The fact that Gissen’s examples tend toward private institutions is no accident, and he underscores the ways that focusing on technological solutions can supplant the role of public bodies. As Manhattan’s cultural institutions lost their municipal support in the 1970s, private corporate backers came in as a permanent replacement. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, financial institutions contributed heavily to its expansion plans in the 1970s. Alongside the addition of new galleries, museum administrators set their sights on acquiring the Temper of Dendur from Egypt.
Other American cities vying for the temple, such as Albuquerque, New Mexico argued that their climates would provide an ideal outdoor environment, while the Smithsonian in D.C. proposed a replication of the Nile on the banks of the Potomac River. In contrast, the Roche and Dinkeloo design for the Metropolitan Museum consisted of a glass interior with a concourse of water, Nile reeds, and lighting that mimicked Egypt’s sun. By offering an indoor environment managed through a “scientific system of architectural preservation,” museum administrators claimed that the temple, which had spent two thousand years outdoors, now needed a protective shell to ensure its continued existence.
The social consequences of scientifically-advanced solutions to separate interiors from harsh exterior conditions highlight the extent to which those with money and power can minimize their exposures to environmental risk and social unrest. So it is apt that Gissen’s final chapter focuses on the air-conditioned trading rooms for financial services employees. During the 1960s and 1970s, Manhattan’s workforce transformed due to the decline in industrial work and attendant rise in office employment. Though many of these new office workers were women and people of color who comprised the support staff, Gissen hones in on the world of the mostly male traders. With heat produced by computers and their own bodies (one journalist described the traders as “animals”), their offices required efficient cooling and ventilating mechanisms that supposedly used as much electricity as Guatemala. But human comfort was an ancillary concern to finding the right temperature to optimize worker productivity. In these cool, clean spaces the workers seemed less like human beings and more like machines facilitating the global exchange of money and information.
Gissen’s narrative begins with middle-class housing, but ends with the affluent, masculine space of trading rooms. In charting this course, he illuminates transformations that went beyond the updating of air conditioning and ventilating systems by encompassing the ways that Manhattan’s workforce, population, and drivers of the economy have shifted. With these changes have come new ways to imagine urban life. These interiors often put forward a vision of a city where those with power and money can almost imperceptibly segregate themselves from those who bear the brunt of the environmental and social costs, and attempt to convince themselves that what goes on inside has little connection to the outside world.