One of the most surprising effects of the new super-talls is not how they change the perception of the city from within but rather from a great distance. By and large, the towers of extraordinary height blend almost imperceptibly into the street fabric, such as Jean Nouvel’s 53 West 53rd, which links with the Museum of Modern Art at sidewalk level and whose super-tall height is belied by setbacks that subtly slant backward.
The super-tall towers become shockingly noticeable when perceived from a great distance from the city. For better or worse, the familiar Art Deco–setback skyline has been eradicated. Monuments like the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building appear almost toy-size compared with monoliths such as Central Park Tower and Hudson Yards.
This shift in scale can be seen as a loss, but New York has always been a city in constant change. Verticalism has always been the logic of Manhattan, and super-talls are simply the next chapter. New York has demolished and rebuilt itself enough times to provide a dozen cities with extraordinary skyscrapers, many of them the world’s tallest buildings in their era.
In the prosperity of the postwar era, George B. Post’s golden-domed World Building (1890), near City Hall, was torn down to make highway-access ramps, and Ernest Flagg’s Singer Building (1897), perhaps the most lyrical of New York skyscrapers, a rare Beaux-Arts tower with a mansard roof, was predominant in images of downtown until it was torn down, in 1968.
The Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building appear almost toy-size compared with monoliths such as Central Park Tower and Hudson Yards.
The greatest shock to the skyline was New York’s first super-talls, Minoru Yamasaki’s original World Trade Towers, completed in 1974. Critics said they unbalanced the traditional concentrations of skyscrapers around Wall Street and Midtown, but they became fond emblems of the city. Once the public adapts to the sheer height of the new super-talls, the same may become true.
The new super-talls must be seen from afar for their abstract beauty to be appreciated. Much like the original World Trade Towers, they function like minimalist sculptures, depending not so much on detailing and artisanship as on sheer geometry. This is a new skyline, one not defined by the romantic integration of stepped-back silhouettes but by bold, abstract, monolithic forms.
From afar, the city takes on a new aspect, a city of the future, a science-fiction city, and must be viewed with by new standards. The closest example we have at hand may be the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge (formerly the Tappan Zee Bridge), with its sharply crystalline pylons. The new super-talls may not make us think of buildings at all but rather abstract sculpture or natural formations.
New York’s skyline has always defined the city. For now, we have a two-tier skyline—the older one of familiar skyscrapers, and the newer one of brash super-talls. It may take time to reconcile the two, but the mind has a way of familiarizing the new, and the next generation of super-talls may come to define the city as much as the Empire State Building has. It is only a matter of time. The most surprising thing is how fresh, new, mineral-like forms shape the skyline.
Eric P. Nash’s Sky-High: A Critique of NYC’s Supertall Towers from Top to Bottom is out now from Princeton Architectural Press