The Lehman Invisible Monument

March 9, 2015

Fabrizio Gallanti looks at how Lehman Brothers came to symbolize the arrogance and fascination with risk of the financial world that almost came to bring the world economy to a halt.


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Barclays Bank Tower, New York City, 2015. © Fabrizio Gallanti.

In the marvelous book The Missing of the Somme published in 2011, British author Geoff Dyer reconstructs how the English society cultivated an immediate memory of the First World War, through writings, carefully choreographed public ceremonies, and monuments. The common grief around the deceased soldiers and the exaltation of endurance and heroism were combined to support patriotic spirit and to forge a renewed national identity, possibly to counteract the emerging communist tendencies with an idea that as sufferings during the conflict were crossing class separation so the future somber celebration of the collective sacrifice would be instrumental to maintaining unity across social classes.

The political decision to leave the buried bodies in the war cemeteries of France and Belgium led to the invention of new typologies of monuments, paradoxically celebrating the military in absentia of their remains, disseminated in cities and in the countryside. The apotheosis of such somber collective feeling could be found in the monuments to the unknown fighter, the disappeared whose remains were never recovered from the mud of the trenches. Several important architects designed innovative solutions, among them for instance Sir Edwin Lutyens’s cenotaph at Whitehall in London. The cenotaph was a reinvention of the tomb of the hero or conductor without a corpse, already known in ancient Greece, and became the model to be replicated throughout the Commonwealth.

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Unveiling of the Whitehall Cenotaph, London, 1920. Project by Edwyn Lutyens (a cenotaph is an empty tomb). © Courtesy of the author.

It is interesting to juxtapose the exacerbation of an immediate past, recurrent not just in the United Kingdom, but in France and Italy as well, where every little village and town still host a memorial or monument to the soldiers who perished in the conflict, to the contemporary attempt to erase traces of events and facts, which might not have had the same scale of destruction and suffering but have, nevertheless, had significant impact on our lives.

I recently went to see and register what is left of the 2008 economic crisis, in particular in the city of New York. We can agree that our perception of reality, if compared to the sensibility of the early 1920s, has been multiplied through numerous intertwined vectors, where the tangible world is overlapping with incorporeal streams of data and information. We entered a condition where the physical and the virtual are interchangeable with almost identical properties. For instance Wall Street, a precise street in Downtown where the New York Stock Exchange building is located, has come to signify an abstract concept of the current financial capitalist condition. It is useful to remember that the majority of the transactions of the NYSE do not occur anymore on the floor so often portrayed in movies, with neurotic brokers, bizarrely wearing flashy colored jackets, but rather on computers and servers, managed by machines that decide when to buy and sell, based on real-time sophisticated algorithms that analyze gigantic quantities of data.

The main site of the Occupy Wall Street mobilization in New York was not on Wall Street itself, but on Zuccotti Park, three blocks to the North, ironically a public space, privately owned by Brookfield Properties.

So if the crisis of 2008 was largely happening within the almost fantastic world of finance, composed of immaterial assets, transiting through the nodes of digital transactions, I was interested to understand if some of the rather mundane and concrete points where these flows touched ground became memorials or monuments. I wanted to see if there are places for mourning, as there were after the First World War. Places, also, to solemnly promise that the past will not happen again.

The names that during the crisis became familiar to the public, in a domino effect of successive bankruptcies and quick takeovers sound almost like people’s names or characters in a novel: Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear Sterns, and Lehman Brothers.

Lehman Brothers came to symbolize the arrogance and fascination with risk of the financial world that almost came to bring the world economy to a halt.

I wanted to know what happened to Lehman Brothers buildings and assets in New York and in the region, to verify whether some of these sites might resonate in our collective memory as the epicenter of the 2008 financial meltdown. The history of the real estate component of Lehman Brothers activities is particularly compelling, as it is connected with notions of legacy and memory in the city.

