The Point of the Skyline

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.

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.

The Point of the Skyline