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NYC Doesn't Need Another WeWork
By Luna Lark
On January 11th, the New York Times ran the story, "The Chrysler Building Is for Sale. Does Anybody Want It?" Hell, I want it. But, as the article went on to explain, it's an expensive building to maintain and repair. At the moment, an Abu Dhabi wealth fund and the commercial real estate firm Tishman Speyer own the Chrysler Building. (Tishman Speyder and I not even occupy the same financial solar system.) Whomever buys the Chrysler Building will have to compete with WeWork, the office tenant dominating New York City. The thought of the Chrysler Building, an Art Deco treasure, having to face the gig economy mammoth WeWork in the same ring sickens me. WeWork should not be the Chrysler Building's competition.
WeWork is the mascot for Neoliberal policy-making, start-up bro culture, and design homogeneity—none of which are things I like. To quote the New York Times writer Ginia Bellafante:
WeWork has branded itself as a purveyor not just of office space but also of office life — in particular, a kind of life where the distinctions between work and nearly everything else are eradicated.
This is not good. Ask any permalancer who does not have health insurance, parental leave, paid vacation, or stable mental health.
Yet since the topic at hand here is architecture, I will focus on WeWork's disturbing sameness. WeWork claims that it takes buildings and transforms them into "beautiful, shared office spaces." Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but I take issue with WeWork's use of the word "beautiful." I think many people would agree that much of beauty's appeal lies in its uniqueness. Rare, distinctive features are often the most beautiful ones because they are striking and memorable. Julianne Moore is beautiful for her unique features as a natural redhead. Iman is beautiful for her uniquely long neck and height. A Corvette is beautiful for its unique, sleek silhouette. Mayan textiles are beautiful for their uniquely vibrant colors and color combinations. And to bring it back to architecture, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris is beautiful for its unique free-styling of Romano-Byzantine influences. Beauty lies in uniqueness and confidently owning that uniqueness. WeWorks are not unique. Just scroll through photos of their New York City locations. Note the uniformity.
The Chrysler Building has been truly unique—and therefore beautiful—since its beginning. Its design epitomizes its origins: jazzy for the Jazz Age. In the late 1920s, Chrysler Corporation was a powerhouse. The corporation became the third biggest car manufacturer in the United States, just behind Ford and General Motors, in 1927. In 1928, Time named Walter P. Chrysler the "Person of the Year" for becoming "one of the chief U.S. industrialists." The building's groundbreaking happened in September 1928; construction was completed in May 1930. Chrysler wanted an iconic building to represent his brand and he got it from architect William Van Alen. Once you see the Chrysler Building, you don't forget it. The height, shine, silhouette, and decorative elements all command attention. Step into the lobby and the dramatic mood stays with you forever.
WeWorks do not leave that kind of impression. Their style is not unique and therefore not beautiful. WeWorks offer the same bland modern, minimalist look that has taken over virtually all new construction in New York City. Even when new offices are not actually WeWorks, they mimic the look of WeWorks. Everything is too simple, too uncomplicated, too purely functional. I've worked in these kinds of offices before. They do not inspire me. They make me hyper-aware of their coolness in a way that feels more like telling than showing. I do not form emotional connections with such architectural uniformity.
I guess that's a key point in start-up culture: You are not supposed to feel emotionally connected to a building; you should form that connection with your company and your team, enabling you to work from anywhere (or at least any other identical shared workspace.) But I want to form an emotional connection to buildings. I know I am not the only New Yorker who feels this way. New York City is one of the world's architectural capitals. New Yorkers should pride themselves on having a unique cityscape. I certainly do. It's one of the reasons why I live here.
We do not need more WeWorks in New York City. What we need are more icons like the Chrysler Building. We need buildings that urge us to pause and reflect on all of the textures that make our city uniquely beautiful.