If there is anything that New Yorkers could expect to remain constant, it would have to be its iconic skyline. Famously striking silhouette of the Empire State Building, especially when seen from across the East River or the Hudson, evokes such feelings as trepidation and pride. A 2007 poll conducted by the American Institute of Architects called it America’s Favourite Architecture. It marks the heart of New York, where Fifth Avenue intersects with 34th Street, or, as Romans would call it, the crossing of Cardo Maximus and Decumanus Maximus. If the Empire State is the king, then the Chrysler Building, ranked number nine in the same poll, is its queen. We see it and we know where to head for the Grand Central Station. The pair electrifies the sky every night. The two skyscrapers stand at a respectful distance, not too close and not too far. There is a delight in witnessing their ongoing romance over many decades. Will it last? Central Park is another constant in New York. Popular films and famous photos depict it being framed by sumptuous Art-Deco and neo-classical buildings just sufficiently taller than its tree crowns to be admired from a distance. And then there are the bridges – gracious necklaces sparkling beautifully at dusk – they don’t just help moving never ending traffic, they tie the boroughs and bring dignity to our great city.
Warning: these fundamental visual anchors and cherished icons that millions of people grew up with and refer to in their daily routine are no longer immutable. Everything seems to be shrinking, sinking, being blocked, and overshadowed these days by the newcomers – the latest generation of ‘supertalls’, buildings higher than 1,000 feet. They are the symbols of the current thriving economy manifested in the most radical construction boom in the city’s history and are enabled by such technological breakthroughs as stronger reinforced concrete, faster elevators, and the advancement of tuned mass dampers that allow these new towers to be built more efficiently and on smaller lots. There are now 10 of these ‘supertalls’ here, six of which were added in the last five years, and according to the latest reports, 16 more are being planned or already under construction. There are many more, new buildings that may not qualify to be called ‘supertalls’, but if placed in a wrong spot, even if reaching just a few hundred feet, they could be just as impactful. Together and one by one these structures already have redefined the city’s familiar look.
Let’s see what the fuss is all about. Perhaps the first new addition to New York’s skyline to be mentioned here should be One World Trade Center. Having lost the Twins, following horrific September 11 attacks in 2001, downtown finally has restored its vertical domination in the city in 2013. There was a lot of criticism of the building’s conservative form that recalls an obelisk, but it proved to be quite convincing, even if not terribly original. It could benefit from being higher, but it holds the sky just fine, at least for now. Perhaps there is no other part of New York where the new high-rises are felt more noticeably than in Central Park. Its southern side is now looming with buildings pushing the heights of mind-boggling 1,500 feet mark, casting long shadows that crisscross the park. These unusually, even dangerously slender ultra-luxury residential skyscrapers have lined up along and around West 57th Street, now referred to as the Billionaires’ Row.
Move southwest where the northern tail of the new High Line Park meets the Hudson River and you will stumble upon the brand-new Hudson Yards, half-completed instant city of tomorrow built over the West Side Rail Yard. This controversial complex is now surrounded by up and coming forest of towers. The kinetic Shed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, a climbable spectacle called Vessel by Thomas Heatherwick, and soon to be opened Edge, the outdoor wedge-shaped observation deck that will be the highest in the city, all serve as an attractive counteract to a huge and featureless upscale shopping mall. What I would particularly like to stress about Hudson Yards is that it proves the brilliance of Manhattan’s 1811 street grid, the ingenious planning device that is able to absorb all possible growth and maintain the right balance. The developers realised that any one of the city’s nearly identical two thousand urban blocks, irrespectively of its location, could become the new center of New York. All they had to do was to provide a unique character and find a way for people to come.
Despite the strong criticism of the development, especially for being financed with multi-billion-dollar tax credits, while largely meant for the rich, I would argue that it succeeded in creating something that New York was lacking. It is just about the only place in the city now that is uncompromisingly new, even futuristic. It may not represent how many of us see the future, but is there another place in New York that even attempts to offer a glimpse of it? The fact that Hudson Yards is cut off from its immediate neighbourhood to the east, only makes the contrast so much stronger. It may be built for the rich but visit it on a sunny day and you will see many more happy and excited people than just about anywhere else in the city. Most visitors come steadily via the extended No 7 Subway line. While others arrive more stylishly in chauffeured limousines.
