A windowless telecommunications hub, 33 Thomas Street in New York City embodies an architecture of surveillance and paranoia. That has made it an ideal set for conspiracy thrillers.

Black-and-white photograph of windowless skyscraper topped by crane against New York City skyline.

The AT&T Long Lines Building, designed by John Carl Warnecke at 33 Thomas Street in Manhattan, under construction ca. 1974. [© Thorney Lieberman]

When it was completed in Lower Manhattan in 1974, 33 Thomas Street, formerly known as the AT&T Long Lines Building, was intended as the world’s largest facility for connecting long-distance telephone calls. 1 Standing 532 feet — roughly equivalent to a 45-story building — it’s a mugshot for Brutalism, windowless and nearly featureless. Its only apertures are a series of ventilation hoods meant to hide microwave-satellite arrays, which communicate with ground-based relay stations and satellites in space. One of several long lines buildings designed by John Carl Warnecke for the New York Telephone Company, a subsidiary of AT&T, 33 Thomas Street is perhaps the most visually striking project in the architect’s long and influential career. Embodying postwar American economic and military hegemony, the tower broadcasts inscrutability and imperviousness. It was conceived, according to the architect, to be a “skyscraper inhabited by machines.” 2

The building’s form and dimensions were shaped not by human needs for light and air, but by logics of ventilation, cooling, and (not least) protection from atomic blast.

“No windows or unprotected openings in its radiation-proof skin can be permitted,” reads a project brief prepared by Warnecke’s office; the building’s form and dimensions were shaped not by human needs for light and air, but by the logics of ventilation, cooling, and (not least) protection from atomic blast. “As such, the design project becomes the search for a 20th-century fortress, with spears and arrows replaced by protons and neutrons laying quiet siege to an army of machines within.” 3 The purple prose of the project brief was perhaps inspired by the client. AT&T in the 1970s still held its telecom monopoly, and was an exuberant player in the Cold War military-industrial complex. Until 2009, 33 Thomas Street was a Verizon data center. 4 And in 2016, The Intercept revealed that the building was functioning as a hub for the National Security Administration, which has bestowed upon it the Bond-film-esque moniker Titanpointe. 5

Windowless skyscraper among other buildings on the NYC skyline.
Looking north to 33 Thomas Street from Duane Street, 2021. [Wikimedia Commons under license CC BY 4.0]

Granite face of a skyscraper with triple-lensed camera pointing down toward street.
Street-level camera at 33 Thomas Street, 2017. [Jeremy Keith via Flickr, under license CC BY 2.0]

Computers at Titanpointe have monitored international phone calls, faxes and voice calls routed over the internet, and more, hoovering up data from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and U.S. allies including France, Germany, and Japan. 6 33 Thomas Street, it turns out, is exactly what it looks like: an apocalypse-proof above-ground bunker intended not only to symbolize but to guarantee national security. For those overseeing fortress operations at the time of construction, objects of fear were nuclear-armed Communists abroad and a restive youth population at home, who couldn’t be trusted to obey the diktats of a culture that had raised up some in previously inconceivable affluence; an affluence built on the exploitation and disenfranchisement of people near and far.

By the time the NSA took over, targets were likely to be insurgents rejecting liberal democracy and American hegemony, from Islamic fundamentalists to world-market competitors in China, alongside a smattering of Black Lives Matter activists. For those outside the fortress, in the Nixon era as in the present, the fearful issue was an entrenched and unaccountable fusion of corporate and governmental capability, a power that flipped the switches connecting the world. At the same time, popular culture had begun, in the 1970s, to register a paranoia that has only intensified — the fear that people no longer call the shots. In its monumental implacability, Titanpointe seems to herald a posthuman regime, run by algorithm for the sole purpose of perpetuating its own system.

It is, in other words, a building tailor made for spy movies.

John Carl Warnecke did not realize, of course, that he was storyboarding a movie set.

In a 1969 article on 33 Thomas Street and another long lines building designed by Warnecke,  Architectural Record frames the need for posthuman yet tasteful construction as a design challenge; according to the peppy service-journalism case study, the project “suggests a laudable concern by business for the visual impact of its buildings on the city scene.” For Warnecke, a guiding interest in the $45-million commission was to avoid as much as possible the ziggurat-style step-back common to New York skyscrapers, in order to maximize the wide floor plates that AT&T needed, and to ensure that all vertical elements extended from ground level to the roof, terminating only if communications functions required them to do so. The resulting series of insets and vertical bays establishes a strong abstract rhythm, an effect the architect described as a “bundle of towers.” 7 The steel frame and precast concrete panels are faced with warm brown granite, and the total form steps back only once, for a belt of massive ventilation hoods at the tenth floor. On the wider north and south faces, this belt is interrupted by the bays running the building’s length, containing stairways, elevators, ductwork, and storage space. Around the interior perimeter, hundreds of feet of cable run vertically, tucked into the shallow spaces between columns. At the crown, mechanical units and satellite arrays are obscured by what appears to be another ring of ventilation apertures. 8

