As ‘billionaire’s row’ rises along 57th Street and architects battle for height and slenderness, what value does this designer architecture actually bring?
‘If you want to build a bad building, hire a good architect and if you want to build an outrageous building, hire a distinguished one,’ goes the old saw. New York is suffering a rush of global starchitects energetically putting lipstick on a rash(er) of enormous pigs.
The ‘billionaire’s row’ of hyper-tall apartments rising along 57th Street is Exhibit A, not simply for its wanton hijacking of the skyline and the chillingly long shadows it will cast on Central Park - but also for so literally mapping the heights of our crisis in housing affordability. Stratospheric prices reserve these pieds-à-ciel for oligarchs and the shell companies that anonymously park their money (and the occasional Rolls-Royce) in safe havens. Most owners will spend scant weeks in residence each year, tenancies calculated to minimise local tax burden.
Although the names of famous architects are attached to these buildings, they’re actually designed by lawyers and accountants, their form the outcome of negotiating the arcana of the city’s zoning system to exploit its bonuses and breaks and assemble ‘air rights’ purchased from adjacent and nearby lots.
‘The increasingly precise resemblance of our skyline to a bar graph of real-estate prices is no coincidence’
Last summer, the venerable Art Students League sold the void above its winsome 1891 French Renaissance-style digs (designed by Harry Hardenbergh, of Plaza and Dakota fame) to Extell for $31 million. This windfall may secure the school’s future (although the sale was delayed by a lawsuit by League members who argued that the price was at least $300 million too low …), but the cost will be the Nordstrom Tower, an 88-storey ‘neighbour’ cantilevering over the tiny school like a ‘giant poised to squash a poodle’ in Michael Kimmelman’s indelible phrase. When completed to the plans of Adrian Smith (of Burj Khalifa fame), it will be the Northern Hemisphere’s tallest residential structure, clocking in at 1,775 feet, one foot shorter - ‘out of respect’ says the developer - than the city’s (and the country’s) current highest tower, the hyper-homely One World Trade Center.
It’s estimated that sales of Nordstrom’s condos will net $4.4 billion. Such empty extrusions are the nearly pure monetisation of land, and the increasingly precise resemblance of our skyline to a bar graph of real-estate prices is no coincidence. The most succinct such hollow architectural signifier is 432 Park Avenue by Rafael Viñoly, which, at 1,397 feet, while a shrimp compared with Nordstrom, is nonetheless 146 feet taller than the Empire State. 432 Park - visible from almost everywhere in the city (and probably from the moon) - has its admirers, both for its slimness and for the relentless minimalism of its facades, gridded like graph paper (and bearing a strong resemblance to SOM’s 1965 Brunswick Building in Chicago, a pioneer of the look).
Evaluating these buildings devolves almost entirely on the quantitative and their architecture is judged statistically. Preening competition for height is joined by the slightly more arcane standard of skinniness, which tests both engineering quality and stages the battle of habitability. Is the building stiff enough to resist wind, earthquakes and other non-market forces? With the core subtracted, will the plate still yield useful amounts of space for actual apartments?
Current leader of these svelte-stakes is 111 West 57th Street, designed by SHoP, and touted as ‘the slenderest tower in the world’. At 1,428 feet and 80 storeys, it will hold a mere 60 apartments (46 full-floor units in its upper reaches to assure park views over surrounding clutter and 14 in Steinway Hall, a landmark seconded as its base to provide air rights and cachet). Prices will top out around $100 million.
It’s an open question if the starchitect labels on these buildings actually add much retail value. First-born of this litter, the klutzy 1,005 foot One57 - an earlier Extell product designed by Christian de Portzamparc - has been derided by critics, especially for its psoriatic skin (its shape bears a strong resemblance to a ’70s-era Helmut Jahn, if without the finesse), but still commands insane prices. Jean Nouvel’s 1,050 foot 53 West 53rd Street - ‘Live above the Museum of Modern Art in a striking expression of architectural strength and grace’ - will be more butch, with its brawny cross-bracing and tapering shape but, really, does anyone care? The architect’s brand is just one among others, a fillip added to the super-luxe appliances, the slather of onyx and bubinga, the exclusivity, the ostentation, the location, the Olympian views, the sense of superiority and self that only comes from spending the equivalent of the GNP of Burundi on an apartment.
On a visit to Yale, Frank Lloyd Wright was asked where he’d want to live if obliged to pass time in New Haven and elected the Harkness Tower, a neo-Gothic spike. When his interlocutor wondered why, he replied that it was the only place in town from which you couldn’t see the Harkness Tower. Unfortunately, there’s almost no place left in New York to hide from this plague of designer pork.