November 1, 2007
The 100-Year Home
The New York Times builds a glittering twenty-first-century headquarters—designed by Renzo Piano—that challenges the very notion of how a newspaper operates during a time of great
uncertainty and rapid transformation.
On a steamy morning in September, a hard-bitten reporter witnesses a total reversal of reality on a street corner in Manhattan. For years, visiting colleagues at the headquarters of the New York Times involved the ritualistic sensory hazing of leaving the electric glass spires and loud primary colors of the streetscape around Times Square and entering a dark warren of beige and brown offices. One trip in a crowded hesitant elevator of that old building on West 43rd Street and the city was gone. With few glimpses of natural light, the alchemists of the news “fit to print” worked their magic or wreaked their journalistic havoc (depending on your affections for the Times) in a stifling environment of clutter, surrounded by bales of a century’s archival tinder. Forlorn and sometimes handwritten signs directed me ever deeper into the fluorescent gloom. Everywhere above my head, the open spaces of displaced ceiling tiles were being made to gag on braids of newly installed cables in the latest electronics upgrade or ventilation repair. Around every corner, closed doors and busy phones suggested the conspiratorial off-the-record conversations that birthed each day’s first draft of history.
On this day, however, at the corner of 40th Street and Eighth Avenue, I emerge from a warren of exterior muddy-gray construction chaos. From a streetscape shrouded in scaffolding and menaced by hanging cables and hastily strewn filthy orange barriers, I step into a pristine interior cathedral of bright color and soaring glass, and I’m met by a smiling silver-haired executive whose dark jacket seems to bear the rumples of many rolled-up sleeves, but whose collar is crisp and sharp. David Thurm, the New York Times’ chief information officer and senior vice president for construction and real estate, greets me with a scarcely disguised “What do you think of me now?” grin. “Welcome to the new New York Times,” he says.
The open ground-floor lobby of the Times tower is filled with light and could not be more of a contrast to the old building, even with much of the ground-level exterior still a construction site. Thurm immediately launches into an explanation of what remains to be done to realize the architectural vision of building designer Renzo Piano and project architect FXFowle, and what he calls the corporate vision of the newspaper. “This is the home of the Times for the next 100 years,” he declares with infectious optimism. “This is a statement about the viability of our business, our determination to remain a part of this city.”
Thurm isn’t making a defensive argument to a snarky Internet skeptic. He is a man of the long game; and unlike the many journalists working away upstairs, whose lives are measured out in the daily cycle of putting out a paper, his rhythms are more encyclopedic. Since 2000 he has helped carefully craft the Times’ urban edifice in production cycles measured in years and built to withstand decades of anticipated change. At a time when the newspaper business itself—let alone the technology of information flow, architecture, and the workplace—is in extreme flux, Thurm and his real estate team have set their sights on a future well beyond the horizon of the traditional daily paper.
“From the beginning this building has been a symbol of the transparency of what we do at the Times,” Thurm says. “If you stand here you can see the street behind you, and in front of you is the garden.” He’s referring to the open-air garden that’s currently filled with unpacked crates. As he talks, the debris-strewn scene is replaced by imagined plantings and neatly delineated paths, where journalists will sit and lunch. “From the garden you can look up and see the newsroom.” Thurm seems to think of the newsroom, which occupies three floors above and around where we stand, as a cross between a showy fishbowl and the somber Acropolis. “I see the transparency of these spaces as a way of letting people in on the story of how a paper gets made.” Like many employees, Thurm is liberated by being able to see fellow employees in something other than a crowded elevator. “See that person?” He points to someone on the newsroom floor walking with a sheaf of papers down one of the many open staircases on the building perimeter. “I want people to wonder: Where is he going? What’s happening now? What piece of history is he part of now?” This comment seems more than a little narcissistic and dreamy in an era when copy and layout are delivered via e-mail, everyone can be linked by conference call, and perhaps the only real need to leave one’s desk in the twenty-first century is for the restroom.
When I visit the newsroom, the employees have been in the building for only two months. There is much internal grumbling about the openness of the space and its apparent lack of privacy. A public trashing of the newsroom design in the pages of the New Yorker, by former Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger, is still fresh. Editorial-page editor Andrew Rosenthal remarks that the building is still in a kind of shakedown mode. “I think most people are really happy, though,” Rosenthal says. “I can’t believe it when I look around and see the city everywhere.” He says there has been no conscious effort to change the paper since the move, but he can’t help thinking that this sudden proximity to the city, spread out beyond the windows of the tower, has had some effect. “I can kind of see we’re doing more New York issues on the editorial page. I know that these days I never stop thinking about how great this city is. I can’t forget our connection to all that. It’s everywhere you look.”
The best views of both the Times workers and their city is from the split-level cafeteria, with its floor-to-ceiling glass and floating staircases. It is also a great place to witness the sensors, the lighting, and the automatic shades on the curtain wall at work. As sunlight changes over time or because of the weather, the sensors automatically detect and adjust. (See “A Day in the Light,” May 2004, p. 89.) Lighting is optimized for working and energy- efficiency. “The whole system is digital,” Thurm says. “Each fixture, each individual bulb and dimmer, is a data point reporting its consumption of energy to the server and allowing us to dynamically configure and reconfigure lighting based on use patterns.”