Black-and-white line drawing of columned, monumental building.
Rendering of the AT&T Long Lines Building, from the offices of John Carl Warnecke. [Courtesy Warnecke Architectural Archives]

Black-and-white line drawing of columned, monumental building.
Louis Checkman, rendering of the AT&T Long Lines Building, from the offices of John Carl Warnecke. [Courtesy Warnecke Architectural Archives]

According to architectural historian Addison Godel, the widely spaced floors and eighteen-foot ceilings at 33 Thomas Street mean that there are just 29 stories, despite a total height that could accommodate nearly double that. The building is reinforced to carry live loads of up to 400 pounds per square foot; even so, the equipment is so structurally taxing that occupancy regulations allow for fewer people per floor than in an elevator car. 9 “The building may well be the densest inhabitable object in New York City,” Godel writes. The ground floor as originally designed accommodated habitable space, with a lounge, cafeteria, and offices. But very few civilians have been permitted to look inside 33 Thomas Street. In the 1990s, artist Stanley Greenberg was allowed to photograph on several floors, where he saw rows of hardware racks and backup batteries. 10 The key element deployed here was the Electronic Switching System, made up of grids of ferrous “reeds” in glass envelopes, which are manipulated by computerized magnetic plates. 11

In its monumental implacability, 33 Thomas Street seems to herald a posthuman regime, run by algorithm for the sole purpose of perpetuating its own system.

The labor force at AT&T in the early 1970s was contending with a speed-up in automation. Instead of people (usually women) manually connecting calls with wires and plugs, a much smaller staff of technicians (mostly men) were tending machines that could largely run themselves. 12 By 1991, only 116 people worked at the Thomas Street site. Indeed, the corporation had long betrayed a typically craven and opportunistic relationship with labor. Some functions at 33 Thomas Street could have been sited in other locations, which would have avoided the centralization of critical services in the nation’s largest city, certainly a Ground Zero in the event of nuclear war. But the company decided to keep the facility in an urban center, where it had the best access to lower-wage workers. That said, the building was meant to be a pretty good place to be trapped. AT&T had long positioned itself as a stolid if besieged bulwark against international assault, ensuring that plans for a nuclear counterattack could be communicated even after American cities had been obliterated; the company’s nuclear-proof national infrastructure included rural switching stations, located every 150 miles or so, entered through blast-resistant doors and stocked with rations, wastewater treatment systems, and decontamination showers. 33 Thomas Street was not only radiation-resistant and protected against fallout, but provisioned with food, water, and 250,000 gallons of fuel oil to power its backup generators. 13

Two black-and-white photographs of model for windowless skyscraper.
Louis Checkman, model for the AT&T Long Lines Building, from the office of John Carl Warnecke. [Courtesy Warnecke Architectural Archives]

You’d still be expected to get stuff done, though. “Working for Long Lines was a commitment to spending one’s postapocalyptic life at the office,” Godel explains. “The hardened Long Lines enterprise may be as close to living and thinking the conditions of post-Bomb existence as American civilians came.” Quoting a directive adapted by AT&T from a manual prepared by the Office of Civil Defense, Godel adds that:

a “voice of authority,” almost certainly male, would manage resources “towards the safety of the shelterees and the continuation of essential service operations” by controlling the shelter entrance, rationing food and water, and dictating times for work and rest. He would also supervise the enjoyment of card games, songbooks, and nonstrenuous team games to “sustain morale and add zest to shelter living”; time for religious life would be given “serious consideration.” 14

The Thomas Street facility was in the planning stages when the long lines department made clear that its new building would be secured against not only nuclear attack, but widespread civil disorder. “Nuclear defense rhetoric, particularly after the first race riots of the mid-1960s, dovetailed with anxiety regarding civilian populations,” writes Godel.

Mid-1970s New York saw attacks against Bell properties, including shots fired into an office in Queens, and several arsons. Such attacks may have reflected customer dissatisfaction, reactions to AT&T’s discriminatory practices, or wider social militancy against the perceived domination of contemporary life by monopolistic technological capital. They reveal a kind of vulnerability that the hardened exchanges may have been intended to anticipate under the pretext of fallout protection. 15

