Skyscrapers. It’s nearly impossible to picture Manhattan without them. Most cabdrivers find them annoying because their construction and maintenance will clog up a street for weeks and months on end. Ask any hack what gets in the way besides the tent cities and closed-off lanes that pop up every night and tall buildings would probably be one of the answers that you’d hear first. Most people in the city have no idea what’s where aside from the Empire State Building and a few other landmarks but as you’ve probably guessed, this cabdriver isn’t quite like all of the others.
When I was little, nearly every major tower that wasn’t pyramid-shaped or designed by Gustave Eiffel was in the United States. The Sears Tower was #1 in height while #’s 2, 3, and 4 resided in the Big Apple. Like the cars that Detroit churned out or electronic patents that fueled automation and innovation, the United States was home to the tall buildings that those in other countries could only be envious of and emulate.
As many people know, that is no longer the case in the 21st Century. On the day that Towers 1 and 2 of the World Trade Center were destroyed, the United States had already ceded the title of the World’s Tallest Building to a structure in Asia. Rapid urbanization was unable to fully assimilate and integrate the masses of laborers that were flocking to cities in search of a better life but the concrete and steel shoots of bamboo that sprouted up in city after city overseas was enough to get the world’s attention. If not full, the skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur, Dubai, and Taipei accomplished the feat of putting their respective cities on the World Map. No longer could anyone not know where these places were or not recognize any landmarks in them, even if they were involved in a race to the sky that had no end in sight.
What makes New York unique is that even though it will never house the World’s Tallest Building again, the sheer volume and length of time that it took to construct it’s current skyline has enough history in it for anyone so inclined to look into it. Over the decades of the 20th Century that the Big Apple has had enough buildings that once held the title, with one overtaking the other until it became surpassed within a few years. Newspaper row was over by City Hall on Park Row and to this day, the buildings on it reflect the first attempts to take a horizontal building form and extrude it vertically. The results may not have been great but like any adolescence, the adulthood that resulted gave us works that were worthy of being the highest-built man made objects.
The dome of the Singer Building was dwarfed by its many of its neighbors by the time it was demolished in 196, but it was still noteworthy for being one of the first tall buildings to fully incorporate the tripartite idea of base, shaft, and capital. Other works that came later like the Woolworth Building, (original) Met Life Tower, and 40 Wall street incorporated this in a seamless manner while donning the guises of a church or bell tower. Capitalism on a big scale still needed something that people on the ground could relate to, even if the form that was used was irrelevant to the tenants that were housed in that particular building.
America was, and still was, a land of importation. The first people here were from foreign lands along with the labor that was brought here to perform many of the menial tasks of the young Republic. It should come as no surprise the Greek Revival, French second Empire, and Art Deco all found a home here in many of the buildings that have held monumental roles since their completion. All of this reached an apex in the roaring 20’s when anything was possible, even constructing Towers of Babel that were built without tenants in mind. The zeitgeist of the age could be seen in Midtown, which had finally wrestled the title of New York’s business district away from downtown during the Chrysler and Empire State Building’s race for the World’s Tallest Building. Never before nor since would a spire be hoisted into place in a matter of hours or a mast be built for air travel, defying conventional wisdom of architecture’s role of form and function on a fixed budget.
Unbeknownst to the people of the 1930’s and 1940’s, they did not realize at the time that they were living witnesses to the excesses of the Jazz Age. Manhattan’s skyline would be nearly frozen in time for 15 years until the end of World War II. “Wedding cakes” abounded in masonry and when the building resumed in the Postwar period, new forms, materials, and functions would alter not only what was vertically constructed, but how the people on the ground flowed through the city.
Sir Winston Churchill once said that “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us” . It was only apt that the person most single-handedly responsible for Allies’ Victory in World War II would describe what would happen to the city that most prospered from the freedom ensured by their victory. New York was the largest city on the planet in 1950 and many of these others were digging out of the rubble of the World’s Worst conflict ever inflicted by man. Companies wanted to be in New York and the great wave of Suburban migration had yet to encompass the ubiquitous Office Park and campus that many communities encircling the Big Apple can claim today.
