New York’s 432 Park Avenue, the tallest residential building in the world, has been compared by the chattering classes to a matchstick, a dried piece of spaghetti, a giant upraised baton, a toothpick, and a cornstalk in the middle of a vegetable patch.
Words SAM L. MARCELO
Manhattan’s skyline is being rewritten by supertall skyscrapers with Icarian ambitions of touching the sun. Made of glass, concrete, and steel, they cast long shadows and tower over the four million people who make up the borough’s daytime population. New York, with its beautiful vertiginous buildings, is Babel reborn.
In the architectural sense, “skyscraper,” “megatall,” and “supertall” are words with strict meanings set by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), a Chicago-based organization recognized as the international authority on all matters related to tall buildings. According to the CTBUH, “skyscraper” refers to buildings over 150 meters (492 feet) in height, “supertall” to those over 300 meters (984 feet), and “megatall” to those over 600 meters (1,968 feet). Data from the organization show that as of June 2015, there were 91 supertall and two megatall buildings fully completed and occupied globally.
Befitting its status as a center of power, money, and sophistication, New York City is home to the most number of tall buildings in the Western Hemisphere. Of the 237 skyscrapers that have been completed, One World Trade Center is the tallest at 541 meters (1,775 feet). Its observatory, which recently opened, offers godlike views for US$32. Pay the price of admission and “see forever” as its tagline goes.
HIP TO BE SQUARE
One slender structure that stands out from the scrum of buildings is 432 Park Avenue. Located between 56th and 57th Streets, the tallest residential building in the world has been compared by the chattering classes to a matchstick, a dried piece of spaghetti, a giant upraised baton, a toothpick, and a cornstalk in the middle of a vegetable patch.
The truth might be stranger: it was modeled after the simple geometry of a Josef Hoffmann wastebasket. Rafael Viñoly, the architect behind 432 Park Avenue, confirmed this detail to High Life in an e-mail. But then, he went on to say that the square—a motif that Hoffmann obsessed over to the point of being nicknamed “Quadratl”—was more important to talk about than the Austrian designer’s Modernist marvel of a trash can. “The square itself, a shape with no definite sense of direction, was the inspiration. From an engineering perspective, it helped us to solve many of the structural challenges intrinsic to supertall buildings. It also has a timeless, perennial quality that serves our goal of making something that won’t go out of style.” Aside from having a square footprint measuring 93 feet per side, the skyscraper also has square windows measuring 10 feet by 10 feet.
The views afforded by 432 Park Avenue are comparable to those of the One World Trade Center Observatory, but infinitely more expensive. Only the 1% of the 1% can afford to own one of its 104 apartments. According to reports, the penthouse sitting atop the 96-storey building commanded a price tag of US$95 million, while more modest units started at US$7 million. It was probably these stratospheric numbers—along with the building’s monolithic design—that prompted Adam Gopnik, a staff writer at the New Yorker, to christen 432 Park Avenue “the oligarch’s erection.” “It looks to me so purely priapic in this incredibly cold way… like a runaway Russian oligarch lying prone in the middle of New York, excited at having gotten away from Moscow with all his money,” he said in a recent podcast titled “The New New York Skyline.”
As polarizing as 432 Park Avenue may be, its visual impact cannot be denied. Mr. Viñoly maintains that the building captures the energy of New York, at least from an architectural perspective, since it “organizes growth while maintaining open and democratic access on a regular streetscape.” He acknowledged, too, the inherent challenges of constructing such a tall building in a city that moves at such a frenetic pace. “Having to adapt to the quickly evolving market changes can be a downside,” he said. “We have done everything we could to respond to what the market demands in terms of amenities and the mix of unit types and to get the building up as quickly as possible. Sometimes the approval process was especially challenging but all in all, I think we’ve been quite successful in avoiding adversity.”
SCHIST AND LIFTS
Manhattan owes much of its magnificent skyline to its geology. In Central Park, outcroppings of striated gray rock punctuate the urban greenery designed in 1858 by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. It is this rock, called Manhattan Schist, which placed the heavens within reach of architects such as Daniel Burnham, who, in 1902, completed the Flatiron Building, the first of New York’s many skyscrapers.
Charles Merguerian, chair and professor of geology at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, is an expert on Manhattan Schist. In an e-mail to High Life, he explained that Manhattan Schist “provides an excellent underpinning for New York City’s skyscrapers because it is a strong rock that can withstand vertical loading.”
According to Mr. Merguerian, the story of the city’s skyline began 450 million years ago, during Ordovician times, when a sequence of former sedimentary and lesser igneous rocks were drawn into a deep oceanic trench and transformed into the minerals and textures that typify Manhattan Schist. This belt of rocks, also known by other names, stretches the entire length of the Appalachian mountain chain. While formed at a great depth (15 miles), these rocks are now exposed because of uplift and subsequent erosion.