Come back to Midtown and you will find that our darlings Empire State and Chrysler buildings are no longer alone here. They are not even visible from many parts of the city. One Vanderbilt, 1,401-foot-high skyscraper, just topped out immediately to the west of Grand Central Station, now stands two short blocks away from the Chrysler, which is 1,046 feet high. The new tower reduces this major New York landmark to a mere toy size, in comparison, and blocks it completely from the northwest. More skyscrapers near the Chrysler are expected to rise, responding to Midtown East rezoning that now allows much taller buildings in this already acutely congested area. Other ‘supertalls’ are being planned to nix the nearly 90-year supremacy of the Empire State Building.
Similar developments are taking place in Madison Square Park, Downtown Brooklyn, along the East River in Williamsburg in Brooklyn and Long Island City in Queens, to mention just a few neighbourhoods that have been undergoing relentless transformations. Another trend is the intensified construction right next to the bridges. The ever-taller buildings are being built in close vicinity of Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, and Queensboro bridges. These magnificent structures no longer can be viewed in their entirety; their sweeping suspension cable lines and pylons are being compromised by such chunky buildings as just completed 72-story One Manhattan Square next to Manhattan Bridge or unnecessarily tall buildings of the new Cornell Tech campus on the southern side of Roosevelt Island right up against delicately laced structure of Queensboro Bridge.
As I am writing this piece, I am realising the seriousness of the situation and why so many people express their concern, both in the press and social media. What to think of it? Yes, we are parting with New York that we know and love. Our favourite parts and pieces are being irreversibly altered or even lost. Yet, look around – there is so much energy asserted in so many new ways of conquering the sky. There is beauty in such un-choreographed growth based on pure ambition and market forces with occasional community board reviews or zoning revisions. Should this explosive growth be contained, regulated, and controlled in any way? If so, who would be designated to be our ultimate orbiter of high taste? Should it be a committee? Can we entrust these potential decision makers with such responsibility? How would they know what to preserve and when to make an exception?
When Jean Nouvel proposed his original vision for the tower at 53 W 53rd St to be 1,250 feet to match the height of the Empire State Building, the New York City Planning Commission argued that it would compete too strongly with the established skyscrapers. They granted the architect their blessing only on the condition that he must clip his tower by 200 feet. Now that the building has taken its place on the skyline, can we honestly say that the decision was right? I don’t think so, as it is, in my opinion, by far the most elegant tower built in New York in a very long time, echoing early-20th-century renderings by Hugh Ferris. I believe it would benefit greatly if the original, taller vision of the architect was not interfered with by incompetent bureaucrats.
Cities depend on bold gestures. New York was always a roaring engine. What did New Yorkers think of Brooklyn Bridge when it just opened in 1883? It was a scary, out of scale monstrosity plunging into the unknown quite literally, as you often can’t see the other side of the East River. What did the contemporaries of the construction of the Empire State Building think when it replaced the original gem of a building Waldorf-Astoria hotel? Surely, they were uneased by it. Of course, there are parts of New York that must be protected, even if there is a risk of turning them into an open-air museum. SoHo is one such example. West Village is another. There are beautiful historical townhouse blocks on the Upper West Side and in Brooklyn Heights that must be preserved for posterity. But let the city be what it wants to be. Let’s not follow other cities that have found their image and now put all their efforts into guarding it. I am excited about the possibilities and I hope our love for nostalgia and fear of the unknown will not divert us from being curios, adventurous, passionate, and even taking a risk at times. I hope one day a brilliant heroic architect comes to town and after scanning our erratic skyline would conclude with authority, “I am not impressed, these towers are too small and disconnected. Let’s imagine something entirely new!”