All technological wizardry aside, the key issue for Times employees in evaluating the success of the newsroom design has been the apparent shortage of low-tech privacy. “Privacy is an essential element of what we do,” says Rosenthal, who admits to some grumbling on the part of reporters early on. “We have rediscovered how important that is and have had to rethink some of this openness for people who can’t do their jobs without the door closed.” Thurm calls this “heads on the desk” space, and he says that the Times has had to accommodate more of it as operations moved over to the new building. A complicated pink-noise acoustic scheme has been employed that literally pumps sound into the open office area to mute the volume of conversations. The system works invisibly and makes it difficult, if not impossible, to hear what people are saying a few desks away. But it isn’t enough for traditional reporters, who can only truly be off the record if they are also out of sight. One thing about this new space that is evident, even to an outsider, is that one can’t imagine reporters slinking behind their cubicle desks to speak discreetly to a world leader or a White House official, or, in the midst of some internal Times scandal, to leak juicy details and quotes to reporters all over town.
Thurm swings past a group of employees on their way to a meeting. “Hello, Bill,” he says to a group trailing executive editor Bill Keller into a conference room to discuss the next day’s front page. Keller has one of the relatively few double-size private offices in the building, but he spends much of his time congregating in the center of the newsroom. Rosenthal tells the story of Keller’s introduction to the new space: “He was standing there looking a bit bewildered and turned to me and said, ‘I guess I always knew we had 1,500 newsroom employees. This is the first time I can actually see all of them.’”
Gensler led the interior-design team, and even though it is among the most experienced office-design firms in the world, with the full range of corporate clients, this project was different. “They involved us almost from the beginning,” says Robin Klehr Avia, managing principal for Gensler’s New York office. “We began doing strategic planning and designing the process for building a consensus on what the newsroom would look and feel like, even before the structural issues in the building were nailed down.” The mission was to fuse state-of-the-art technology into a work space with an unprecedented feeling of openness. “They wanted us to create a space that conveyed the excitement of making the daily paper,” says Bruce Fowle, of FXFowle. “It was more difficult than I originally imagined.” He and his team were invited to visit the newsroom on the night of the 2000 election. “They were so convinced that we would see this exciting drama of a daily newspaper being born, but it was just a lot of people looking at screens of numbers or the TV networks.” Fowle says the visit taught him that the drama of news is becoming an internal one and that the link to the old front-page “Hello, copy desk? Get me rewrite!” era can only be made by integrating the history of the Times into the modern architecture of the newsroom.
Thurm, however, is steadfastly unmoved by the present. The Times tower is a vision of the future constructed on the deep bedrock of the past. “Through that wall you’ll be able to see a theater space for public events,” he says of the Times Center, a 378-seat auditorium on the building’s ground floor. “We imagine this place as a forum for issues crucial to the city and the world.” All of these facilities are still taking shape as Thurm speaks, yet I still find myself yearning to be persuaded. In an era of YouTube hits and virtual chat-room gatherings in places like Second Life, the idea of a bricks-and-mortar forum for the world seems both extravagantly retro and prescient. Like the famous and still-standing auditorium at the Cooper Union building 30 blocks downtown, where candidate Abraham Lincoln spoke more than a century ago and launched his presidential campaign, the idea of a forum for the next hundred years is still plausible. Indeed, the value of such a real place seems to have increased in our time, when all proximity is electronic.
During the design process, numerous elements changed. Internet connectivity went from Ethernet cabling to wireless, but accommodating that change was easy. Unlike the old building, where the electronics, plumbing, and air-conditioning were in the ceiling, the new one has virtually nothing in the ceiling. The air-conditioning comes from discreet circular floor vents (the largest under-floor air system built in New York). There is plenty of room above the ceiling tiles for electronics, and the ceiling grid never has to be reconfigured for new ducting. “The process is so much simpler than in the old building,” Thurm says.
The company was also shaken by change and upheaval. As building construction started, the Times online staff was completely merged into the print operation. And the newspaper went through three of the most difficult crises of its existence: the aftermath of September 11; the Jayson Blair scandal, which led to the fall of executive editor Howell Raines; and the Judith Miller saga. All three dilemmas challenged the Times’ sense of self, its management, and its reputation for transparency and openness—the very things the design of the newsroom was supposed to celebrate and symbolize. “It was amazing to me how clear and un-wavering the Times people remained through all of this,” says Rocco Giannetti, Gensler project manager. “Certain details changed, but none because of these outward scandals. We would have meetings in the middle of these eruptions, and it would be as though nothing unusual was going on.” Gensler’s Edward Wood says the Times insisted that the ebb and flow of the news, even when the paper was the headline, not interfere with the building of the work space. When asked if anything about the controversies of the past decade altered the scheme of the newsroom, Thurm looks puzzled. “Why should they?” he says. “They don’t have anything to do with each other.” With a frustrated wave of the hand, he dismisses my question, suggesting that news is nothing new to the Times, just as the brutal harvest of livestock is no revelation to a meatpacker.
The significance of the New York Times tower seems not to come from this radical new newsroom, the building’s height, its specific design elements, or the fact that it is a Modernist torch boldly challenging the chaotic mid-twentieth-century mess of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, across Eighth Avenue. The Times structure is a composite proposition that insists that a building can symbolize a vision for a venerable cultural institution, can project the confidence of a reformulated business model for an aging product, and—perhaps most challenging of all—can collaborate as a work space with a team of journalists known for their secrecy, grumpiness, and extreme skepticism. To achieve any of these would be an important design achievement, yet the Times tower must succeed at all of them to make the case that the city’s—and the world’s—most important daily newspaper will still be viable and important in 2107.
Thurm describes a moment on a cold afternoon last January when he was going to visit his ill mother in New Jersey and emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel to see the building jutting into the clouds. “It was the first time I realized it was part of the skyline,” Thurm says with an even dreamier look in his eye. “My breath caught in my throat. I hadn’t had that feeling about the New York skyline since before September 11, 2001. It was dramatic, and I realized I was part of it.” For Thurm it is this headline—“The New York Times Is a Permanent Part of the City Skyline Again”—that leads his front page. Whatever the future of the newspaper business, one way or another his tower, at least, stands a great chance to be there in 2107.