has been to facilitate the ‘restructuring’ of half her department, which in the lingo of the hive of technicians, teamsters and low-level grunts is called a “churn,” as our jobs are to play a great game of musical chairs with the analysts, associates, and mid-level grunts whose jobs have just been destroyed.

She has taken to this task with such a well-coifed efficiency that it was at least a little shocking to us fellow minions to discover that she is ultimately one of those whose jobs are destroyed in this churn. It’s one thing to train your replacement; it’s another entirely to train your executioner. Our first impulse would be to sabotage the place, if not overtly than at least covertly; a one-person strike. Examples of such actions, however, are not forthcoming in her or anybody else. It speaks volumes that, when faced with even the bleak prospect of one’s own demise, the prevailing reality is still to march resolutely forward.

Her concerns, actually, were not of herself but of another worker in a different department that has taken up shop in her area of control. This man, a Nigerian trader my team calls Emergency Trousers for his propensity to have a full change of clothes under his desk, has already garnered a reputation of a thief and a swindler: He had at one point stolen a computer newly installed during another churn on the same floor and, when caught out that same morning, simply declared that it appeared abandoned. As this is an investment bank, where hard drives are routinely stored in little evidence bags for years in case of inevitable lawsuits, this constituted a serious breach of security but one that would not come to hurt him in the end. After all: He makes the bank money. He is untouchable.

Our team had, at the time, conferred with one another as to the best course of action. We decided to prompt him to quietly return it to its place of origin – if we touched it, chain of custody was upon us again and we would be held responsible for any malfeasance – so that we may not call security, for if we did, the response would be an allergic reaction, guards would be axed, and the floors locked down, rendering our jobs more difficult. He would get a light slap on the wrist. It is this man, the secretary discovered, that had more than just his trousers in storage on-site.

As she learned, he had commandeered half the closets on the floor with suitcases of clothing and sundries and took to sleeping in the conference rooms in her department. As workers toil 24 hours a day in the building, security had not noticed anything amiss, but upon reporting – she discovered the culprit as one of the suitcases held his tax returns – HR could do little but to force him to relinquish control of the closets. The churn was commonplace, expected, but this breach of decorum and protocol caused her to lose her trust in propriety. Yet it’s the complete facelessness of the environs that allowed it to happen in the first place. An interloper is Not My Problem; you can get fired for stealing a pencil, but the truly brazen is unseeable.

My department lives on the work generated by the mass firings and mass hirings of new fodder; the equipment and spaces allotted for the organization and reorganization of human resources, as scrubbed of their humanity as the building has been scrubbed of any it might have had. Clean. So some take up residence and squat on the premises from time to time, ostensibly. It’s fitting that this was noticed once we’ve already fumigated half the floor. It’s even more fitting that nobody cares enough to do anything about it: That takes true control.

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