The Palace of Ether

 

one wilshire from the south

 

If Ether were to have a palace, it would have to be the 39-story One Wilshire tower in downtown Los Angeles. Constructed at the apogee of modernism by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, One Wilshire unequivocally declares that form follows function. Perhaps the worst building SOM ever designed, excusable only as a product of the provincial San Francisco office, One Wilshire appears to follow only two guiding principles. First, in order to create a visual identity, One Wilshire is designed as a skyscraper. Second, One Wilshire’s window areas are maximized to provide light and views for the occupants. Throughout the design, expression of any form, including the expression of structure, is eliminated as superfluous. One Wilshire is a pure modernist building. Its neutral grid lacks symbolic content, making it a tower without qualities.

One Wilshire embodies the desire of the bourgeois metropolis to appear at all cost. Awkward in proportion, and off-axis with regard to Wilshire boulevard, its only feature is height, incessantly affirming the value of the land beneath it. But this symbolic affirmation also helped ensure the building’s obsolescence. In his 1971 essay “The Fluid Metropolis,” Andrea Branzi observes that “the skyline becomes a diagram of the natural accumulation which has taken place of capital itself.” Under late capitalism, he suggests, capital finally dominates “the empty space in which [it] expanded during its growth period.” When “no reality exists any longer outside of the system,” the skyscraper’s representation of accumulation becomes obsolete. Branzi concludes that the horizontal factory and the supermarket—in which the circulation of information is made optimum and hierarchies disappear—would replace the tower as the foundational typologies for the fluid metropolis. Since then, Branzi’s prophecy has been fulfilled. Communication replaces accumulation. The increasingly horizontal corporation, organized along Taylorist and cybernetic principles of communicational efficiency, constructs low, spreading buildings for its offices in the suburbs. Damaged by the decentralizing policies of Cold War urbanism and increasingly threatened by the sprawling suburbs, the congested vertical urban core began to empty in the 1970s. One Wilshire’s once beneficial vertical signification of “office building” and “valuable real estate” began to get in the way of its own economic sustainability. By the mid-1980s, the regime of horizontality was firmly in place and One Wilshire was obsolete.

Eventually, however, a new opportunity presented itself and One Wilshire’s height returned to its advantage. With the deregulation of the telecommunications industry, long distance carrier MCI, which had its own nationwide microwave network, required a tall structure on which to install microwave antennas in close proximity to the AT&T (formerly SBC, prior to that PacBell, before that AT&T) central switching station at 400 South Grand Street downtown. Although as a condition of deregulation, competing long distance carriers are, by law, allowed access to the lines at the central switching station, AT&T does not have to provide them with space for their equipment. Only three thousand feet from the central switching station and at the time one of the tallest buildings downtown, One Wilshire was ideal for MCI. Seeing a friendly environment close to the central switching station, other long-distance carriers, Internet service providers, and networking companies began to install their equipment at One Wilshire.