Ongoing skirmishes with racial- and economic-justice organizations like the Black Panther Party, along with militant protests against the Vietnam War that saw college students murdered by security forces, and the abortive Days of Rage uprising in Chicago (intended to “bring the war home”), had made it clear that revolutionaries were willing to use violence to attain political goals — and that the state would respond in kind. In an eighteen-month period in 1971 and ’72, the FBI counted an astounding (and almost entirely forgotten) 2,500 domestic bombings: roughly five a day. 16 The paranoia of the moment was sanctioned by the 1975 Church Committee, convened by U.S. senator Frank Church just one year after 33 Thomas Street was completed. The resulting congressional hearings revealed multiple surveillance operations, including COINTELPRO (the infamous FBI program aimed at infiltrating and disrupting civil rights and antiwar organizations), Project Minaret (which spied on notable figures on the left, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Muhammad Ali, Jane Fonda, and Weather Underground activist Kathy Boudin), and Project Shamrock (in which communications giants including RCA Global, IIT World Communications, and Western Union funneled data to the NSA, the CIA, and the FBI). 17 Government agencies, it was revealed, were manipulating the press, dosing Americans with mind-control drugs, assassinating domestic dissidents and foreign civilians alike, and facilitating coups and genocides.

Cover pages from the three volumes of the Church Committee’s report, 1976. [Via Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain]

Black-and-white photograph of white man with Jacqueline Kennedy, pointing to a table-top architectural model.
John Carl Warnecke and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy discuss plans for Lafayette Square and the New Executive Office Building, 1962. [Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain]

Warnecke himself was a central player in the midcentury production of governmental and military prestige. He was a fixture in Washington, opening an office there in 1962 and designing several office buildings for the U.S. Senate, as well as the red-brick, mansard-roofed structure jointly known as the New Executive Building and National Courts Building. Warnecke developed a masterplan for the Naval Academy in Annapolis. A confidant for President Kennedy, he was tapped to lead the preservation program for Lafayette Square, a collection of 19th-century row houses immediately north of the White House, and appointed to serve on the Commission of Fine Arts, which approves design of federal office buildings in the District. While he was designing Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery, he was for a time romantically linked to Jackie. By 1977, Warnecke was principal of the largest architecture firm in the U.S. 18

From this perspective, Warnecke’s “bundle of towers” has since its completion stood between two factions, each accusing the other of nefarious intrigue and pointing to the building as evidence. For the state, the structure’s singular form was, and remains, required because of plots against federal fiat. More persuasively, for dissenters outside its confines, the building and its functions were, and are, evidence of a wholly unaccountable state-and-corporate surveillance apparatus.

33 Thomas Street has become a lightning rod for pop-cultural revisionists searching to express the tangible presence of forces they can only see in outline.

The security state typically avoids attention from the mainstream. But this breeds both concern and curiosity; hence the rich diversity of media, elaborated decade by decade, that explores the nuts and bolts of deception and conspiracy. Some of this attention is journalistic, based in fact. And some is fictional, embellished by fantasy. In both kinds of stories, the design of buildings that house the spies is understood to be symbolically potent. The architects and their clients, along with the investigative reporters, the photographers, directors, set designers, and all their audiences, know that the often-fantastical scenes they conjure are inspired by actual power, big money, and a realpolitik that is morally odious, profoundly destructive, and yet generally tolerated.

It is in this context that 33 Thomas Street has become a lightning rod for pop-cultural revisionists searching to express the tangible presence of forces they can only see in outline. Reportage like that by The Intercept — including the short documentary Project X about the Titanpointe program, made in 2016 by Laura Poitras and Intercept reporter Henrik Moltke — constitutes one set of considerations of such conspiracy infrastructure. 19 33 Thomas Street has also been a featured player in television sci-fi like Mr. Robot and the X-Files (where, in an episode aired fourteen months after The Intercept investigation, Fox Mulder describes the NSA’s illicit programs). Yet another set of techno-paranoid visions can be found in a cycle of 1970s movie thrillers that includes Executive Action (directed by David Miller, 1973), The Parallax View (directed by Alan J. Pakula, 1974), Coma (directed by Michael Crichton, 1978), and above all Winter Kills (directed by William Richert, 1979), each of which depicts surveillance chiefs, managers, agents, and infrastructure housed along a symbolically coherent spectrum of architectural styles.

Closeup of architectural plan, with light on the word "Lobby."
Still from Project X, a documentary by Laura Poitras and Henrik Moltke, 2016. [Via YouTube/Field of Vision]

Closeup of text reading "to be inhabited by machines."
Still from Project X, a documentary by Laura Poitras and Henrik Moltke, 2016. [Via YouTube/Field of Vision]

Woman walking large dog on night-time street, alongside bulky, windowless building.
33 Thomas Street by night, 2017. [Wikimedia Commons under license CC BY 2.0]

Serious and searching though it is, Project X partakes of tropes for portraying threatening architectures that have been well honed in Hollywood. The ten-minute film is almost unpeopled, its most prominent human presence the voiceover narration by actors Michelle Williams and Rami Malek (not coincidentally, the star of Mr. Robot). They speak text taken from a handbook for NSA personnel traveling undercover to 33 Thomas Street and other surveillance locations, and from internal NSA reports about the BLARNEY program, a clandestine operation for which Titanpointe was a “core site.” 20 Over shots of desolate nighttime streets in which the Manhattan tower features as a looming adversary, Malek and Williams read in bot-like monotone:

Check with site visit contact for guidance on proper attire prior to traveling. Non-casual attire could cause an operational security red flag.

