Tall, sure, but how will they look?

Separating the aesthetics from the ethics of the giant skyscrapers coming to Manhattan

James Gardner
As you may recall, several years ago, in the aftermath of 9/11, skyscrapers were thought to be a thing of the past. Developers, reflecting the mood of the people at large, were confident that no one would ever wish to rent floor space on one of the upper stories of a truly tall building. In the heated debate surrounding what should be built at ground zero, solicitous souls implored architects to design far lower buildings — 45 stories at the most — lest we seem to provoke the ire of terrorists, or tempt fate through our architectonic hubris.

One World Trade is heralding a new generation of skyscrapers.
That was then. Now, developers are once again vying to see who can raise the loftiest towers in the greatest hurry. Even at ground zero, One World Trade, formerly known as the Freedom Tower and initially conceived by Daniel Libeskind, is already rising. Libeskind’s design has been fundamentally reworked by the far more conventional firm of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, which betrayed the deconstructivist style for which Libeskind is known by reasserting (probably for the better) the sort of staid symmetry for which SOM is known.

The one part of the Libeskind plan that was preserved unaltered, however, was the tower’s height of 1,776 feet, which is not only symbolic of the year of our nation’s founding, but also bids fair to make the building the tallest on United States soil.

And yet One World Trade is only one of a number of prominent skyscrapers planned for Manhattan. The development firm Hines is planning construction of 53 West 53rd Street, a 1,050-foot residential tower and hotel designed by Jean Nouvel. It promises to be torqued, like all well-behaved deconstructivist buildings, and quite intrusive enough on the skyline, even though its ultimate height will be 200 feet shorter than originally intended in response to community opposition.

Its prominence, however, will be challenged by the work of another imported Frenchman, Christian de Portzamparc, whose Carnegie 57 tower, directly across from Carnegie Hall, is being built by Extell Development. Its rather jagged collection of volumes suggest the zigguratted massing of 745 Fifth Avenue, formerly known as the Squibb Building, about two blocks east.

Meanwhile, on the far West Side, in the area of the Hudson Rail Yards, the architectural firm of FXFowle has designed for the Moinian Group a 1,000-foot commercial and residential structure called 3 Hudson Boulevard. Again, in obeisance to the regnant deconstructivist style, this pale building — to judge from the renderings — twists and swerves on its axis, as Libeskind’s Freedom Tower was supposed to do, and as 1 Bryant Park is already doing, not to mention Nouvel’s 53 West 53rd Street.

As it happens, 3 Hudson Boulevard is not the only new skyscraper planned for the 34th Street area. Scarcely less ambitious is a tower intended for 15 Penn Plaza, roughly two blocks west of the Empire State Building. In a slow summer for news, this project garnered a great deal of attention, especially since the owners of the Empire State Building campaigned against approving the building at its proposed height. That effort was turned back, and the newly approved building is to be 67 stories tall, a number that is far smaller than the 102 stories of the Empire State Building, even though the height of the newer building would be, by one measurement, only 34 feet shorter than its predecessor to the east.

Top: The Empire State Building’s owners opposed the height of Vornado’s proposed 15 Penn Plaza (middle). Rafael Pelli (bottom), a partner at Pelli Clarke Pelli, is the lead architect for 15 Penn Plaza
The architectural firm responsible for the new design is Pelli Clarke Pelli, a rather distinguished firm that has built quite a bit in the New York area in recent years. We have them to thank for the World Financial Center, the Bloomberg Tower (also known as One Beacon Court) on Lexington and 58th, and the Goldman Sachs tower in Jersey City. That’s not to mention what were for several years the world’s two tallest buildings, the twin Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. (That distinction now belongs to the Burj Khalifa building in Dubai, which is nearly one kilometer in height.) In all of the buildings designed by Cesar Pelli’s firm, from the earliest to the latest, he has created an accommodation between a modernist idiom, and certainly modernist construction techniques, on the one hand, and an intuitively historicist idiom on the other. (Rafael Pelli, a partner at Pelli Clarke Pelli and son of Cesar, is the lead architect for 15 Penn Plaza.)

More specifically, the firm’s hulking, broad-shouldered buildings tend to invoke the aesthetic of early-20th-century Art Deco, with their vague mythologies and airily imperious aspirations.

The proposed building at 15 Penn Plaza, developed by Vornado, exemplifies this forceful aesthetic. On the basis of one widely published rendering, it looks like a slightly grander and less squat version of the Goldman Sachs building in Jersey City.

While it is possible to exaggerate the aesthetic success or consequence of the Empire State Building — which, after all, relies on a compromised and somewhat erroneous version of modernism — it does have an indisputable majesty to it.

The building, by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, has a stately symmetry and elegantly slender proportions, and the base of the antenna is a thrilling piece of Art Deco contrivance. Above all, it is one of the friendlier structures among the great and eminent buildings in the world; it does not overawe the viewer. Rather, it is a benign presence, a gentle giant, given that massiveness is its main point.

There is little reason to be optimistic that 15 Penn Plaza will be any match for it, with its banally undifferentiated shaft that winnows slightly toward the top, for no particular reason, either aesthetic or functional, while a groove, equally devoid of purpose, cuts down the entire height of the building. In the renderings at least, it is stunningly devoid of personality.

The larger issue it poses is one of the convergence of ethics and aesthetics. Should developers have the right to build anywhere they choose, even in the vicinity of a world-renowned landmark whose relative isolation is of crucial importance to its aesthetic effect? Of course, developers do not have the legal right to build anything anywhere and in any style they choose: There are community boards and various governmental agencies to ensure that they behave.

But in the case of 15 Penn Plaza and its proximity to the Empire State Building, this should not be an issue. We are not talking about the Doge’s Palace in Venice or Saint Peter’s in Rome or the Capitol in D.C. Rather, we are discussing two analogous buildings, each raised for the same eminently New York purpose of generating a profit from location. Just because the new arrival will almost surely be less lovely and graceful than its long-established neighbor is no reason not to admit it into the neighborhood.

At the same time, whether or not we need them, it appears that we are in for another era of energetic skyscraper-building in Manhattan.

The time may come when a catenary of ultra-tall buildings along 34th Street will create a secondary and taller skyline — seen from the north — that will drastically belittle the signature skyline that we know today.