The real New York skyline is always more fantastical than the imaginary ones. It recounts a saga of utopian quests, inspired gambles, benign neglect, aesthetic dead-ends, and historical accidents. We have the Depression to thank for the way the silhouette dips low south of 34th Street. Midtown’s office towers record the city’s economic fluctuations as clearly as a bar graph. The tip of Manhattan lays out the stratified chaos of history, as the eighteenth-century James Watson House rubs up against the curving glass pillar of 17 State Street from the 1980s, and Gilded Age white palazzi crescendo to the void left by the Twin Towers. This sublime jumble defies grandiose urbanism, and when September 11 presented New York with a clean slate, it threw planners into years of confusion.
We have a messy, malleable system for making decisions about the skyline. Over the decades, the zoning code has metamorphosed from a simplistic citywide policy into a catalogue of block-by-block variations. In the end, most planning decisions affecting the skyline come down to an emotional response. Bold ideas are tossed into a cauldron of traffic studies, environmental-impact statements, community-board meetings, and landmark hearings, a broth that tends to boil good architecture down to a glutinous pulp. Picking away details at the neighborhood level winds up diluting a design just as effectively as the top-down politics that screwed up ground zero.
One World Trade Center, the 1,776-foot emblem of recovered pride formerly known as the Freedom Tower, will thrust 2.6 million square feet of office space onto a market that doesn’t know what to do with so many cubicles and conference rooms. The design is a monument to ambivalence: a technologically advanced symbol of liberal democracy that boasts new standards of security and egress. If the beacon becomes an inferno, at least it will be relatively easy to get out. The safest move would have been not to put up this tower at all, but New York wasn’t built by the circumspect, and the steel frame has already reached past the twentieth floor. Just 80 or so more, and New York will have its newest, hugest icon of pragmatism and lunacy. A skyscraper born of horror and designed in chaos and compromise may someday come to be the star of the skyline.
To some people, each new tall building is another oppressor, banishing the sun, barricading views, crushing brownstones, and dumping more hordes on crowded subway platforms. Skyscraper hatred is no more rational than skyscraper love, but it disguises itself as a form of sober preservation. Actually, the skyline’s upper layer can thrive without much management. The costs and controversies involved in super-tall buildings have done a pretty good job of keeping the stratosphere from getting crowded. New York has only fifteen buildings that top 800 feet; most are well designed, and none of them is awful.
The real danger to the skyline lies in letting it choke in a weedy blight of medium-high-rises, appalling in their ordinariness. Those blah 30- and 40-story towers leave the city’s summits untouched, but they ravage neighborhoods and raise the horizon, flattening out the skyline from below. Take a look at 808 Columbus Avenue, a broad, ungainly 29-story tower that anchors Columbus Square, near 97th Street. Neighbors howled about its bulk, but it’s the design that makes it monstrous. A graceful skyscraper twice the size would have been half as offensive.
Somehow, this vertical city has acquired a fear of height and felt the powerful undertow of nostalgia. We look back in fondness, ahead in apprehension. Even One World Trade, which will be America’s tallest tower, feels less like a herald of the future than a restoration of the past: Lower Manhattan will get a glassy spike to replace the two it lost, and the Empire State Building will continue its midtown reign. But a city can be smothered by too much reverence for its past. The skyline must keep acquiring new peaks, because the day we consider it complete and untouchable is the day the city begins to die.