Coordinate with NSA point-of-contact — redacted — redacted — prior to visit. The Titanpointe point-of-contact will be responsible for notifying FBI site watch officer and coordinating the security related details with the partner.

When approaching the facility, ring the buzzer and wait for admittance.

Project X opens with lingering pans across plans and models for Warnecke’s building, and the documentary is essentially a set of instructions for how to interface with this forbidding built antagonist.

It is a primer that the antiheroes of paranoid ’70s cinema could have used — and none more so than Nick Kegan, the brave but hapless main character in Richert’s underrated Winter Kills.

Based on a 1974 novel of the same name by Richard Condon, author of The Manchurian Candidate, Winter Kills centers on a slightly fictionalized Kennedy family. Pa Kegan (played by John Huston) is a captain of all industries, with the CIA and FBI on his payroll — not that he trusts them. The future site of Titanpointe plays the role of information warehouse for his espionage network, an all-seeing eye and a sink for secrets. Pa has gotten his son Tim elected president. But in Philadelphia in 1960 — years before the events in the movie — President Kegan was assassinated by an alleged lone gunman. Now Nick, Pa’s younger son (played by Jeff Bridges), is trawling the Pacific on one of his dad’s tankers when a family associate arrives via helicopter, bringing with him a dying man who tells Nick: “I was second rifle at City Hall, on February 22, 1960.” Nick’s brother was felled by a coordinated sniper team. The shocked playboy launches his own investigation.

In the 1979 thriller Winter Kills, the actual future site of NSA surveillance operations plays the role of information warehouse, an all-seeing eye and a sink for secrets.

Nick’s caper is mildly picaresque, leading to chicken coops, mafia hideouts, and war-game battlefields. All the while, the plot evinces a startling cynicism — or maturity — about the machinations of the state. When Nick recovers the gun used to kill Tim, a police officer suggests they take it to the FBI. Nick muses, “Why not? They probably built it.” Eventually, Nick realizes that Pa Kegan arranged for his elder son’s murder when Tim, as president, rebuffed a deal his father had brokered with mafia allies. Condon explained in a Harper’s article in 1983: “I meant the novel to be a revelation of the interlocking defense and assault systems of a really modern conspiracy against a single man, who was intended to symbolize the enormous American public.” 21 Recently, in The New Yorker, Richard Brody called the movie “a vision of an overwhelming determinism so tautly maintained that it mocks the very notion of free will, let alone freedom and democracy.” 22 Richert called the movie “cinematic cocaine; relentless, just getting higher and stranger, shooting through contemporary paranoia.” 23

Screenshot from the movie Winter Kills.
Winter Kills, directed by William Richert, 1979. 33 Thomas Street plays the role of headquarters for the Kegan family surveillance empire. [Via Tubi]


“Higher and stranger” is one way to describe the hallucinatory mise-en-scene. The first act of the film unfolds largely in a grubby 1970s Mid-Atlantic funk. But then Nick goes to visit Pa at the family’s California estate, Rockrimmon, and Rockrimmon is a different world: Spanish Mission terra cotta, courtyard fountains, an Art Nouveau balustrade in the study where Nick plays the pipe organ. (These scenes were filmed at the former Furnace Creek Inn in Death Valley. 24 ) A “Hail to the Chief” knock-off plays as we encounter Pa, joyriding at the head of a flotilla of golf carts, framed by mountains and palm trees, flanked by young blonde women. Back on the east coast, the public face of Pa’s business empire is top-shelf Modernist, its exterior represented by Walter Gropuis’s Pan Am building, from 1963. The anteroom to his office is a quasi-Modern transitional zone, with concrete walls, built-in furniture, abstract art, and Barbara Stauffacher Solomon-style supergraphics on the oversized door. His inner sanctum, however, retreats into historicist luxury, with silver chandeliers and crystal glassware at the wet bar.

Nick visits his father in the hospital, walking through pea-green institutional corridors, past an orderly with a machine gun, into a private suite seemingly imported from Rockrimmon: crystal chandeliers, a fireplace, a four-poster bed with a velvet canopy and carved headboard. A buxom nurse delivers a tray of sweets, and another starts undressing before Nick has finished his conversation with his father. Pa isn’t ailing. He’s simply undergoing a “six months’ blood change” with plasma he gets “from the kids at Amherst” because he’s “got a deal with the Red Cross.” It’s pitch-perfect QAnon central casting.

Pa, in other words, is a classic conspiracists’ villain; he could have been dreamed up out of Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”:

The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman: sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He is a free, active, demonic agent. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanisms of history himself, or deflects the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and enjoys the profits from the misery he has produced. 25

Or so we think.

