Radiant Future: The Neon Tunnel at 127 John Street, New York

 Exhibit / January 28, 2020 

Object Name:  127 John Street neon tunnel
Maker and Year: Rudolph de Harak, Howard Brandston, 1971
Object Type: Corrugated iron tunnel
Image Source: Flaming Pablum, et al
Description: (Richard McKenna)

A rendering of the future in the form of a short stretch of corrugated steel, this neon tunnel that once greeted visitors to the foyer of 127 John Street in New York City feels innately familiar, even archetypal. Yet despite its appearance, the tunnel did not actually lead directly to a disconcertingly utopian future, but only to the elevators that ferried the building’s blue-collar workers up to their workplaces. Completed in 1971, 127 John Street was originally designed as a classic slab of second-wave International Style corporate office space by architecture practice Emery Roth & Sons. The building’s developers—brothers Melvyn and Robert Kaufman—were well-known for quirky decoration as well as for a predeliction for turning ground level space into “plazas” that was not born simply out of generosity: forward-looking local construction ordinances offered floor space bonuses for their inclusion, encouraging developers to channel their greed into an engagement with public space. The Kaufmans employed graphic designer Rudolph de Harak to provide whimsical visual touches, which included a huge three-story digital clock and canvas covered scaffolds on the street outside to enliven the building’s otherwise bland frontage and foyer. 

Most of De Harak’s other contributions to the building’s appearance, however, feel as affected and dated as old greeting cards in comparison with the tunnel’s sleek glow. Accessible from the building’s entrance on Fulton Street, the corridor was illuminated by blue argon-gas-filled tubes, the work of architectural lighting expert Howard Brandston, with whom Harak had previously collaborated on the futurist Canadian Pavilion at the Montreal Expo in 1967 and the American Pavilion at Expo 1970 in Osaka, Japan. As well as providing a generation of New Yorkers with formative experiences, the tunnel’s ready-made shorthand for futurism provided an eye-catching backdrop for photography, and was especially popular with musicians for promo shots, NY band The System actually filming part of their monster “You Are in My System” inside it and the building’s lobby.

Why should a 250-foot stretch of corrugated steel sewer culvert decorated with neon piping constitute such a commanding and beguiling image of “the future”? Perhaps partly because of the optimism implicit in the nature of tunnels themselves: like jet bridges and subway tunnels, they evoke passage, acceleration, the traversing of barriers, and perhaps even escape and transformation. Its cool visual temperature and paring down of space and perspective provided a sensation of propulsion that recalled TV series The Time Tunnel (1966-1967), hinting that the gateway would catapult those traversing it to some other place—perhaps one less venal and prosaic. The tunnel’s streamlined forms and its lack of sharp right angles also gave it a strange sense of weightlessness—of being unmoored from the everyday—and the neon punctuation seems almost to draw the onlooker inside, similar to the contemporary installations of artists like Doug Wheeler and James Turrell of the Light and Space arts movement. Vector graphics—the computer-generated geometric lines used to create “wireframe” images—had been around since the mid ’60s, and the glowing geometric lines seen on the Orion III shuttle’s control panel in 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey may be one source of the tunnel’s inspiration, as perhaps was that same film’s “Star Gate” sequence—which itself took up motifs developed by artists and animators like John Whitney and Jordan Belson. The tunnel also reflected the hunger for experimental environments pioneered by architectural practices like Archigram and Archizoom that produced the same year’s Instant City. And at least part of the feeling of recognition surely derives from memories of the New You Shop, the plastic surgery parlour in 1976’s Logan’s Run which clearly took it as inspiration.

The tunnel was eventually dismantled in 1997, when the office building was in the process of being converted to apartments as part of the wave of gentrification then investing the city. Several of the artists—including Howard Brandston—-involved in creating 127 John Street’s installations successfully sued the new developers under the Visual Artists’ Rights Act; unfortunately, the elements of the decor preserved by the settlement did not include the tunnel. The images that remain of it, though, show a powerfully ethereal, dreamlike space that is one more small reminder of how much more stimulating our built environment could be if only we were in a position to demand it.

10 thoughts on “Radiant Future: The Neon Tunnel at 127 John Street, New York

  1. I worked in that building from 1973 – 76 on the 12th floor. Willcox & Barringer Reinsurance. I was a young girl just joining the workforce. I was delighted to walk into & work in that building . It was very futuristic. The elevators were a very deep calming indigo on the one side to the 12th floor. The other one that went from the 16th to the 34th I do believe was a crimson red & red neon lights. There were boilers & the buildings innards on the 14th & 15th floors, all painted neon & mod colors with blinking lights. There was no 13th floor in the building. I understand they say it is bad luck to have a 13th floor in buildings. It could be seen quite vividly in the evenings & from the harbor. This along with all the artwork going on in the front with the clock & promenade; it was lovingly referred to as “The Crazy Building” by the locally employed. I enjoyed my days at The Crazy Building

    • Thanks for that fantastic bit of detail, Frances – it sounds like an amazing place to have worked. I wish I worked there!

  2. Pingback: The First Monograph Of Rudolph De Harak - Nimi Patel

  3. I worked in the building during 1985 and 86. Prudential Bache Securities. Also, my first “real job”. Can’t remember the floor. We used to say it was like being a french fry under a heating lamp when riding the red neon elevator. I loved the giant yellow bird that was attached to the window washers gondola. It was fun to see it going up and down the side of the building. Great location, nice and close to South Street Seaport for lunch and happy hour! Great memories.

  4. Around 1988 I worked across the street at what was then Pru-Bache Securities (199 Water). I was on a high floor and had a great view of the bird’s nest skylight, as well as the clock. I wish I had taken a picture of it as it was so whimsical.

  5. I worked at Munich American Re in the late 70s at 127 John. I recall young ladies in the tubular entrance who served as reception/ greeters. They wore very significant fur coats during the colder weather as they had little escape from the temperature.
    The lighting in the elevators also served to emphasize any areas where the razor may have missed.
    Nice location if a bit quirky.

  6. I was the chief engineer from 2982 until 1996. It was a wonderful building to work in. Not many people know that there were sculpture like rendition on the sixth floor that went around the setback on petal street, John street and water street. The images were of a cat on pearl strreet following what appeared as birds feet. This went around to water street at a birds nest with 3 5 foot eggs that lit up at night. At night the 15th floor was lit up with all different types of lights that people walking on the street thought that there was a disco up there. At one point there was a life like sculpture of the buildings owner that sat in the lobby. It was removed due to the number of people that reported a drunk or dead man in the lobby. It was that realistic. On Fulton street hanging from the base of the third floor was the largest fishing lure in the world. A short clip of the nyc video for Cindy paupers “girls just want to have fun” was filmed on the benches on Fulton Street. The worlds largest digital click covered the side wall of the diner that would not sell out when the building was built. The only thing yo do was build around it and do something interesting. Lisa Lisa did her video in the neon tunnel. Ron Howard did a major portion of his movie “the paper” there. Spoke lee did “Girl Six” there. There were several other Hollywood movies filmed there but I can’t remember the names. A wonderful place to be employed.

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