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New York’s new skyscrapers

THE FLUCTUATING TROUGHS and crests of New York’s skyline have always registered another set of shifts: that of the seemingly incessant stratification of money and power in the city. The past year has been marked by a particularly accelerated spate of construction, one dominated not just by the starchitect but by the star building. First came 157 West Fifty-Seventh Street, or One57, Christian de Portzamparc’s awkward, crested tube of glass panels, finished in August. Now 432 Park Avenue, an ascetic monolith of stacked squares designed by Rafael Viñoly, is nearing completion. Rising fast behind are SHoP’s 111 West Fifty-Seventh Street—the filigreed facade of which will soon sheathe the world’s slenderest skyscraper—and the Nordstrom Tower by Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill, a spired stack of rectangular glass that will top out just one foot shy of One World Trade Center. On Central Park’s south-east corner, Robert A. M. Stern’s 520 Park Avenue will anchor this promenade of new towers—already being called “Billionaire’s Row”—in limestone-clad traditionalism.

These high-rises are the forerunners of a new typology: the ultratall, ultraluxury residential tower. At times exceeding ten thousand dollars per square foot, the extreme cost of their development is engineered to yield exorbitant purchase prices. Minute floor plates—a mere 4,800 square feet in 111 West Fifty-Seventh, for instance—are economically practical only in New York City, where space is tight and the cost of real estate can become stratospheric. The slender silhouettes of these structures don’t only signify technological virtuosity and aesthetic refinement; they make a new kind of exclusivity possible. Residences are typically floor-through, with sweeping panoramas that confer high status and command commensurately high sums.

Much of the public conversation generated by these buildings hinges on their aesthetic effect on the city—prompted in large part by One57’s alarming ugliness. Critics have called the building a “joke on the city” and compared its dark panels to age spots. Yet One57 only accomplishes clumsily what its peers have achieved with more panache: the pairing of extreme height with a taut, sleek skin. Its garishness simply makes the dramatic proportions and reflective facade that are the hallmarks of the new typology harder to swallow. More concerning are the disjunction of scale and dislocation from context common to all these projects, which affirm a separate, high-altitude city for the rich. Indeed, any discussion of the aesthetic merits of these buildings is inseparable from the ire provoked by their obscene cost—for example, the reported $130 million price tag of the penthouse at 520 Park, or the $95 million equivalent at 432. In a city chronically strapped for affordable housing, these aloof facades and astronomical prices seem to prove once and for all that New York is being transformed into a resort for the oligarchs and tycoons of late capitalism.

Yet these ultraluxury towers are precisely not a playground for the superrich, simply because the buyers of condos and penthouses in buildings such as One57 and 432 Park don’t plan to live in them. These properties are places to park money and minimize the taxes on it; they aren’t homes, they’re investments. Politicians who support them (former mayor Michael Bloomberg most prominently) and developers that build them (for example, Extell) extol the influx of capital that first construction and then affluent tenants will bring to the city. Yet with their residents globe-trotting, these apartments will likely stand empty. So while the proliferation of these glass skyboxes might raise concerns about a new panoptic gaze, with global elites perched above the city watching the plebs below, it is in fact the view from the street skyward—the public’s craned-neck stare—that is of greatest concern. If an address is merely an asset, and no one is home, then who are these new towers for?

Even if New York’s skyscrapers have long broadcast the power of capital to the city’s public, the luxury high-rise has radically shifted the nature of that message. In the 1920s and ’30s, the first era of skyscraper frenzy, most new construction housed offices, creating literal sites of economic production that were also centers of frenetic urban energy. Such buildings had a massive presence in the city—think of the block-wide base of the Empire State Building, or the generous plazas anchoring Rockefeller Center—and they invited the public to explore their courtyards, lobbies, and observation decks. A visit to the top of the Empire State, for instance, was a means of inhabiting the awesomeness of the built environment, of participating in a kind of public celebration of a structure that was heralded as an icon of the city. Today’s needle-thin towers are the product of capitalism at a different stage: global, diffuse, and opaque. Their perverse emptiness reflects an economy of speculation and the closing of the skyline—one of the city’s most spectacular public spaces—to any notion of the public sphere. With architecture no longer a site of production but just one more asset to be leveraged, there is little need to physically connect city and building, or to invite the public into the latter. New Yorkers are left with sore necks, the inevitable effect of their strained efforts to apprehend the city’s most exclusive spaces.

Caitlin Blanchfield is an editor in the office of publications at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture in New York.