Six Ways of Looking at Supertalls

Observations on New York’s sky-high columbaria of burnt money

There are now more than twenty supertalls in New York, six in Midtown alone. The flashiest are arranged laterally in what’s called Billionaire’s Row. Left to right: 432 Park, 111 West 57th, One57, hell, and 220 Central Park South. Maxfield Schnaufer

If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without ascending it, the work would have been permitted.

—F. Kafka, The Zürau Aphorisms

  1. Christian de Portzamparc returned from New York to Paris in late 1967, having decided during his sojourn abroad that he no longer wished to be an architect. By May of the following year, the “eco-hippie-Marxist”—as he later described himself to an interviewer—felt only more convinced by the political convulsions then seizing the city that psychology, not design, was the only field capable of comprehending a society in such drastic flux. At some point over the ensuing five decades, after winning the Pritzker Prize and designing the French embassy in Berlin and cultural and institutional projects the world over, an older, presumably wiser de Portzamparc must have reflected on the strange path that had carried him to the peak of the architecture profession, and wondered, Is this it? And so it was, back in New York for his first major residential project in the United States, that de Portzamparc designed One57 (originally Carnegie57), the tallest apartment building in the city at the time of its debut in 2014. A fire broke out in a loading dock during construction; months later, a facade panel fell twenty-two stories; portions of the structure took months more to repair and complete. Formally, it’s a sort of tinsel fright wig, flat on one side and sloping on the other, and covered from top to bottom in radical-dude electric-blue glazing. When it was finally finished, critics all but ignored it, and it held the tallest title only for four months. Perhaps its creator had missed his calling after all. Or perhaps he hadn’t, for the building was successful as an act of cultural diagnosis, a 1,004-foot-tall projection of the collective essence. It was the comet, for good or ill, of everything that followed.

  2. I am of six minds, like a supertall tower that has only six people in it—this is a metaphor, but it is also more or less true. The fact that so many of the recently completed, 900-foot-plus-tall residential skyscrapers along Billionaires’ Row in Manhattan are somewhat scantly populated is common knowledge by now: recent research from firm ATTOM Data Solutions shows owner occupancy around the 57th Street corridor as much as a third below the citywide rate, a state of affairs confirmed in December by The Atlantic’s Bianca Bosker, noting in her piece “How Tall is Too Tall?” that at 432 Park, “many units have owners but not dwellers.” Completed in 2015, the Rafael Viñoly–designed 432 is the second-oldest and third-tallest residential supertall in the city, and it serves as a sort of mascot for the whole collection, which now includes some thirteen buildings, six of them in Central Midtown. That all of these have been built, even while four units inside Viñoly’s infamous white waffle iron have yet to find a buyer, is surely a sign that these projects operate by a mysterious logic of their own, one demanding either a very novel defense or a very thorough debunking. And yet, even after weighing all the competing claims, I find that I am left mostly with a diffuse, hamstrung sort of ambivalence. Certainly, something is amiss with these “steroidal totems,” as the Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright has called them; but amid so much contradictory evidence, it’s hard to reach bottom. Or, rather, top. Absent the Deco setbacks that helped him ascend the Empire State, poor old King Kong clambers and shimmies up the sheer face of the Viñoly spire, and when he achieves the summit he looks about him only to see… more supertalls. Grotesque and awesome and profligate and silly, the buildings leave the viewer stymied, at odds even with the idea of being at odds with themselves. And maybe it’s just a coincidence, but doesn’t that almost seem to be how 432 Park feels about the situation? Well, here I am, it appears to say. Don’t ask me.

  3. One night in 2015, while the architecture world slept, Robert A.M. Stern unearthed the corpse of Rosario Candela, designer of some of New York’s most outstanding prewar apartment buildings and absconded with it back to his office under cover of darkness. The body, in a remarkable state of preservation, was given over to Stern’s longtime associates, who proceeded to mount it on an elaborate accordion-like mechanism that repeatedly stretched and compressed the great man’s remains, while simultaneously replacing bits of his brain with accounting software and CAD programs. Incredible as it seems, this treatment succeeded in restoring Candela to life, allowing him to return to work immediately, albeit with the peculiar qualities of now being very thin, very tall, and unable to speak save for a few barely discernible mutterings about floor area ratios. It was in this much-changed but basically competent state that Candela assisted Stern in the creation of the 953-foot-tall 220 Central Park South, a persuasive and indeed quite gratifying take on some of the exhumed maestro’s earlier work, though now oddly distended along the vertical dimension as a result (one infers) of Candela’s altered sense of bodily scale and proportion following his revivification. Sadly, Candela did not last to see the project’s completion, having been abducted by a cabal of unreconstructed Modernists mere weeks after the scheme was finalized and slain in a ritual sacrifice at the top of the MetLife Building.
The pure sensation of new architecture lasts only as long as the smell of freshly forged steel, and as the city presses forward with still more supertalls, their proliferation threatens to compound their banality.
  1. Among the supporters of the supertall phenomenon, one of the most vocal is Bosker’s fellow Atlantic contributor Jerusalem Demsas, the title of whose July 2022 article “Let the Rich Have Their Supertalls” pretty much says it all, but who nonetheless embarks on a lengthy disquisition to the effect that if the developments fill the general coffers with tax revenue, why not sit back and live off the fat of the land? On the other side, among the doubters, perhaps the most pointed to date has been Aaron Timms, writing in The Baffler in 2018 (under the equally self-explanatory, though much funnier, title “The Needles and the Damage Done”) that the towers are “in the city but not of it,” sapping its vital density and social energy only to herald “the triumph of the Bloombourgeois.” He missed a trick there, what with “Bloom-oisie” staring him right in the face, but the point still stands. Trouble is, that view isn’t so much a refutation of the pro-supertall position as it is a deferment of its central financial argument, an urbanistic on-the-other-hand; even its implied political criticism, which has also received plenty of airtime, amounts only to the insistence that supertalls don’t contribute enough to the public weal and don’t siphon off enough billionaire bucks to justify their affront to civic values. There is, however, a further critique, lying just beyond the last one, though in rather duskier terrain. Is it possible that these weird columbaria of burnt money are the evidence not just of global neoliberalism in process but of that process’s terminus, the self-consuming end point of accumulation? Are we, in other words, in the pharaonic part of the gyre, the piling up against eternity that only portends the destruction to come? Jean Nouvel’s 53W53 looms darkly over the floodplain: far below, the idols tremble in their recesses, Glenn Lowry clutching at a lapis collar. All at once the waters open and then—well, I don’t know. For me, it’s easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of capitalism being ushered in, or meaningfully prefigured, by a few buildings, even exceptionally doomy ones. Then again, it would hardly be surprising to learn the Nouvel tower was built on caves of ice.

