Project X / Laura Poitras & Henrik Moltke / Field of Vision / 2016
Moltke: Between 32 Avenue of the Americas, which is the old AT&T headquarters, 60 Hudson Street, and 33 Thomas Street—those three building are really, really important for the internet. Most people don’t know this. That was something that had always fascinated me, the physicality of these [buildings]—and you can see all these markings on the streets, you can see these cables. So I started looking into it, and I started filming the building. One day we went down there and Laura decided to walk into the building, which I hadn’t done before. I’d never even thought about it. And in that moment I had an idea of what the movie would be. You’re in a place that’s totally normal, but there’s this other layer that’s totally secret and not there.
Poitras: All the kids in the neighborhood have myths about that building. It’s like a haunted house.
Moltke: The first night I filmed some guy came out from the building and said that I couldn’t film it because it’s a federal building. He then he started talking about 9/11 when I pointed out I was filming an AT&T building, not the Federal Building. It was really strange. I had a lot of experiences like that, people coming up and telling me random, sometimes striking details. One person working in the building told me he’d heard that Bush would have been taken to the building if he had been in NYC on 9/11, because it’s the safest place in the city.
Poitras: At some point we discovered all this backstory about the building and its amazing architect John Carl Warnecke, this fascinating Cold War character who not only designed this building but also a host of other government buildings. With Nels Bangerter, the editor, we started to map out how to approach the reveal of this building, and decided to use the road trip to get us there. We really needed to work with an editor who would be able to approach something conceptually, but also with a narrative heart to it.
Poitras: One of my favorite shots was one that Henrik took of the cityscape all lit up with this black monolith that’s all dark. We wanted to reveal the building at different stages: With more detail on the ground and then get it at elevation to see how it exists within and among buildings. It jumps out at you in a very different way than when you’re on the ground. ➡︎
Some of Warnecke’s original architectural drawings for 33 Thomas Street are labeled “Project X.” It was alternatively referred to as the Broadway Building. His plans describe the structure as “a skyscraper to be inhabited by machines” and say that it was “designed to house long lines telephone equipment and to protect it and its operating personnel in the event of atomic attack.” (At the time the building was commissioned and built, amid the Cold War, there were genuine fears in the U.S. about the prospect of a Soviet nuclear assault.)
It is not clear how many people work at 33 Thomas Street today, but Warnecke’s original plans stated that it would provide food, water, and recreation for 1,500 people. It would also store 250,000 gallons of fuel to power generators, which would enable it to become a “self-contained city” for two weeks in the event of an emergency power failure. The blueprints for the building show that it was to include three subterranean levels, including a cable vault, where telecommunications cables likely entered and exited the building from under Manhattan’s bustling streets. ➡︎