The skinny on SHoP’s new skinny tower: Architecture review

The JDS and Property Markets Group’s 57th Street tower is ushering in a new era of spindly and iconic structures

Dec.December 01, 2013 07:00 AM
From left:

From left: PMG’s Kevin Maloney, JDS’s Michael Stern and a rendering of the 57th Street tower

In the course of reviewing architecture in New York City and elsewhere, I find that most buildings inspire in me either appreciation of their beauty, anger at their ugliness, or indifference to their banality. But the new condo tower planned on 57th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues inspires something very different in me: fear.

From a 60-foot-wide base (roughly the width of two row-house lots), this structure will rise 1,350 feet and will be 100 feet taller than the Empire State Building, whose base — let us remember — stretches the full block from 33rd to 34th streets.

I suppose that SHoP Architects (the firm that designed 107 West 57th Street), as well as the developers (Kevin Maloney’s Property Markets Group, Michael Stern’s JDS Development and Atlantic Investors LLC), know what they are doing. But it’s difficult to look at the renderings of this pencil-thin structure without imagining that a strong wind might cause the entire thing to come tumbling down. Heretofore, SHoP, which designed the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, has been more apt to build wide than tall.

Nearby, at Extell Development’s high-profile One57, the base is far wider and sturdier, as is the case with 432 Park Avenue, which is cast in a concrete frame. But this newest project looks to be confected of little more than some twig-like bits of steel and glass.

That said, since I am not likely to be able to inhabit the building, given the astronomical prices it will command, I do hope that this latest project reaches completion in something like the form of the renderings. It will be something to see! Heretofore, one had to go to places like Hong Kong to find such a pencil-thin ratio of width to height.

Indeed, our local authorities had prohibited it, precisely because of the dangers involved. But now that construction techniques have advanced, we’re starting to see more of these super-tall and ultrathin structures.

Perhaps the best example to date in the city is the unfairly maligned One Madison on 23rd Street. Completed, more or less, in 2010, this fine structure from the architecture firm Cetra/Ruddy looks almost squat compared to what is now being planned. And One Madison is nothing compared with 432 Park Avenue, which is being developed by the CIM Group and Harry Macklowe and designed by Rafael Viñoly. The Park Avenue building is already on the rise, and though it’s far from being topped out, once completed, it will stand out with a distinctiveness that will immediately command attention.

Surely 107 West 57th Street will be very different from 432 Park Avenue. It consists of glass curtain walls rather than a modular concrete frame, with setbacks rather than the uniform ascent of the Park Avenue building. But 107 West 57th Street promises to be equally distinctive and, when completed, will be only 48 feet shorter.

The developers of this planned skinny tower purchased Steinway Hall, which neighbors it immediately to the west. Designed by Warren & Wetmore, this landmark structure afforded them the air rights to build a 1,350-foot building, and although they could have built it as-of-right, they designed it to recede in stages above the midpoint. The Landmarks Preservation Commission voted almost unanimously to approve the design.

According to the renderings, the skyscraper will have a luminous, eight-story glass-enclosed atrium with a view of the eastern flank of Steinway Hall. (This was never possible before, but it is now that the neighboring building has been demolished to make way for the new skyscraper.)

Once the eastern façade of Steinway Hall has a few new windows punched into its side, and a lovely expanse of dressed stone fitted into its base, it will look better than ever.

The skyscraper itself will be a continuous curtain wall with views in all directions, articulated by the strong textural presence of its bronze-and-white terra-cotta infill. Other than the building’s staggered set-backs, the treatment of the surface promises to be uniform throughout its height. Though the great aesthetic thrust of the new building will consist in its height and thinness, there promises to be skill in the detailing of its surface as well.

Together with the likes of 432 Park, this planned building suggests that, for the first time in nearly 80 years, we are at the dawn of a new age like the one that Rem Koolhaas described in a book titled “Delirious New York.” Published in 1978, the book was referring to the Art Deco aesthetic that accounted for some of the most exorbitant and distinctive structures of the early 1930s, among them the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, as well as the Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue and the Squibb Building at 745 Fifth Avenue.

In fairly short order, I expect the skyline of Manhattan, certainly of Midtown, will begin to look very different, and to be defined by the spindly and iconic structures. They will stand out not only by virtue of their perilous thinness, but also by virtue of rising in relative isolation. If the high-rises of the past amounted to a forest of clashing and competing structures, the newest crop will suggest something more in the nature of a Japanese garden in which each of the plants seems to rise in glorious isolation, with its place in the sun and all the air and light it needs to live.

It’s always been one of the paradoxes of skyscrapers that their aesthetics can best be appreciated when they are allowed to rise — like the 2,700-foot-tall Burj Khalifa in Dubai — alone, with no tall buildings near them. In Manhattan, where it’s most necessary to build vertically, it’s usually impossible — because of the density of tall buildings — to see any building but the tallest.

That, however, is unlikely to be a problem in New York in the future, certainly not along Central Park South, which is being redefined by such tall and skinny towers as 107 West 57th Street. Because of their thinness, and because of the abundance of landmarked buildings in their midst, they will never be clustered together with the same density that we see near Wall Street.

Indeed, 57th Street, especially west of Fifth Avenue, is being fundamentally transformed. Quite aside from the development that’s taken place west of Eighth Avenue, the area from Park to Eighth Avenue is — a few exceptions aside — not only becoming far more residential, but apt to be the most expensive residential area in the city. Into this new environment, 107 West 57th Street will be shoe-horned, and will contribute greatly to the appeal of this crucial stretch of Manhattan.

Correction: In the December magazine story, “The skinny on SHoP’s new skinny tower,” TRD misstated the width of the building. It is 60 feet wide.

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