Toward the end of the film, Nick gets a tour of 33 Thomas Street from its minder, Pa’s employee John Cerruti (played with calculating intensity by Anthony Perkins). We never see Cerruti beyond the confines of 33 Thomas Street, as if he is the building’s avatar. The first stop is a massive centrifuge where robotic arms pick through lockers of documents stacked many stories tall. Here, Cerruti explains, he has cached

signatures of presidents and sheiks, signatures to put men away for decades, destroy careers, marriages, estates. Love affairs, letters of passion and indiscretion and conspiracy, acquired by your father’s intelligence network. Letters to persuade a man to close a deal or leave a job or sell out his brother. Data necessary to sustain a financial empire.

The next archive contains audio files, housed in a matte-black computer bulkhead, a dizzying geometric collage that would be at home on the set of Ridley Scott’s Alien (released the same year). The last chamber contains visual materials — photos, video, film — though once again all we see are computer terminals and a media screen. We seem to have walked into a physical dark web.

Screenshot from the movie Winter Kills.
Winter Kills: Jeff Bridges as Nick Kegan and Anthony Perkins as John Cerruti, deep in the heart of the Kegan family surveillance apparatus. [Via Tubi]

Screenshot from the movie Winter Kills.
Winter Kills: An information-storage silo in the Kegan family’s windowless stronghold. [Via Tubi]

White man in suit seated in front of giant projected image of the earth, against black background.
Winter Kills: Anthony Perkins as John Cerruti. [Via Tubi]

At the end of the tour, Nick and Cerruti ascend to a control room, where an image of the earth as seen from space shimmers on a screen in the background, the field of play for their godlike oversight. Cerruti tells Nick that Pa put Tim Kegan in the White House to leverage power, but Tim came to think he was there for another reason. “Your brother decided to stir up the population, began to think we were all living in a democracy. Lunch with De Gaulle, dinner with Khrushchev, the whole razzle-dazzle went to his head.” President Kegan made the mistake of thinking that the power he could wield or to which he could appeal was an expression of popular democracy.

Nick rushes to his father’s office to confront him. This time, it’s Pa who makes a confession: he no longer controls the surveillance-and-security network that was his son’s real killer. As Tim and Pa became estranged, Cerruti used the organization Pa had built to plan the assassination, and, ever since, Pa has been a figurehead, a pawn in a game masterminded by Cerruti — or by 33 Thomas Street itself. Like the computer in 2001, the surveillance apparatus has achieved self-awareness. The illusion of Pa’s Hofstadter-style omnipotence shatters. Only the colorless Cerruti and his computers remain, operating, as Cerruti has assured Nick, “even when most of our people are asleep.”

33 Thomas Street has a mind of its own.

Winter Kills and its sinister presentation of Warnecke’s long lines building emerged at the end of a cycle of 1970s paranoid thrillers that emphasize the evolution of conspiracy infrastructure as increasingly Modernist, technocratic, and posthuman. Across several films, plotters and schemers — all courtly and impeccably turned-out White men — make their decisions and direct their agents in and around the traditional historicist architecture exemplified by Pa Kegan’s Rockrimmon, while their spies, middle managers, and most importantly, the material infrastructure of conspiracy as such are housed in cold, impersonal, and overtly Modern environs that could be additional wings of Cerruti’s stronghold. These films start out in smoke-filled, wood-paneled drawing rooms inhabited by Scotch-swilling executives, and end amid room-sized computer arrays.

Plotters and schemers make decisions in traditional historicist architecture, while their spies are housed in cold, impersonal, and overtly Modern environs.

The cycle I am thinking of begins in 1973 with David Miller’s Executive Action, in which a cabal of military-industrial titans plot to kill John F. Kennedy. It’s a film surreally quiet in its intimacy, produced when the wound of the JFK assassination was just ten years old. (Imagine Hollywood rolling out a “Bush did 9/11” movie in 2011.) The next year, Alan J. Pakula made The Parallax View, the best-known film in this group, in which focus turns from the coterie directing the conspiracy to the human and architectural actors required to realize it. Pakula moves the viewer into a Modernist, functionalist world defined by the technocratic rationalism also seen in Winter Kills. It’s in the late 1970s that films began to combine the two realms of clandestine power: the cozy historicism of the elite cabal and the functionalist Modernism of their enforcers. A good example is Coma, directed by Michael Crichton in 1978.

