Giants in Our Midst

The view from One57’s 89th-floor penthouse.Photo: Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao

If you’ve ever gazed southward across Sheep Meadow, your eye gratified by the play of horizontal bodies and vertical architecture, and if that pleasure has ever been disrupted by the shock of a lone building thrust far above midtown’s jagged silhouette—well, the view is about to change. One57, the 1,004-foot tower now standing in solitude, is getting company. Along 57th Street, lanky residential skyscrapers will soon be lining up for Central Park views like an NBA team craning to peer at a new iPhone. From the penthouse, the park looks virtual and screenlike, a glossy rectangle of green, populated by tiny avatars. That’s us down there—silent, flitting specks looking up at the homes of aerial overlords. We are your view. You’re welcome.

That miniaturizing perspective isn’t priceless—a mere $90 million or so buys a nice duplex perch—but we bear the aesthetic cost. In theory, developers of these billionaires’ beanstalks pay for their portions of sky and light with architecture worth looking at. In practice, they judge design by their clients’ taste for glitz—which explains One57, by the Pritzker Prize winner Christian de Portzamparc. It’s a luxury object for people who see the city as their private snow globe. Tall and clunky, preening yet graceless, the tower recapitulates an assortment of commercially proven stylistic gestures from New York’s recent past. The azure hue and scattering of variously tinted panes on the east and west façades recall both Bernard Tschumi’s Blue condo on the Lower East Side and the glass-mosaic effect of Jean Nouvel’s 100 Eleventh Avenue. The park façade is a corporate curtain wall of purest glass.

On the 57th Street side, De Portzamparc’s conceit is a building pouring out of the sky in parallel ribbons that undulate as they fall, then go rippling out above the sidewalk in a wavy canopy. But a building doesn’t liquefy just because computer renderings promise that it will. In the physical world—the one where Hurricane Sandy crippled a crane that dangled perilously for months—One57 looks like a stolid arrangement of beveled blocks, upholstered in silk and satin stripes.

It’s hard to imagine how high the ceilings would have to be, how unusably glossy the kitchen, or how noiseless the air conditioning to make an apartment here feel like a good deal. At these financial altitudes, even an ordinary structural element feels like a ripoff. A concrete column as thick as an old-growth oak stands in the corner of the living room, holding up the building but obstructing the view. Another looms at the entrance to the master bedroom, making the approach seem vaguely ominous.

The 87th-floor apartment (asking price $67 million) is still a wilderness of raw concrete and metal studs without internal walls to obstruct the vista. From this height, the city looks vivid but unreal, a Zeus’s-eye view of the world. Why would anyone choose to live atop an observation platform so high that violent winds make opening a window unwise? For a taste of store-bought divinity.

The plutocratization of the midtown skyline is just getting under way. It will be months before the first moving trucks pull up to One57 (and a year before the Park Hyatt at its base opens), but already the building is destined to be the shorty in a lineup of giants. A few doors down, the gracious Steinway Hall will be getting a stalky neighbor, a third again as tall as One57. There’s hope for that one: SHoP has proposed a bronzed feather tricked out with glazed terra-cotta tiles, which could provide some of the texture and detail that make the Woolworth Building so lovable. Three more blocks east, the slightly taller 432 Park is already on the rise. Yet its supremacy will last only until the completion of the Nordstrom tower, near Broadway, a 1,550-foot scene-stealer being designed by the supersizing virtuosos Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill. When it’s done, the Nordstrom tower will clear the top floor of 1 World Trade Center by a healthy margin.

High-net-worth residents of high-rise apartments aren’t new to this area, but for decades they coexisted with culture. Carnegie Hall made 57th Street the epicenter of a scruffy classical-music business. The hall’s upper floors were a warren of artists’ studios until the institution clawed back all the space for itself. Around the back, on 56th Street, was Patelson’s, the sheet-music store that was a gracious relic long before the Internet put it out of business in 2009. Pianists can still wander down the block to the Steinway showroom and recital hall—for another year or so.

That sort of ecosystem is increasingly difficult to maintain, and you can track the homogenizing power of money in the relentless shift from masonry to glass. Manhattan is acquiring two comically distinct types of glass super-skyscrapers: the fat office building like the Bank of America Tower, its girth ample enough to accommodate a trading floor; and the skinny residential shaft, just thick enough for a full-floor duplex with windows all around. These architectural Laurels and Hardys are staking out different neighborhoods, and the zoning along 57th Street is superbly tailored to the desires of the ­ultrarich, allowing very tall towers on narrow lots. But as technology and economics keep pushing upward, the city has an interest in seeing that the tallest new buildings are both necessary and good.

For now, they’re neither. The designer of 432 Park Avenue is Rafael Viñoly, who has earned unhappy fame as the creator of a curving, 37-story building in London that turns out to focus sunshine into car-melting rays. (Oops.) He also designed a similarly concave Las Vegas hotel, the Vdara, that boosted the tanning process by the pool—but that’s okay, he joked to the Guardian, because “who cares if you fry somebody in Las Vegas, right?” Even if he avoids igniting any softball players in Central Park, Viñoly has designed a genuine clunker for 57th Street, an unrelenting concrete grid of ten-by-ten-foot openings like so many stacked cubbyhole units. This wouldn’t be so bad, except that the tower will soon slap against the sky at almost 1,400 feet, making it temporarily the tallest residential building in the Western Hemisphere. Records are there for the plucking, but shouldn’t architects who reach for physical heights be extending themselves creatively, too?

Midtown Manhattan can absorb more people and survive an assault of taller buildings. The Empire State Building didn’t hurt us. Those who shake their fists at every new behemoth are rooting for a moribund city. But the coming condos show that the highest use of precious land is not necessarily the best. For one thing, 57th Street is not actually getting much denser. Instead, the skyline is filling up with sparsely populated habitats for oligarchs who, if they live there at all, roam across their parquet tundra, hollering for their mates.

157 West 57th Street.
Designed by Christian de Portzamparc.

Giants in Our Midst