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The Point of the Skyline

Why they should let Jean Nouvel build every inch of his arrogant tower, and other thoughts on what makes a cityscape great.


Photographs: From Bottom, Jeff Liao for New York Magazine; Brad LaPayne/Panoramic Images; Brown Brothers, Sterling PA; Museum of the City of New York

A skyscraper is not a metaphor. It’s what happens when a team of cost analysts, insurers, engineers, architects, developers, investors, and lenders makes a collective determination that math, physics, and market forces, fused in one enormous hunk of a building, will probably yield a profit. But all those calculations merge with a set of deeply irrational instincts. Manhattan’s skyline was wrought by the single-minded pursuit of profit and boosted by a spiritual lust for height. To erect a tall building is to proclaim one’s faith in the future, and the skyline embodies that confidence multiplied many times over. It’s a seismograph of optimism.

That’s what’s so disappointing about the city’s timid decision to lop 200 feet off the slender needle that Jean Nouvel designed for the site abutting the Museum of Modern Art. At the proposed height of 1,250 feet—the same as the Empire State Building sans antenna—Tower Verre, a condo and hotel incorporating three floors of new MoMA galleries, would have encapsulated that quintessentially New York collusion between capital and caprice. The design offered an exuberant counterpoint to the relentless three-dimensional matrix of midtown. Slashing upward as if trying to catch a particular cloud on the fly, its musculature of asymmetrically slanted beams visible against a taut glass skin, Tower Verre would have been New York’s most lithe, athletic skyscraper.

Perhaps a redesigned, shorter version can still punctuate the city’s silhouette with a graceful exclamation point. But it will no longer demonstrate that New York’s skyline has yet to reach its upper limits, or that it can tolerate another totemic presence. The Empire State Building won a frenzied rush to the sky; the idea that some thought it excessive or disrespectful now seems downright bizarre. Approving the design of Tower Verre while lowering the height was not a compromise but an example of curatorial caution run amok, an attempt to turn midtown into an architectural preserve. New York is not Paris, besotted with its glory days and dozing in beautiful senescence; it reconstitutes itself almost daily, nourished by a regular supply of invention. The inspiring arrogance of Nouvel’s tower should never have been quashed by timorous bureaucrats.

When Henry James referred to skyscrapers as “monsters of the mere market,” he worried that they would swallow the city. He misperceived the real source of their addictiveness: not greed but ego. New York revealed the efficiency of verticality, yet some of its tallest towers soar well above the point of diminishing returns. The Rutgers economist Jason Barr has quantified the “status effect”—how much higher some skyscrapers rise than the profit motive would justify. The Empire State Building, Barr estimates, is 54 stories taller than pure accounting suggests it should be. The race to erect the world’s tallest skyscraper endowed the Chrysler Building with 37 extra stories and its rival, 40 Wall Street, with 29. Barr doesn’t follow his reasoning to the logical conclusion: If money alone shaped the skyline, we would have a stumpier city.

Instead, the mine-is-bigger-than-yours quest for stature has produced an ever more spectacular skyline, a dynamic work of collective genius. In our great-grandparents’ childhoods, the spire of Trinity Church pricked the soft blur of the horizon, dominating the landscape the way churches all over Europe did. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the first commercial towers boasting steel frames and elevators had hemmed the steeple in, replacing celestial aspirations with commercial ones. New Yorkers must have wondered how long those offenders against gravity could stay aloft. But the towers remain, or some do, anyway; it’s the sky that’s gone.

Each era’s giants are made puny by the next. “Sky-scrapers are the last word of economic ingenuity only till another word be written,” James wrote in 1906. He was right, except that the “other word” turned out to be taller skyscrapers.

Alarmed by the prospect of a high-rise forest, the city began regulating the skyline in 1916. The law funneled sunlight to the sidewalk by allowing greater height on wider streets and requiring buildings to recede as they rose. Hugh Ferriss, the architect whose brooding renderings made him the Piranesi of New York, understood the ambition and romance embedded in those limits. Because new towers would rise above the four- and five-story undergrowth, he wrote, “architects will design buildings, not façades. That is to say, architecture comes into her own.” Ferriss saw the regulations not as a check but as a liberating force, and in 1929, he used them as a template when he published The Metropolis of Tomorrow, a meticulously conceived, elaborately illustrated, and utterly horrific fantasy, complete with pedestrian skyways and rooftop landing pads.

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