Film still with digital progress bar along the bottom and subtitle reading "June 5, 1963." Image shows a red-brick mansion in landscaped grounds, with two fancy cars parked out front.
Executive Action, directed by David Miller, 1973: The mansion where the business men’s cabal meets. [Via Daily Motion/Film Gorillas]


Executive Action is a movie about polite men in genteel surroundings making horrific plans, and the mansion that hosts them is an inarticulate mishmash of the Neo-Georgian and the Neo-Tudor. These high-class crooks aren’t design snobs, they’re Americans. But they know what wealth and power look like: peacock lamps, chintz curtains, cherrywood paneling, crystal chandeliers. The intimacy of this setting (the location was an unremarkable manse in Pasadena) is mirrored by Miller’s compositional choices. 26 Tight two- and three-shots predominate, with few establishing wide-frames; the relationships among these men — familial, collegial, time-honored — are what’s most important, and the architecture wraps them in tranquil privacy.

Only within the pre-Modern expressions of money and power, amid like-minded men, can putative masters of the universe build operational capacity.

The men who will do the shooting are far away, sweating and dirty in the desert. Contact with them will be minimal for the white-collar masterminds, made only by the youngest and most virile conniver, James Farrington (Burt Lancaster). Farrington does venture outside the mansion, but the atmosphere of prewar opulence travels with him; he and lead conspirator Robert Foster (Robert Ryan) chat in a private train car decorated like an Oklahoma City bordello, with red-and-gold tasseled curtains and gold silverware. But, because Farrington strays furthest from this protected realm, he’s made expendable. At the end of the film, another plotter informs us that Farrington has died suddenly of a heart attack. Murdered? Maybe? Probably. What we do know is that only within the pre-Modern expressions of money and power, amid like-minded men, can putative masters of the universe build operational capacity. Break the seal, as Tim Kegan dared to do, and there’s no way back in.

Color photograph of amber-colored glass skyscraper reflecting city park and other buildings.
The CNA Building in Los Angeles, 1971. [Courtesy USC Digital Library, Wayne Thom Photography Collection]

Black-and-white photograph of tiled triangular structures in skyscraper plaza.
Courtyard of the CNA Building in Los Angeles, 1971. [Courtesy USC Digital Library, Wayne Thom Photography Collection]

Pakula underlines such vulnerability in The Parallax View. Warren Beatty stars as Joe Frady, a small-town newspaper reporter who witnesses the assassination of a U.S. Senator. Years later, having spiraled into paranoia, Frady learns that the Parallax Corporation’s “Division of Human Engineering” has been recruiting psychopaths as assassins for hire. He infiltrates Parallax HQ, where he is tested with a psychedelic video montage that brings to mind CIA experiments in mind control (e.g., a program code-named MKULTRA that would soon be revealed by the Church Commission). Exterior shots of Parallax’s creepy corporate offices were filmed at the CNA Tower in Los Angeles, designed by Langdon & Wilson in 1972. Now the Los Angeles Superior Court Tower, the building is notable for having been the first American skyscraper to feature a full mirror-glass façade. This slippery facelessness is complemented by sweeping wave-like columns at the tower’s base, which (in real life) make it the rare courthouse beloved by skateboarders, and (in the movie) help to give the political thriller a soft sci-fi edge. Inside, the Parallax offices — despite their reflective exterior — are strangely opaque. In one scene, Frady speaks with an all-but-invisible receptionist through a comically small square aperture in an otherwise featureless white wall. As Nathan Heller notes,

The office-tower interior, for Pakula, is what headlights in the California rain were for filmmakers of classic noir: a zone of uncanniness and vulnerability where dark forces thrive. What he created was a noir of urban modernity — “a darkness shining in brightness,” to quote Ulysses — that was specially suited to an aborning corporate age. 27

By the end of the 1970s, the cultural need to acknowledge a wider gallery of rogue institutions necessitated a push beyond the interface between government and industrial capital. And so Michael Crichton’s Coma pivoted to the another unaccountable behemoth of American life: the medical industry. Starring Geneviève Bujold as Susan Wheeler, a young surgeon, and Michael Douglas as her doctor boyfriend Mark Bellows, the movie starts in an august Boston hospital. Wheeler notices that a disturbing number of otherwise healthy patients are falling into comas during routine surgeries, after which they are shipped off to a suburban chronic-care facility run by the government. Once there, it turns out, their organs are harvested and sold to the highest bidder.

Uniting these films is the lingering suspicion that behind every walnut-paneled spymaster’s office wall and lurking in the depths of every Brutalist corporate tower is a computer.

When the conspiracy is revealed by its ringleader, Chief of Surgery George Harris (Richard Widmark), it’s in his office, where he receives calls from senators whom he politely ignores. The office, like Pa Kegan’s, is cigar-box cozy, with Chippendale chairs and a marble fireplace with a dark lacquer mantle. But the Jefferson Institute, where the comatose patients are culled, is a severe concrete leviathan. Inside, the corporate portions of the Institute are styled as a cross between Paul Rudolph’s 1963 Yale Art + Architecture Building and Star Trek, with raw concrete walls, deep red carpet, and ovular space-station furniture. For exterior shots, Crichton made use of an office park at 191 Spring Street in Lexington, Massachusetts, built in 1971 and, at the time of filming, occupied by the sales division of Xerox. (The building recently received a considerably more inviting LEED GOLD upgrade. 28 The current tenant — appropriately enough — is the business-email management service Mimecast).

