The new era of the New York skyscraper
The first time I ever visited New York, the bus from JFK dropped me off in front of Grand Central Terminal. I looked up, and up, and up, at the Chrysler Building towering above me, and I immediately fell in love with a city which so exuberantly celebrated its height and size and weight. Much as I love Chicago, New York will always be the home of the skyscraper for me; no other city has such spectacular examples from all eras, ranging from the Brooklyn Bridge and the Woolworth and Flatiron buildings, through Lever House and the Seagram building, all the way to the newest towers rising both downtown, at the World Trade Center site, as well as uptown, along 57th Street. One of the most awe-inspiring architectural experiences in the world is to visit the little-known but truly amazing top room of the art deco BNY Mellon building at 1 Wall Street, with its three-storey-high silver ceilings and its unrivaled views to the north, south, east, and west.
In a sign of the times, that room — along with the rest of the building — might be for sale; one broker told Bloomberg that it “could be spectacular resi”. For corporations looking to squeeze a large number of people into a single building, super-tall towers don’t make a lot of sense: they waste too much space on service shafts. But for trophy-hunting billionaires, it seems that views are everything, these days — especially if the views in question are of Central Park. Build a high-ceilinged, full-floor, ultra-luxe apartment a thousand feet in the sky and even closer to Central Park South, and it seems that there’s almost no limit to how much you can charge for it.
From the point of view of skyscraper lovers, this is good news. The richest corporate tenants — the ones in the financial-services industry — tend to want large uninterrupted floor plates for their trading rooms, which often results in dull, uninspired architecture. The world’s plutocrats, by contrast, demand architecture of landmark status, something befitting any major new addition to the New York skyline. On top of that, the premium commanded by full-floor apartments means that the new towers tend to be very slender — and as a general rule, thinner towers tend to be more beautiful.
That said, the owners buying into these new towers are pretty unsympathetic. For all their riches, they tend to pay very little in the way of taxes, they don’t interact much with the rest of the city (if they did, they’d never want to live on 57th Street), and they generally leave their apartments empty for nearly all of the year.
This is a dynamic which has proved particularly damaging in the case of my native London, where street life in many central residential neighborhoods has diminished almost to the point of nonexistence: fewer and fewer people actually live in those places any more. It’s much less of a worry in New York: no one’s concerned about residential density on 57th Street being too low, and in any case the caprices of US Customs and Border Protection tend to scare away a lot of what the English call the non-doms.
Still, the critics are out. Jim Windolf spent 3,000 words and a very chilly day in Central Park bellyaching about the shadows these towers might cast in late fall; and now Michael Kimmelman has weighed in, saying that New York should not “consign its silhouette to private builders” and should instead force all new skyscrapers to run a gantlet of community groups and public review.
The fact is, of course, that all the best skyscrapers were built by private builders, often in the face of substantial public opposition. And public skyscrapers are generally worse, not better: just look at the original World Trade Center, built by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, with its destruction of Radio Row and Greenwich Street, its forbidding windswept plaza, and its inability to attract tenants for decades after it was built. In general, if the public is asked whether they want any new skyscraper, the answer will always be “no” — even as they love the iconic tall buildings they’ve lived with for years. (There was a general consensus that something should restore the skyline after the World Trade Center was demolished, but that’s the exception that proves the rule.)
Kimmelman, in particular, seems to think — with no real evidence to support him — that public review would improve the quality of architecture built — that it would allow the towers he likes (111 West 57th Street, 432 Park Avenue) while disallowing the towers he doesn’t like. The Nordstrom Tower, for example, features a cantilever which, Kimmeleman says, turns it into “a giant with one foot raised, poised to squash a poodle”). That’s certainly not the way I would describe the renderings we’ve seen so far. But no one likes a massive new building project going ahead in their neighborhood, especially not when they can turn the whole thing into a zero-sum game of proles versus plutocrats, as Windolf does. (“It struck me as unfair that, sometime next year, someone who paid $90 million for a glass-walled, floor-through residence will lounge in full sunshine while the old man will have less light of his own.”)
Skyscrapers are a perfect emblem of capitalism — they destroy what came before, in order to create something new. Sometimes the change is for the better, and sometimes it’s for the worse — but a city where nothing new gets built is a dead city, which might have nostalgic value to tourists, but which is never going to be a driver of global commerce.
New York is a mature city, where it’s already extremely expensive to build — the barriers to constructing new buildings are high enough, especially considering all the (entirely reasonable) preservation rules. Kimmelman and Windolf would add further hurdles still, concerning such things as shadows and view corridors. But neither makes much sense, in New York — a city which has been building long canyons of tall buildings for the best part of a century now. The only view corridors which make any sense, in Manhattan, are the big avenues — and ever since the Pan Am building went up, no one’s going to build in the middle of an avenue. And the official statement from the Central Park Conservancy, on the subject of shadows, seems exactly right to me:
Since the Park’s 1857 creation, numerous buildings have been established on its perimeter. Depending on the time and day of season, those buildings sometimes cast shadows. In the Conservancy’s 33-year experience of Park restoration and maintenance, these shadows have not significantly affected either the Park’s horticulture, which we are responsible for maintaining, or significantly impacted the experience of more than 40 million people who visit the Park annually.
Yes, the Conservancy is conflicted, here — its board includes major property developers. Still, the views of the New York skyline from Central Park are a large part of its perennial appeal — the varied street walls along the four perimeters, as well as the range of buildings visible beyond them. New York is and must be a living city, and right now it happens to have encountered a combination of special factors (an exuberant market, the rise of the billionaire class, the Central Park views, New York’s idiosyncratic zoning laws). These factors, says Carol Willis of Columbia University, have conspired to create special entities similar, in a way, to “rare flowers that can grow only in the Galapagos Islands” — specific architectural creatures native to Manhattan.
In a globalizing and homogenizing world, any kind of new architectural vernacular, unique to a certain city and a certain time, should in general be given the benefit of the doubt. I’m no great fan myself of Christian de Portzamparc’s One57 myself. But I do think that New York City is a city of skyscrapers; that it’s self-defeating for any city of skyscrapers to stop building such things; and that if you’re going to be building new skyscrapers, you’re never going to bat 1000. Better we have a living city with a couple of less-than-perfect buildings, than a stifled one governed by nostalgists and Nimbys.