Architecture, journalism and the role of symbolism in a time of uncertainty

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One of the major themes of my review of Steven Ehrlich’s new journalism school for Arizona State University, which appeared in Sunday’s Arts and Books section, was that imposing, rock-solid, Olympian symbolism may no longer be appropriate for media buildings of any type. Two pieces of news today seem to confirm that point of view. One is the report that the Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The other is that the New York Times Co. is moving to wring some cash from its sleek new headquarters, which was designed by Renzo Piano and opened last year.

CBS Marketwatch reports:

The New York Times Co. says it will borrow as much as $225 million against its sparkling Midtown Manhattan headquarters to prevent a possible cash flow jam as the media behemoth struggles to come to terms with credit and profit worries.

The building was in the news earlier this year after a pair of daredevils climbed it on the same day. The aim of Piano’s design for the tower, which wraps a lattice of ceramic rods around a sleek glass box, was in essence to create a new kind of media landmark: a building that suggests both authority and, to mark journalism’s transition to the digital realm, a kind of free-floating airiness. The architecture makes the implicit argument that just as masonry buildings filled with heavy printing presses were appropriate for an earlier era of mass media, the age of pixels, links and clicks is best represented by a tower that is open, transparent and light on its feet.

Of course, if the New York Times is forced to sell the building outright, the design may begin to stand for something else entirely -- namely, the sense that newspaper companies, facing pressure from declining revenues and impatient investors and creditors, are losing control of their physical headquarters and their own destinies with equally unnerving speed.


--Christopher Hawthorne