Opaqueness

John Carl Warnecke, AT&T Long Lines Building

At least since Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky’s “Transparency” essays, for which a conspicuously unmentioned precedent can be found in Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, architects have understood that transparency does not necessarily equal transparency. The familiar argument suggests that so-called “phenomenal transparency” — a strange title, if only because it has little to do with phenomena and is far closer to what might now be deemed “conceptual” instead — is a more difficult effect to achieve than “literal transparency.” Neither a simple material property nor an expression of the interior on the exterior, this type of “transparency” is actually opaque. And if architects have figured out how to create transparency with transparent materials, the effects of transparency with opaque materials, and the effects of opacity with transparent materials (such as Gropius’s Bauhaus, Le Corbusier’s Villa Stein, and Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion, respectively), could the effects of opacity be exploited toward architectural substance?

The seductively mute building on New York City’s Church Street between Thomas and Worth by the architect John Carl Warnecke seems to do just that. The building has no windows and gives no clues as to what is inside. The entry on Thomas Street is simply an incision into the clumped vertical stacks which comprise the building’s massing. Its only indication of scale is the relentless rectangular tiling of pink granite slabs on the exterior, whose absolute uniformity belies any sense of scale they might otherwise provide. To those unusual factors, add the alleged abnormally tall floor-to-floor heights, and one begins to suspect that this building was actually conceived to exceed the human scale. It sits in the city inertly, awaiting its Cartesian separation from its surroundings. Le Corbusier’s criticism, “the skyscrapers of New York are too small!” simply cannot be leveled against this particular skyscraper. And where contemporary modes of digital production have dissimulated scale from the creation of architectural models, this building does the same as a material, built object. The “Long Lines Building,” as it was originally called, suggests that opacity might imply a far more visceral, and indeed even conceptual, opaqueness.

Jonah Rowen