I started my journey from the headquarters of Lehman Brothers, where its last CEO, Dick Fuld had its office on the 31st Floor (the closer circle of trusted collaborators of Fuld was named the Club 31). The building stands at 745 on Seventh Avenue. It is a skyscraper of 38 floors, designed by the New York firm Kohn, Pedersen, and Fox. Originally, it was destined to host offices of competing bank Morgan Stanley, whose main headquarters are located at 1585 Broadway, also in the Times Square district. The building was topped up in 2000 and never occupied by Morgan Stanley. Instead, Morgan Stanley sold it to Lehman Brothers in October 2001 for a reported sum of 700 million US dollars. Lehman Brothers was searching for a new seat, after their global headquarters at Three World Financial Center was severely damaged by the debris of the attack on the Twin Towers of 9/11.1

In contrast to other large financial corporations, which have dispersed their activities outside of New York, Lehman made a point about its intention to maintain a strong presence in the city.

Walking around what was the former seat of a major player in the financial world, it becomes all the more surprising to notice that the memory of its former tenant has been completely stripped away. The tower currently hosts Barclays Bank, the UK-based entity that purchased the US operations of Lehman (for a modest sum of 250 million US dollars) and several of its real-estate assets (the tower and two data centers for 1.5 billion US dollars). The base of the building is clad in large digital screens, which project a blue hue, corresponding to the corporate visual identity. Not too far from Times Square, the cunning use of neon and lighting alludes to a spectacularization of finance, accompanied by friendly slogans and texts, referring to the global and cosmopolitan identity of the bank. The palette of Lehman was instead a cold grey that was more a reference to the revered tradition of the house. The brand name of the bank was displayed through large steel cutout serif letters, hanging over the curtain wall of the inferior block. For a brief period, both Barclays Capital and Lehman Brothers logos were together on the façade, while now only Barclay rules. Walking around the building, no signage, texts, plaques, or chromatic references can connect it to its former tenant. In similar fashion, a small public park adjacent to the tower, nicknamed Lehman Brothers Park, carries no vestiges of its former neighbors. One element survived the overhaul: names of cities, in steel, just above the ground floor, that corresponded to the distributed offices of Lehman Brothers worldwide. They now seemed to indicate the global nature of financial capital, of which also Barclay is an incarnation.

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Barclays Bank Tower, New York City, 2015. © Fabrizio Gallanti.

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Barclays Bank Tower, New York City, 2015. © Fabrizio Gallanti.

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Barclays Bank Tower, New York City, 2015. © Fabrizio Gallanti.

The tower is a precise exhibition of the austere power that finance wishes to be associated with: its proportions are well balanced, the use of material denotes taste and wealth (stone, reflecting glass, aluminum, and steel profiles), without being too flashy, there is a subtle understanding of the difference between the lower levels, which respond to the urban context, and the upper part, which is more anonymous and has a well-orchestrated differentiation between the front and the back.

In a similar manner, the former headquarters, located in Cesar Pelli’s tower in Downtown, do not bear any sign or symbol of its previous tenant. The postmodern skyscraper, nicknamed the American Express Building, is currently owned by the same real estate company that owns also Zuccotti Park. It is part of a cluster of offices that include also Merrill Lynch, RBC Capital Markets, Nomura Group (who bought the Asian and European operations of Lehman Brothers), and Brookfield Asset Management (the owners).

The exploration could continue: in order to pay back its creditors, after emerging from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2012, Lehman Brothers Holding is selling numerous assets throughout New York. Their substantial invisibility with respect to their ownership is embedded in a commercial strategy aimed at maximizing their value. Among them were an office tower at 425 Park Avenue, slated for demolition to then be substituted by a Norman Foster designed high-rise, 237 Park Avenue, a 21-floor office building, and the NYLO boutique hotel.

In a site of accelerated capitalist accumulation such as Manhattan, the vestiges of one of the most powerful players are everywhere, but are not easily detectable. All of them share a certain anonymity in their design and detailing, the expression of solidity and taste which has become the common language of corporate architecture.

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Screenshot from © Courtesy of the author.

Perhaps the true memorial to Lehman is not to be found in the city, but more appropriately on the Internet. The website appears frozen in time, September 2008, indicating which companies have acquired the bank and redirecting the traffic to their respective websites. In an era of permanent digital updating, encountering a home page that has not changed in more than six years is almost mesmerizing. Its static condition is, perhaps, not that different from the sculptures of soldiers from the trenches of the Western Front, which tried to freeze in stone or bronze a precise instant, perpetuating its volatile pain for eternity.

1 The migration of the Lehman Brothers offices in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on New York is another fascinating story. At some point, the bank had offices dispersed in 40 temporary locations in the New York area, including the Sheraton Hotel, whose 645 rooms were converted into trading offices.