The Empire State building, no doubt, can induce icon fatigue. We’ve seen it so many times—in person, in the movies, on key chains, and in snow globes—that it’s easy not to see it at all. It’s aesthetic wallpaper. And yet one of the great simple pleasures of living in New York is the way the old warhorse can still catch you by surprise.
Sometimes all you need is a fresh vantage point. It’s happened to me driving back into the city from Jersey, at a riverfront party in Long Island City, at a friend’s upper-floor apartment in the East Thirties. Just the other day I was walking north on Sullivan Street, and there it was, looming over Washington Square Park, framed by quaint brick townhouses, its westernmost third obscured—a particular composition I’d never seen before. Suddenly the building was new all over again—the original marvel of engineering, architectural masterwork, and symbol of modernity restored. It had been there all along, obviously. I had just stopped seeing it.
Changes in weather, light, and the seasons can make the building new again, too. Buttery yellow on a summer afternoon, battleship gray in November. You could make a career of photographing the thing from different angles and in different light, the urban analog to Ansel Adams’s images of El Capitan.
September 11, of course, changed the building more than anything. It’s not just that it’s now the tallest structure in the city again, although there’s no denying its renewed primacy in the skyline. It’s that our sense of the building’s permanence, or lack thereof, is different now. Its iconhood has been recharged. It’s no longer a cliché; it’s a 102-story, 77-year-old symbol of altogether welcome stability.