The geology professor pointed out that the proliferation of tall buildings in New York City is possible because of the presence of Manhattan Schist (and its wear-resistant mineral components of quartz, feldspar, garnet, kyanite, and sillimanite) at or very near the surface. “Other regions are covered by glacial drift of soft sediment or weaker rocks, thus precluding massive structures,” said Mr. Merguerian. “In NYC, mega-construction projects in the subsurface are constrained in the hard bedrock.”
After the formation of Manhattan Schist in the bowels of the earth millions of years ago, another important chapter in the story of the skyscraper unfolded when the electric-powered elevator was invented in the late 19th century.
Rem Koolhaas hailed the elevator as “the great emancipator” in Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan, a classic piece of architectural analysis first published in 1978. Writes Koolhaas: “In the era of the staircase all floors above the second were considered unfit for commercial purposes, and all those above the fifth, uninhabitable. Since the 1870s in Manhattan, the elevator has been the great emancipator of all horizontal surfaces above the ground floor. … Through the mutual reinforcement of these two breakthroughs [the invention of the elevator and steel frames], any given site can now be multiplied ad infinitum to produce the proliferation of floor space called Skyscraper.”
The elevator has taken us up from the ground to the 21-storey Flatiron Building to the top of One World Trade Center. The latter is served by the fastest elevators in North America, capable of traveling 2,000 feet per minute at approximately 23 miles per hour. ThyssenKrupp Elevator Americas, the company that manufactured and installed the 70 lifts in 1WTC, estimates that it takes one minute on the express elevator (there are five, called “Sky Pod Elevators”) to get from the bottom floor to the very top of the building’s 102 stories, assuming it makes no stops.
Equipped with floor-to-ceiling LED technology, these Sky Pod Elevators are attractions in themselves. Each cab is a mini time machine that shows passengers the rise of the New York skyline from the 1500s to today. Mr. Merguerian will be pleased to know that the journey begins underground, with a digital rendering of the tower’s bedrock, the same geologic material he has studied for years—Manhattan Schist.
Geology and human ingenuity explain, in part, how Manhattan’s skyscrapers came to be but they do not explain why. Mr. Viñoly offered a pragmatic answer, saying that his objective in designing 432 Park Avenue was to make the core of the building as efficient as possible. Efficiency is highly valued in Manhattan, which, with its total area of 23 miles, is the smallest of New York City’s five boroughs. On a normal workday, the island’s population swells to four million in the daytime (about double its nighttime population) as people from other areas enter through New York’s transportation system. Given finite space and the (comparatively) infinite number of human beings on this earth, where else can buildings go but up?
“In some cases, particularly with a city as densely populated like New York, architects build skyscrapers because the heavy density creates economic conditions that demand that we maximize the use of the land,” said Mr. Viñoly. “And with cities only getting even denser, I predict that city buildings will only get taller and taller whether architects like it or not.” Logical and grounded, his reply is unlike the usual grandiloquent rhetoric thrown down from great heights. And yet—if heavy density, economic conditions, and land maximization are the only reasons to build tall—why then, the Burj Khalifa?
Soaring 2,723 feet into the air, the Burj Khalifa is the tallest completed building in the world and the first to breach the 1,968-foot barrier required to be classified as megatall. Metropolis Books and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), the architecture firm behind Dubai’s jewel in the sky, recently published The Future of the Skyscraper as the inaugural volume of the SOM Thinkers Series. In his introduction, editor Philip Nobel, an architecture critic and an architect, ponders the existence of the Burj: “Ever-increasing height, we were taught, was but a direct, one-to-one effect of resource scarcity—too little land to satisfy too great a demand. Skyscrapers, however lofty and inspiring, were merely machines to multiply the value of their sites. And yet there is a lot of room in Dubai. Set amid so much emptiness, on the very edge of untouched wilderness, no one can argue that it had to go so high to redeem an initial investment in a particular interchangeable bit of unbound desert.”
Many have compared the Burj Khalifa to “Ozymandias” given Shelley’s poetic image of legless trunks of stone standing in the lone and level sands that stretch far away. The sonnet is a cautionary tale but it also shows that mankind’s desire for monumentality has been around since antiquity. If “Ozymandias” is the past and the Burj Khalifa is the present, what is the future? The future is the yet unfinished Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, which, when complete, should top out at 3,281 feet (a kilometer, in other words); it is Suzhou’s Zhongnan Center (2,392 feet); it is Shenzhen’s Ping An Finance Center (2,165 feet).
Mr. Nobel attempts—in language, one might add, that is surprisingly untouched by the blasé attitude typical of those who live and work in New York—to limn the head-turned-up, heart-full feeling inspired by architecture that is ambitious to the point of hubris: “this new cohort of superlative-straining towers makes plain an ancient emotional impetus that was a skyward pressure, too, on previous generations of tall buildings. Not dollars and cents. Not spreadsheets and leases and codes. Certainly not the litany of features through which an agent might sell of a piece of property in the sky. No, there’s something else driving the height race. Something primal, competitive, romantic, eternal: some consequence of human minds, hard-wired to love a prospect, a mountain, needing to be high to feel safe from threat, congenitally driven to manufacture a marker on the land—the higher the better.”