Two color photographs of Brutalist building in gray concrete.
191 Spring Street in Lexington, MA. Left: Still from Coma, directed by Michael Crichton, 1978 [Via Limelight Magazine]; right: Advertised for lease, 2018. [Via Loop.net]

Film still of young white woman in orange shirt approaching large Brutalist concrete building.
Coma: Geneviéve Bujold as Dr. Susan Wheeler investigates the Jefferson Institute, a.k.a. 191 Spring Street in Lexington, Massachusetts. [Via YouTube/The Unapologetic Geek]

Wheeler sneaks into the Institute’s secret, charnel-house sectors, and here the nightmare of technocratic, commoditized perfection gets even worse. Rows of inexplicably attractive naked bodies hang horizontally from wires drilled into their bones, with ventilators in their tracheas; they are bathed in ultraviolet light, presumably to ward off bacterial growth. From the grid of glazed tile on the walls to the tessellated mirrors on the ceiling, the environment is an exercise in universalized space: the holodeck of the Enterprise before it boots up; the infinite lattices of Superstudio; the chillingly American convention hall visualized in a 1954 collage by Mies van der Rohe, where humanity squirms under an omnipotent grid. 29

Uniting these films is the lingering suspicion that behind every walnut-paneled spymaster’s office wall and lurking in the depths of every Brutalist corporate tower is a computer. In Winter Kills, as in Warnecke’s vision for 33 Thomas Street, architectural environs fuse with the computers and telecommunications arrays they shelter. In the X-Files episode featuring 33 Thomas Street, the brain of a conspiracist is uploaded onto servers at an ominous headquarters, where a shadowy faction absorbs and mutilates human consciousness for its own ends. In Executive Action, artificial intelligence seems a world away from the drawing rooms where oligarchs plot murder, but in fact it’s critical to the process. (“The computer threw out fourteen possible ‘goats,’ or ‘sponsors’ as we like to call them,” says Farrington. “A young man named Lee Harvey Oswald seems the best.”) In The Parallax View, computers choose the would-be assassins, and in Coma, they’re monitoring the unwilling organ donors’ vital signs; a nurse explains to Susan Wheeler that most functions of the Jefferson Institute are automated. There is “no staff,” she says, simply technicians and security personnel. She could be talking about Titanpointe.

Two black and white photographs of looming windowless skyscraper.
The AT&T Long Lines Building in the 1970s. [Left: Robert Perron/Warnecke Architectural Archives; right: © Thorney Lieberman]

Black-and-white photograph of windowless skyscraper against New York City skyline.
The AT&T Long Lines Building, ca. 1974. [© Thorney Lieberman]

Closeup of two dark screen-like bays in wall of granite skyscraper.
The AT&T Long Lines Building, a.k.a. Titanpointe, a.k.a. 33 Thomas Street, 2016. [adamshoop via Flickr, under license CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

The emergence of digital technologies from military research and development is well documented, so perhaps it’s a mark of continuity that security operations today are contingent on control of online traffic. 30 The miles of cable at 33 Thomas Street undergird the digital placelessness of the contemporary security state. Such automation doesn’t inevitably make the state more effective, of course, as failures like 9/11 and Edward Snowden’s leaks make clear. But it does make for reduced accountability. The market for AI-enabled weapons is predicted to reach $30 billion by the end of the decade. 31 These weapons will at first be deployed in theaters of combat far from the metropole, deep in the ocean and high in the sky. The algorithms that give them agency will bounce from server farm to server farm, evolving as they go; they will be poor targets for democratic upswells of pro-human sentiment.

A building, however imperious, can be torn down or occupied in new ways. Unnerving as its built form is, 33 Thomas Street helps us tell a story we want to believe.

Which is why 33 Thomas Street is so effective at soliciting imaginative investment, and drawing imaginary fire. 33 Thomas Street is a real, brick-and-mortar object, finite and fixed in space near the center of the largest city in the nation. In looking like a secret, 33 Thomas Street offers a synthesis of form and function that paradoxically makes a very private building obvious, intuitively understandable to passersby. During a 2017 panel discussion with Poitras and Moltke at the Swiss Institute, Godel asks how we might view this spy apparatus if it had been shoehorned into Philip Johnson’s arch-PoMo nostalgia job, the Chippendale-topped AT&T tower a few miles uptown — which was the next major New York property the company built. “If it was a happy-looking building, it would still be true that it has these facilities,” says Godel. “Would it still be a crucial story? Something [drew] me to this in a way that’s contrary to what the designers intended, but somehow it invites having things projected upon it.” 32

We still cherish the notion that such sites can be occupied by the masses — by us; that a vanguard can seize control of a power center, and from there precipitate regime change. A building, however imperious, can be torn down or occupied in new ways. Unnerving as its built form is, the granite and concrete of 33 Thomas Street help us to tell a story we want to believe, by presenting a vision of power we can resist.

