The Ungainly Monoliths of Manhattan’s Future

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An artist's rendering of 15 Penn Plaza
An artist's rendering of 15 Penn Plaza Photo: Pelli Clarke Pelli/ Splash News

Manhattan’s skyline is about to change — not today, maybe not tomorrow, but as soon as the economy perks up, and when it does the Empire State Building will lose its splendid isolation. New York seems to have mixed feelings about this. Last week, the same City Council that stunted Jean Nouvel’s proposed MoMA Tower allowed the 1,216-foot future tower at 15 Penn Plaza to creep into competition with the icon of icons.

But the battle over this one building’s height is a distraction from the coming cavalcade of skyscrapers. Two of the projected four World Trade Center towers are already sprouting. A 1,000-foot apartment building is going up across 57th Street from Carnegie Hall. A pair of proposed giants collectively called Manhattan West may one day loom over Ninth Avenue at 33rd Street.

Height is not a problem — the skyline should remain as dynamic as the city, and the obvious direction for change is up. Architecturally, though, the next boom already looks disappointing. To get a sense of how the future skyline will look, check out the Bank of America tower at 1 Bryant Park, a bulky glass stele that executes a modest twist to lend itself an air of grace.

Pelli Clarke Pelli’s uninspired design for 15 Penn Plaza is a harbinger of a bigger, beefier West Side, as office towers follow residential towers in the march toward the Hudson. These will not be the elongated masonry pyramids of the twenties, stepping back as they go up, nor will they be the modernist office towers of a generation ago, rising uniformly like vertical blocks.

“Look at the family of new buildings that are being proposed, from the World Trade Center towers to Hudson Yards,” says Rafael Pelli, the lead architect for 15 Penn Plaza. “They are fundamentally different animals.”

In the new business behemoths, a few indentations or judicious asymmetries set off the taut seamlessness of their skins. The top of 15 Penn Plaza will curve slightly inward as if embarrassed by its massiveness. Vertical folds in the curtain wall on each façade and at each corner resemble slits in a satin gown worn by an elephant.

These are not so much whims of style as forms shaped by technology and the demands of the most valued tenants. Financial firms may be in moral disrepute at the moment, but they still dominate the prime office market, and they require enormous, column-free trading floors and high ceilings. Large, populous floors in turn mean a few more high-speed elevators, which get packed into a thicker concrete core. Glass walls are necessary to keep the inner cubicles from feeling sepulchral, and besides, they offset higher cooling costs with thrifty lighting systems. Quiet and efficient air-conditioning ducts take up space between floors, meaning that 80 stories need a lot more height than they once did.

At 15 Penn Plaza, these efficiencies were added to conditions negotiated with an assortment of city agencies: extra-wide sidewalks to relieve congestion, a new pedestrian tunnel linking Sixth and Seventh Avenues, a set of freshly renovated subway exits, and plentiful retail on the lower floors — all in exchange for a huge zoning bonus in allowable floor space. These civic virtues benefit everyone who walks by or below the tower, but at the same time, the bouquet of constraints adds up to a building that is largely formed even before the architects begin designing.

Aesthetic arguments always seem feeble against such calculations, but the unsentimental efficiency that built this city is poised to raise a crop of ungainly monoliths.