Black Rock, or: Goodbye, Twentieth Century

The cosmically pop take on Eero Saarinen’s CBS Building you never knew you needed

In 1959, Nicolai Kardashev imagined streams of parallel lines coursing through deepest space. They moved at the speed of light, bouncing along the electromagnetic spectrum and emitting a high-pitched banshee howl. When slowed down, they sounded like clusters of thundering, massive open chords played on an interstellar organ, a ghost symphony from the edges of the cosmos. These lines were different from the ones Bavarian physicist Joseph von Fraunhofer discovered in 1814—lines that appeared as black parallel streaks in photographs of the solar spectrum. Kardashev knew about Fraunhofer’s lines, telluric stripes made when the earth wandered into the path of the visible electromagnetic spectrum. The lines Kardashev heard in 1959 were not traces of elements in deep space. They were emanations from a single source, a quasar tucked between the stars Zeta Pegasi and HD 212989 in the constellation Pegasus some 8 billion light-years away. A group of radio astronomers cataloged the quasar using the name “CTA-102,” a terribly ordinary name for something that, at least for Kardashev, was different, mysterious, and profound. In a 1964 paper, he stunned the world when he announced that these sounds were made by an advanced alien civilization.

The quasar had captured the imaginations of both lay and scientific audiences. Roger McGuinn, lead singer and guitarist for the Byrds, even penned a song about it in 1967. “C.T.A.-102” is the third track from Younger Than Yesterday, the Byrds’ most adventurous album to date. McGuinn’s signature twelve-string guitar picking and honeyed harmonies with David Crosby were still there. So were bassist Chris Hillman’s ventures into country music and western swing. And though Younger Than Yesterday also had its requisite Bob Dylan cover (“My Back Pages”), changes were afoot. This was the first album without founding Byrd Gene Clark, whose song “Eight Miles High” had launched the band into the realms of pop psychedelia. Instead, McGuinn, Crosby, Hillman, and drummer Michael Clarke flirted with baroque arrangements, international jazz (South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela appears in “So You Wanna Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star”), and in the case of “C.T.A.-102,” science fiction and interplanetary travel. “C.T.A.-102” is a bit of a lark, upbeat, cute even, not too different from the Byrds’ previous folk-rock outings. Halfway into the song, McGuinn and Crosby sing “On our radio telescopes / Science tells us that there’s hope / Life on other planets might exist” as the music fades into a swirl of pitched static. Over this, we hear alien voices talking, adjusting the knob on their own radio telescopes right as McGuinn/Crosby can be heard, faintly and staticky, as if through a small, tinny speaker, “Year over year receiving you / Signals tell us that you’re there / We can hear them loud and clear.”

In 1965, on the eve of the recording sessions for Younger Than Yesterday, the Byrds posed with Michael Ochs for a series of promotional photographs. Ochs tilted his camera up from below to create something like a worm’s-eye-view. In one picture, Chris Hillman wears a rumpled suit and looks down at the camera through a tangle of wavy locks. Next to him is David Crosby, hands tucked in the warmers of his Navy-issue peacoat. Opposite them, Michael Clarke and Gene Clark look away from the camera. In tight jeans and form-fitting jean jackets, they look slender and rangy, almost cadaverous. Roger McGuinn is in the middle, recognizable by his signature shaggy bob, hand in front of his face as if avoiding paparazzi, or perhaps at the throes of a momentary shy spell. And there, in the background, is Black Rock, the headquarters of the Columbia Broadcasting System, or CBS, the only skyscraper designed by Eero Saarinen & Associates. It makes sense, after all, that Black Rock is the background against which Ochs photographed the Byrds. Here was a band at its height, ready to slip the surly bonds of gravity, to reach escape velocity and achieve galactic-level stardom, foregrounded against a building that commemorated the ascendancy of CBS chairman, William S. Paley, from salesman to American media juggernaut. In several of the photographs, Ochs frames each Byrd inside a climbing ribbon of smoked glass, ensnaring them in Black Rock’s black granite saw-tooths. Forget Goethe’s old saying about architecture and frozen music. These space age folkies appear frozen in flight, cold, in thrall to the shadow of this granite beast.

And beast it was, a skyscraper evoking a host of dark metonyms. In 1966, Ada Louise Huxtable called the building many things: a cigarette lighter, a trick mirror, a concrete shaft sunk 200 feet into its plaza at Sixth Avenue and West 52nd Street, cut off from rhythms of street life by a 25-foot moat of a setback. This building was not sepulchral. No, this functional marvel was only somber, a granite monument to “deadness and darkness” (her words), a foreboding cut short only because it would require acknowledging that Black Rock was a grave. Its reinforced concrete shaft, wrapped in a sheath of black Canadian granite, was a cenotaph to moribund modernist ideals. The building was gloomy and marvelous, a virtuosic combination of envelope and structure enclosed in dark granite and smoked glass. Like Fraunhofer’s lines, the black lines of Saarinen’s CBS building were telluric, of the earth. They reach upward from far below the plaza, from places of untold depths where fiery conduits cooled into layers of igneous rock. Up they go, these lines, running into the sky in parallel streams until they terminate in a vanishing point light-years away. To truly experience Black Rock, one must stand at its base and sight the lines that link the granite piers to the vertiginous mantle of dulled blue sky hanging above New York.