  1. Addison Godel, “When Windows Were Wires: The Projection of Network Invulnerability and the Architecture of the AT&T Long Lines,” Grey Room 61 (Fall 2015). See also Joanna Kloppenburg, “The Architecture of Surveillance: Manhattan’s Brutalist Masterpiece Revealed as an NSA Hub,” Architizer, November 18, 2016.
  2. John Carl Warnecke and Associates Project Brief, 19XX, Warnecke Architectural Archives, Healdsburg, California, 1967-68. All references to Warnecke’s Project Brief come from this source.
  3. Warnecke and Associates Project Brief.
  4. Godel, “When Windows Were Wires,” 58; Lindsey Rae Gjording, “The Windowless Building in NYC: 33 Thomas Street, AT&T Building, and NSA Spy Hub,” Citysignal, November 1, 2022. See also “Retirement and Removal of Verizon Broadway 4ESS Tandem (NYCMNYBW21T),” December 8, 2009 (pdf), Verizon.com via Internet Archive.
  5. Ryan Gallagher and Henrik Moltke, “Titanpointe: The NSA’s Spy Hub in New York, Hidden in Plain Sight,” The Intercept, November 16, 2016.
  6. Gallagher and Moltke, “Titanpointe.”
  7. Warnecke and Associates Project Brief.
  8. Structural detail about 33 Thomas Street is drawn from the unsigned article “Designed for machines but mindful of people,” Architectural Record Vol. 146, No. 1 (1969), 123-30. This article plays it straight, but some photographs of the building indicate that at least some of the roof-level hoods were included simply to match those on the lower level.
  9. Godel, “When Windows Were Wires,” 36.
  10. See Ryan Gallagher and Henrik Moltke, “Look Inside the Windowless New York Skyscraper Linked to the NSA,” The Intercept, November 19, 2016.
  11. Godel, “When Windows Were Wires,” 39.
  12. Details about the building in this paragraph are drawn from Godel, “When Windows Were Wires,” 39-49.
  13. Gallagher and Moltke, “Titanpointe.”
  14. Godel, “When Windows Were Wires,” 51.
  15. Godel, “When Windows Were Wires,” 51-52.
  16. Bryan Burrough, “The Bombings of America that We Forgot,” Time, September 20, 2016.
  17. See NCC staff, “Looking Back at the Church Committee,” National Constitution Center, January 27, 2019; and Ed Pilkington, “Declassified NSA files show agency spied on Muhammad Ali and MLK,” The Guardian, September 26, 2013.
  18. Suzanne Stephens, “John Carl Warnecke, Known for Contextualism and Charisma, Dies,” Architectural Record, April 23, 2010.
  19. Project X can be viewed online at the website of the documentary organization Field of Vision.
  20. This program came to light in 2013 via material leaked by Edward Snowden, who shared additional material with Gallagher and Moltke: “According to a previously unpublished document provided to The Intercept by Snowden, BLARNEY was established in the early 1970s and, in mid-2013, remained one of the agency’s most significant initiatives. […] As of July 2010, the NSA had obtained at least 40 court orders for spying under the BLARNEY program, allowing the agency to monitor communications related to multiple countries, companies, and international organizations.”
  21. Richard Condon, “Who Killed Winter Kills?,” Harper’s, May 1983, 74.
  22. Richard Brody, “How Winter Kills Nails the Paranoid Style,” The New Yorker, August 11, 2023.
  23. Condon, “Who Killed Winter Kills?” 77.
  24. Winter Kills: Filming & Production,” IMDb.com.
  25. Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (pdf), Harper’s Magazine, November, 1964.
  26. Executive Action: Filming & Production,” IMDb.com.
  27. Nathan Heller, “The Parallax View: Dark Towers,” The Criterion Collection, February 9, 2021.
  28. See the listing at VTS Marketplace.com.
  29. See Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Convention Hall Project, Chicago, Illinois (Preliminary version: interior perspective), 1954, in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
  30. John Markoff, “Technology & Media: Talking the Future With: Robert W. Taylor; An Internet Pioneer Ponders the Next Revolution,” New York Times, December 20, 1999.
  31. Jeremy Kahn, “A.I. Drones used in the Ukraine war raise fears of killer robots wreaking havoc across future battlefields,” Fortune, March 29, 2022.
  32. “A Skyscraper with No Windows: On 33 Thomas Street with Addison Godel, Frank Heath, Henrik Moltke, Laura Poitras, and Lucy Teitler” (video), Swiss Institute, March 7, 2017.
Zach Mortice, “Apocalypse-Proof,” Places Journal, September 2023. Accessed 28 Sep 2023. <>

If you would like to comment on this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.