6 Dec 22 | Architect Magazine

From Mountain Range to Trophy Pedestals: New York Is No longer a Neo-geological Wonder

By Aaron Betsky

Aaron Betsky explores the supertall skyscrapers of Manhattan's Billionaires' Row.

New York has a new geology. For at least a century, you could recognize Manhattan from afar by its spine of artificial mountains, outlined against the sky by a range of skyscrapers that rose up from the harbor, peaked again briefly around the middle of the island before rising to a dense massif right below Central Park, and petered out towards the north as lower residential towers stuttered up here and there all the way to the Bronx. Smaller clumps dotted the New Jersey and Brooklyn shores, but the Manhattan ridge was New York’s human-made equivalent of the Alps or the Rocky Mountains. Now the five boroughs and their dependencies are making their presence visible through the chaotic appearance of edge cities, with new clumps of high-rises much taller than those of the last century jostling each other in downtown Brooklyn, Long Island City, Hudson Yards, and Jersey City while an atomized and thinned-out extension of what was the midtown massif runs east-west along 57th Street’s Billionaires' Row.

It is perhaps overly nostalgic to mourn the loss of a neo-geologic urban form containing a remarkable number of good buildings—although also many mediocre ones—that was glorified in the art of painters, photographers, and movie makers from George Bellows and Alfred Stieglitz to Woody Allen. That formation rose out of a certain economic logic as American and even international financial and corporate headquarters crammed into Manhattan, which translated into built form in a way that happened to be very particular to New York. Now a different financial regime of globalized capital demands clusters of mixed-use development on top of or near transit at a different scale (a large one). Such clumps can only appear on large tracts of land, often on former industrial or railroad sites, that are just not available along the traditional ridge line running more or less parallel up and to the east of Broadway. As a result, New York now has the same kind of skyline as Houston, Los Angeles, Tokyo, or Beijing. The visual cues you get on the horizon are disconnected from both any preexisting geology—the famous bedrock under Manhattan and the compactness of a long, thin island surrounded by flat areas that serve this center—and any kind of local history particular to this place.

What you get instead is the generic, real estate-driven extrusion of volumes as tall as they can be within the constraints of financing and regulations (as the laws of gravity and wind loads are still not being seriously tested at these heights). That same logic leaches as much value (which means an investment of resources) out of the skins, arrangements, and most other features that should distinguish these buildings from each other and give them some of the beauty we once associated with sky-scraping tall buildings such as 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the Chrysler Building, or the former Citigroup headquarters. They are not all bad, but almost all of them could be anywhere and have any purpose.

The exception are the structures of Billionaires' Row. There, an insane amount of money has been spent to produce (and buy apartments within) structures so tall and thin that they do have to work very hard to stand up and not sway in the winds. Standing widely spaced along a line that is actually a few blocks wide around 57th Street, they appear from the north and south as abstract points that do not evoke any geology I have ever seen and thus make them resolutely human-made. They also serve to change Manhattan’s scale as well as direction, making all those 40- to 60-story skyscrapers that came before them take on the role of pedestals on which these trophy symbols of our new Lords of the Universe—most of whom are not Manhattanites, but who use their aeries here as either pied-a-terres or investment—stand.

If you can look beyond the fact that pouring this amount of concrete, using this much rebar, and generally squeezing this much embodied carbon into buildings that serve only very few people is a heinous environmental crime, these supertalls for the super-rich and the super-thin do present some qualities worth noticing. One of the earliest to be completed, Rafael Viñoly’s almost 1,300 foot-tall 432 Park Avenue—a cubic tube punctuated by square windows rising from the sidewalk all the way up to the 84th floor—is still the purest, which makes it among the best. It also is the supertall that is furthest to the east, so it anchors the line that has developed to the west in the core of tall office buildings around Park Avenue. The tower’s white color, smooth skin, and refusal to be anything but one form makes it as uncompromisingly beautiful as some of the starkest minimalist sculptures.
At the other aesthetic extreme stands Jean Nouvel’s MoMA tower (53 West 53rd Street). As the muscular black knight to Viñoly’s white lord, it thrusts its way up to 87 floors, shedding volume as it rises to a mechanical top where it knifes the sky with a stiletto point. As in most cases there is more height here (a little more than 1,000 feet) and fewer floors than the official numbers might indicate, as the developers inflate the latter and don’t publicize the former. The building, called 53W53, shows off its musculature, revealing the cross bracing that make the structure withstand the various pressures buffeting its equally taut, dark glass and bronze-colored skin. Its base dissolves into MoMA’s sprawling, Diller Scofidio + Renfro-designed additions, turning the cultural institution into the base for what from the street appears as a metal hulk.

The worst of the lot is also a very early one, Christian de Portzamparc’s One57. The less said about this undistinguished tube clad in mottled glass and surmounted by an awkward curve the better.

Robert A.M. Stern Architects’ (RAMSA) 220 Central Park South, at the Row’s western edge, offers itself as the restrained alternative to all this thrusting. Clad in stone, its windows are set into what it wants you to understand as a mass. Moving from a highly articulated base to a crown that hides the usual mechanical equipment in a diadem of metal louvers, it is modest in both its demeanor and, at “only” 950 feet, height. RAMSA knows how to control big buildings with forms and materials that evoke tradition, even if the firm’s skill is here tested by the building’s sheer thinness and elongated proportions.

Adrian Smith—who, while at SOM, started the supertall genre with Dubai’s Burj Khalifa—and Gordon Gill (of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture) present the calmest, as well as the tallest, addition to the Row: Central Park Tower. Here the skin is a rather warm, blue glass that turns positively recessive on a gray day. The volume is broken up into smaller tubes that, though not nearly as successful in their massing as the Dubai tower, serve to break up the mass. Most spectacularly, one of the largest of them cantilevers over one of the older buildings with air rights the developer used to get up to 1,550 feet. Its base is Manhattan’s first Nordstrom which, for wont of any particular theme or logic, clads its floors of luxury goods with an undulating glass façade.

In my opinion, the Row’s best is SHoP’s Steinway Tower (111 57th Street). Rising partially on top of the former piano company’s New York headquarters and showroom, this is the thinnest and the second tallest residential supertall in Manhattan. At only 75 feet deep and less than 60 feet across as it faces Central Park and lower Manhattan in its north and south facades, it presents itself as an abstraction and extrusion of the office blocks that march down 6th Avenue just to the south. Its east and west facades are sheer, thinning as they rise in the manner SHoP founding principal Gregg Pasquarelli likens to a pack of chewing gum feathering out in an old advertisement. Clad in an undulating pattern of terra cotta that catches the light to change the tower’s appearance depending on the angle you see it, the time of day, or the weather, the tower opens up to abstract planes of black on the other two faces. The building has taken the tradition of setback towers, blended them with the more anonymous blocks that make up most of Manhattan’s central mountain range, and thinned them into a true skyscraper.

These residential supertalls have given the architects a chance to recall Louis Sullivan dictum, pronounced at the very beginning of the skyscraper’s history, that a tall building must be “every inch a tall and soaring thing.” That they do so in isolation from their context, both in how they appear in the sky and how they emerge out of pedestals that in most cases hide their bases, only underlines the dissolution of the Manhattan of 20th-century myth. New York is still a helluva town, people still ride in a hole in the ground, but it is no longer the most beautiful human-made mountain range in the world.