  2. “The building is actually clad in strips of complex terra-cotta, with spiraling forms intended to evoke those on the Neo-Gothic Woolworth Building,” said the Financial Times’s Edwin Heathcoate, in his review of the 1,428-foot 111 West 57th from SHoP Architects. “The Cathedral of Commerce,” said Rev. S. Parkes Cadman, in response to first seeing the actual Woolworth Building, the tallest in the world when it was completed in 1913. “The Gothic architecture arose … block heaved upon block by the monk’s enthusiasm and the soldier’s force,” said John Ruskin, in The Stones of Venice. “I’m gonna break the mold and build this supertall building non-union,” said developer Michael Stern—or rather Gary LaBarbera, president of the New York State Building and Construction Trades Council, said that Stern said that. “Mr. Stern maintains that he has never said that he is planning to complete these projects without union workers,” said one labor-relations blogger, referring in particular to 111 West 57th, said to have been completed in 2021, largely without union labor. “We have seen how the fear of the unknown, along with misinformation, can quickly overpower individual imaginations of something greater,” said a statement from SHoP’s incipient union group, explaining their decision to cease organizing efforts at the office last year. “All buildings move. It’s about tailoring that movement,” said Simon Koster, an employee at Stern’s JDS Development, describing the 800-foot damper that prevents 111 from swaying beyond what the human brain can endure without nausea or headaches. “As a statement, it’s infuriating; as architecture, it earns its place on the skyline,” said New York magazine’s Justin Davidson, as sound a Solomonic judgement as ever there was. “A skyscraper is a machine that makes the land pay,” said Cass Gilbert, the genius. “$21.5 Million Unit at New York’s Slender Supertall 111 West 57th St.,” said the Wall Street Journal, adding that “the buyer has not been identified.” “It inspires feelings too deep even for tears,” concluded Rev. S. Parkes Cadman. He then “dabbed his eyes”, said the Daily News, “as he peered across Broadway and heavenward.”

  3. And what about light and air? Licht und Luft and all that? They used to be big. For the foundational generation of Western Modernism, the aesthetic as well as the social degradations of the early-twentieth-century city all stemmed from a single underlying crime, the blotting out of blue sky and sunshine by a dense canopy of granite. This the new architecture was bound to remedy. “Here is the city with its crowds living in peace and pure air”: that’s how Le Corbusier introduced his Ville Contemporaine, a place that would be “bathed in light.” For Corb’s latter-day adherents, the long shadows of the supertalls are not the least of their menaces—though in the main, the architectural profession has moved on, content to accept the thickening of the urban fabric as a necessary hedge against its outward sprawl. And in any case, for those of a certain disposition, a dimmer, more robustly artificial city isn’t necessarily something to lament. (“I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass,” Frank O’Hara famously wrote, “unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.”) For such as them, the threat of the new residential supertalls from a purely artistic perspective is something else. The most recent addition to Billionaires’ Row is the Central Park Tower by Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture; at 1,550 feet, it is not only the latest but also the largest of the Midtown towers. Architecturally, it’s a little dull, lacking anything like SHoP’s ecclesiastical stylistics, or Stern’s brazen nostalgism, or even Viñoly’s graph-paper clarity. But its real failing may be circumstantial: it just doesn’t feel that big anymore. If the last-line defense for these buildings is the purported excitement they bring to Manhattan’s prickly-pear skyline, something worrying is afoot when a building as large as this one feels so unimpressive. The pure sensation of new architecture lasts only as long as the smell of freshly forged steel, and as the city presses forward with still more supertalls, including OMA’s 41–47 West 57th St. (proposed height: 1,100 feet) and Meganom’s 262 Fifth Avenue (1,000 feet) and KPF’s 520 Fifth Avenue (995 feet), their proliferation threatens to compound their banality. Even now, from 154 blocks away, I can just make out the silhouette of the Central Park Tower through the trees along the Concourse. A wind combs the leaves of the upper branches, the building appears in gray relief, and for one chilling instant, it’s almost as though nothing were really there.

Ian Volner holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in flagrante delicto, and has contributed multiple reactions to The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, New York magazine, and Leg Show, among others. He lives in the Bronx with his choices.