A list of seemingly disparate factors combined to give New York a skyline that was radically different in 1970 than from 1950, in the sense that what was gained in largesse was lost in aesthetics. Mies Van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and Le Corbusier looked to America for site and projects where their Bauhaus School creations could be realized in three dimensions. Advances in glass and steel could allow for glossy-skinned buildings to be constructed with less planning and time to construct their skin and frames. Air conditioning made larger floorplates possible as well. Open space moved to the forefront with the revision to the city’s Zoning Law in 1961. The result was the ransacking of classic streetscapes on 3, Park, and 6 Ave with rows of glassy boxes that featured uninterrupted sides all the way up to the roof, set in barren plaza that was only built to garner a zoning bonus. Watching Mad Men or a Hitchcock film of the era may be the cool thing to do now but imagine living in that era, where every man in the gray flannel suit worked the same type of job in the same type of cubicle farm in the same type of building as every other man in the grey flannel suit. Only an lag in the unbridled growth of the nation’s economy brought a halt to the madness, which devoured such gems as the aforementioned Singer Building and Penn Station in the process.
This was the skyline that was familiar to me when I was a lkid and was lucky enough to get a glimpse of the Big City to the East. The land of shoeboxes that could be seen during the opening montages of Barney Miller or Rhoda told viewers what City the shows took place in but also as a reminder that the triumph of Modernism was too haughty not to see how dated the style would end up being withing a matter of years. Cramming as much rentable space into a building envelope may have made technological and economic sense but the overwhelming sense of scale that resulted on Water Street and major Midtown thoroughfares served as a constant reminder that bigger was not even close to always being better.
Recent years saw a full revival of older styles in garbs that weren’t quite up to par with their earlier century counterparts. To be fair, new colors, forms, and styles were used in an attempt to modernize, brighten, and humanize the City Skyline. Subway entrance improvements and plazas that were enclosed, midblock, or landscaped were constructed in an attempt to engage passerby instead of being a means to an end for the developer. All three of these ideals converged in David Child’s Worldwide Plaza, which anchored the redevelopment of 8 Ave from a porn-laden Avenue to the home of the “Starchitects” that were increasingly leaving their footprint on the Big Apple. It was at this time to that the skyline began to flatten out, as many towers were topping out in the 750-800 foot range, right before increasing heights led to a diminished level of return on the investment in construction.
What’s important to remember from the end of 20 Century was that as Postmodernism gave way to High-Tech architecture, was that the styles were increasingly en vogue for shorter amounts of time. As the world sped up, each movement that designers expressed their ideas in became shorter and shorter. Unfortunately, planned obsolescence only works for some durable goods and certainly not for many of the buildings that they were housed in. From a functional standpoint, it should come as no surprise that huge swaths of the city were turned into Historic Preservation Districts as many corporate corridors were becoming prohibitively expensive to upgrade to Class A (top of the line) Office Space.
Just last week, I picked up a fare that was heading uptown to a fashionable street on the Upper West Side. On the way up, I had this conversation:
“So, you said your husband has a hand in shaping this city. What does he do?”
“He works for FXFowle”
“Oh wow, that used to be Fox and Fowle. I remember when they designed 4 Times Square. Heck, I watched that go up!”
“Yes, my husband was involved with that.”
“What did he do for them?”
“He was their urban planner.”
Like so many others in New York, this continued as we discussed his job and the construction of one of my favorite late 20th Century towers in Manhattan.
What’s important to remember in the midst of all of this building and rebuilding is that the Towers that are leaving their mark on the skyline today are increasingly residential. As New York is increasingly a playground for the rich, they are the only ones who can afford the sky-high rents that these premium living spaces command. While not as exciting as the World’s Tallest Building race, watching the chase for the title of the city’s tallest residential structure has been just as exciting. Trump World Tower ruffled a few cages when it wrestled the title away from the Cityspire Building in the late 90’s. Frank Gehry’s new tower by the Brooklyn Bridge then held the title but the building pictured at the top of this post will hold the title when it’s completed sometime next year. Like all records, it will probably be broken and in a manner deserving of a story all its own.
As office space per worker shrinks in an era of automation and austerity, building New York’s supertalls of tomorrow will become that much harder. With the exception of Hudson Yards on the West Side, large building sites have been hard to assemble as well. Coach’s new Headquarters on 10 Ave has yet to commence as of this writing and each additional planned will need an anchor tenant before any of the serious earth-turning can begin.
Each of my shifts takes me around the city and like driving past a tree every day or week, it’s hard for me to notice the change taking place in buildings that are under construction in various neighborhoods. Eventually, the sidewalk sheds will come down and the cranes will be lowered to the ground, only to be brought across town to their next site ready to be developed. Most cabdrivers will be too busy cursing in Farsi on their Bluetooths or admonishing passengers for having the guts to use a credit card to pay for a fare. Such a shame too – all they’d have to do is look up at the city that is still doing its best to pull the rest of the nation out of a recession. How many other places are so adept at telling America’s architectural and economic story while still writing it at the same time?