Back in the 1960s, Paley and CBS president Frank Stanton commissioned Eero Saarinen to design a new kind of office building, imposing and bespoke, architecture befitting not just the network’s prestige, but also blazing new paths for skyscraper design. It was a building dedicated to a company that monetized the electromagnetic spectrum first by purchasing radio stations, then by brokering and monopolizing multiple licenses for ultrahigh-frequency bands for radio and television channels, and finally by embracing color television as the medium of the near future. In other words, CBS was a utility that purchased and manufactured electromagnetic energy for profit. At least this was the case when Eero Saarinen & Associates completed Black Rock in 1964, the same year that Kardashev proposed that the best way to measure a civilization’s technological advancement was by analyzing its energy consumption. The Kardashev scale became a kind of marker for predicting the “advanced-ness” of extraterrestrial civilizations. CTA-102 was a Type II; its radio signals suggested the existence of a planet able to convert its resources into energy. And yet by 1964, these signals were already billions of years old, losing energy as they coursed through the cosmos.

And beast it was, a skyscraper evoking a host of dark metonyms. Its reinforced concrete shaft, wrapped in a sheath of black Canadian granite, was a cenotaph to moribund modernist ideals.

Black Rock was also experiencing its own entropy. The energy built up over years of licensing could not keep up with the changing media landscape. In 1992, CBS began leasing its office space, resulting in renovations that left Florence Knoll’s interior designs and furnishings in an unrecognizable state. The Sony Corporation of America purchased CBS Records, and in its ashes, Sony Music Entertainment maintained a dwindling presence at Black Rock throughout the rest of the 1990s. The building was in a state of flux, losing money even as owners rented floors to blue-chip real estate concerns and white-shoe law firms. Black Rock also became an official New York City landmark in 1997. Since then, the building has been put on the market several times, including a sale in 1999 that was aborted after a lowball $300 million bid, and throughout the 2000s after Viacom purchased CBS and reassessed the value of its real estate holdings. More law firms moved in; others left. A new company, ViacomCBS emerged from the ashes of the original merger. It, too, tried to sell the building. Finally, this past August, ViacomCBS announced the sale of Black Rock to Harbor Group for $760 million. Its main tenant is Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, the prestigious firm that, like a legal Zelig, was behind some of the most momentous corporate restructurings and real estate transactions in recent history.

In 1988, Kardashev won the Soviet State Physics Prize for his work on radio lines, more specifically, spectral radio recombination lines, a kind of low-energy signal emitted by atoms when in a highly excited state. That year also saw the release of Daydream Nation, the groundbreaking double album by New York’s own postpunk/art-noise provocateurs Sonic Youth. The album is—to use a term for recordings such as the Clash’s Sandinista!, Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime, or Prince’s Sign o’ the Times—a bloated masterpiece. Each song is a parting shot across the bow of popular conceptions about guitar rock. For Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, guitars were an urgent communicative medium whose alternate tunings and call-and-response feedback blasts announced the twentieth century’s own entropic downshift as beautiful noise. The lyrics in Daydream Nation documented everything from teenaged haughtiness, the crack epidemic, Gerhard Richter paintings, and science fiction. Every track is lamentation and anthem, each a death knell ringing in the ghosts of a century not quite dead, but on its way out, and never without a stirring of ecstasy. In “Silver Rocket,” Moore channels Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and describes an astronaut jacking his sensorium and reflex arcs into a rocket’s telemetry: “Hit the power, psycho helmets on / You got to splice your halo, take it to a moon / Nymphoid clamor fueling up the hammer / You got to fake out the robot and pulse up the zoom.”

Daydream Nation’s gatefold sleeve featured a photograph of the band taken by Michael Lavine. The image is striking, a portrait of the band in ragged jeans and T-shirts, bent and distorted as if viewed in a fun-house mirror. Like Ochs’s portrait of the Byrds, this one also privileges the vertical. Shot from grade, Moore, Ranaldo, Kim Gordon, and Steve Shelley look elongated and sylph-like. There is no ominous Black Rock here, however. Instead, a nondescript intersection framed by two buildings. We are in the Financial District, near Lavine’s apartment close to the World Trade Center, and not far from the bombed-out, drug-addled Lower Manhattan at the heart of “Trilogy,” the final track on Daydream Nation. The song, a triptych of life and death, eulogizes the twentieth century while summoning the new millennium. It is the sound of entropy, a systematic dismantling. Moore sings, imagines looking up the sides of the World Trade Center in search of the cadmium-tipped aerials glowing in the night air, perhaps dreaming of the smoky granite and glass verticals on Black Rock’s façade connecting to outer space. Like Kardashev, he hears something ethereal wheeling above, signs of music from elsewhere. Over dissonant guitars, Moore intones, “Transmitter rhyme / Transmitter all the time / Looking up to the sky / I’m seeing ghosts flying.”

Enrique Ramirez is a writer and historian of art and architecture. He teaches at the Yale School of Art.