Students Paul Germaine McCoy and Matthew Kohman redesigned the Trinity and United States Realty Buildings. Their project imagined the building as a space that would receive consumer items that are bought and then returned through online retail services like Amazon. Piles of discarded chairs take on a fur-like texture from a distance, McCoy says. “Design doesn’t always have to be this totally encapsulating thing, but rather something that infects the building, and then changes the way you look at it.” Credit: Paul Germaine McCoy, Matthew Kohman
“An array of steel chutes disregards the preciousness of the existing stone articulation on the south facade, setting up multiple openings through which drones deliver the returned objects,” McCoy says in a video submitted alongside the design. The charge was to maintain some aspect of the existing building while reframing its purpose after the Financial District has been emptied. “We have to allow the residue of these events to have some renewal or redemption,” McCoy says. “How are we as a culture going to try again when we don’t have this reminder?” Credit: Paul Germaine McCoy, Matthew Kohman
Calli Katzelnick and Glenn Godfrey reimagined the American Stock Exchange building. Their design incorporated an existing “pit” where brokers worked as a pharmaceutical research lab. The lab draws samples from a large-scale aquarium and terrarium that are meant to grow wild, without human interference. “What happens when these buildings are no longer occupied? The nonhuman factor of the use of buildings was something that intrigued me,” Godfrey says. “The empty part of it makes you think: How can you refill this with something that’s not so anthropocentric? How can we serve a nonhuman force/” Credit: Calli Katzelnick, Glen Godfrey
Students selected objects associated with their buildings to guide the redesign. In the case of the American Stock Exchange, Katzelnick and Godfrey narrowed in on a series of pneumatic tubes that were used to transport materials through the building decades ago. “We wanted to use that as that connecting force in our building,” Katzelnick says. Credit: Calli Katzelnick, Glen Godfrey
“‘Empty Architecture’ may then become the ground zero for a different kind of city, one shedding its past ideologies and fully embracing the present with an eye toward the future,” Kolatan wrote on the syllabus. “The physical desertion and emptying out of buildings and streets echo the conceptual void created by the seemingly indestructible alliance of capital and technology with its various machinations.” Credit: Yang Yang, Yiding Wang
The “Empty Architecture” of the COVID-19 City
Last spring, as COVID-19 was shutting down office buildings and storefronts around the country, Associate Professor of Architecture Ferda Kolatan spent a lot of time walking around New York, where he lives, and thinking about how the pandemic could permanently alter the architecture of the city.
“The emptiness was striking,” he says.
Kolatan began paying particular attention to a handful of buildings in Lower Manhattan’s Financial District, built between the Gilded Age and the Great Depression, which he says were “a heralding call for a sort of cutthroat capitalist agenda.” They included a series of historic landmarks: The Equitable Building, the Chamber of Commerce, the Standard Oil Building, the American Stock Exchange. He decided to reorganize his fall studio for third-year architecture students around the challenge of imagining a future for those buildings that neither demolished them nor preserved them in amber. The studio, part of a series focused on hybridized forms of architecture and urbanism that Kolatan has led at the Weitzman School, was called “Empty Architecture.”
“The question I pose to my students is, what can we do with these buildings that are now literally and figuratively emptied out?” Kolatan says. “Literally in the sense that COVID has forced the inhabitants out of the buildings, thus creating an opportunity to radically reinvent their program, and figuratively in the sense that these once iconic buildings have become hollow monuments for a capitalist ideology that has failed to benefit all of society. The twin events of 2020, COVID and Black Lives Matter, have brought this condition dramatically to the fore.”
Inspired by the sci-fi eeriness of the empty buildings, Kolatan and his teaching assistant, Caleb Ehly, instructed students to rethink their use and design. The Financial District symbolizes a particularly anthropocentric impulse in American culture, Kolatan says. So he asked students to design not for “conventional human occupation,” but instead to privilege “nonhuman factors and their agencies and aesthetics,” as he wrote on the syllabus. “[The buildings] may be altered, subtracted from, and added to, but some original features still need to impact the new designs,” he wrote.
Students spent the semester working in pairs to reimagine New York’s iconic financial buildings for non-human use. The prompt inspired students to explore a specific object associated with the existing building to guide a rethinking of its design. As Paul Germaine McCoy, a third-year architecture student in the course, says, “How do you empty out a building of certain ideas and how do you fill it with new ideas?”