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Op-Ed: Top of the Heap

Since 1931, the Empire State Building has been New York City's GPS, but with a spate of supertalls obscuring the building, it could become hard to tell Manhattan from Kowloon or Pudong or Shinjuku or Canary Wharf.

By Fred A. Bernstein
November 21, 2014

In September 2001, just a few days after the World Trade Center was destroyed, I found myself outside a Broadway theater, looking up at what was, once again, the tallest building in New York. But it was a foggy night, and for a split second, part of the Empire State Building disappeared from view. Reflexively, I panicked.


Then the fog lifted, and I was fine. I needed to see the Empire State Building with my own eyes. I still do. 


But 13 years later, a spate of new buildings is getting in the way. The arrivistes, including a 60-foot-wide tower with one apartment to a floor, threaten to turn the iconic New York skyline into just another urban jumble. New York is Gotham, Metropolis, and Emerald City, a man-made mountain range with Everest at its center. Indeed, the skyline as a kind of ziggurat, reaching its highest point at 34th Street and 5th Avenue, is an asset of incalculable value.


It’s no coincidence, says James Sanders, the architect and author of Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies, that countless films of every stripe open with aerial shots of the Empire State Building. “Do we want to compromise that,” he asks, “especially in a highly visual, highly iconographic culture?”


The present skyline is “recognizable, familiar, and unbelievably alluring,” Sanders adds. “And if it’s gone, it’s gone.” Indeed, with a spate of supertalls obscuring the Empire State Building, it would be hard to tell Manhattan from Kowloon or Pudong or Shinjuku or Canary Wharf. The only movies with shots of the Manhattan skyline will be vintage ones. And in an era of branding, New York will have diminished its brand by hiding the most famous logo in the world.


Right now, at least four buildings taller than the Empire State Building are under construction in Manhattan, like tentpoles that are higher than the tent. And, if present trends continue, more will follow.


The first of the new supertalls is 1 World Trade Center, which restores the skyline, more or less, to its pre-9/11 state. Because it is symbolically important to New Yorkers, and because it is three miles south of the Empire State Building, anchoring its own cluster of skyscrapers, it gets a pass. (Manhattan has been a bipolar island for most of the last 40 years.)


But the other buildings have no such raison d’etre. One of the tallest is 432 Park Avenue at 57th Street, a gridded concrete structure expected to reach 1,397 feet. Just to the west is 107 West 57th Street, with a stepped south façade; at 1,350 feet, it will be more than 20 times as high as it is wide. Further west, One57, with its curved blue glass façade, climbs to just over 1,000 feet. And 217 West 57th, the so-called Nordstrom Tower, is expected to hit almost 1,500 feet (not counting a 300-foot spire). Though they are slim, together they will make the Empire State Building (ESB) invisible from swaths of upper Manhattan where it had long been part of the scenery. If you do manage to catch a glimpse of the ESB, it may look like it has shrunk.


Most troubling is the planned 30 Hudson Yards, an angular 1,300-foot-tall building (far wider than the buildings on 57th Street), with a cantilevered observation deck. It is one of 16 skyscrapers planned for the Hudson Yards development, which is directly west of the Empire State Building. The phalanx will block views of the ESB from large swaths of the west side of Manhattan. (Because the ESB is narrower on its east and west than on its north and south façades, it appears to be a loftier, and perhaps more beautiful, spire from those directions.) From across the river in New Jersey, the iconic tower will be just one of the boys.


New Yorkers may be, literally, lost without it. Since 1931, the Empire State Building has been the city’s GPS. Do you need to go uptown or downtown, east or west – find the Empire State Building and you’ll know which way to turn. It is to New Yorkers what the North Star is to navigators: not only a help, but a comfort. 


What can be done to avoid letting the foothills block the mountain? Assuming it’s not too late, the city should limit new construction for a mile around the ESB, to 1,000 feet. (It’s true that a building doesn’t have to be higher than the Empire State Building to hide it. When the fussy Republic Bank building at Fifth Avenue and 40th Street was erected in the 1980s, it was reviled, and rightly so, for blocking views of the Empire State Building from much of upper Fifth Avenue. A law that varies height limits according to distances from the ESB would be a more nuanced solution.)


Height limits have worked in other cities. In Washington, DC, no building can be taller than the Capitol dome (or be more than 20 feet taller than the street it fronts is wide). City leaders, who have defended the height limit against developer-led attempts to overturn it, understand the Capitol is the capital city’s crown.


New York City’s crown deserves no less. To visitors, it’s what makes New York New York, the true top of the heap. To locals, its meaning is more complex. From my rooftop in Brooklyn, it still serves as the reassuring presence I needed in the wake of 9/11. Somehow, the building is both anchor and beacon, pinning the city to the earth while helping it reach the stars. Nothing should stand in its way.



Fred A. Bernstein has degrees in architecture (from Princeton) and law (from NYU) and writes about both subjects.


More by Bernstein:


Preservation Alert: P.S. 199, by Edward Durell Stone (1963)
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Move the Farnsworth House

Mies built the Farnsworth in spitting distance of the mighty Fox River, and the house is paying a price for his hubris.


An Open Letter to Susan Szenasy re: Frank Gehry

I love and admire you. But I think you are wrong about Frank Gehry.


Eytan Kaufman Hudson World Bridge

An architect's proposal to span the Hudson River would be a gathering place like no other.


Second Look: Pavilion and Colonnade Apartments by Mies van der Rohe, 1960

Newark, NJ: Current news about "starchitects" designing high-rise housing in New York is at an all-time high, but Mies did it across the Hudson River 46 years ago.


Second Look: Tracey Towers by Paul Rudolph, 1972

Bronx, NY: How did Rudolph, a restless and challenging architectural mind, end up doing subsidized housing in the Bronx?


Op-Ed: The 2012 New York Olympics is lost. Long live the 2014 New York World's Fair.


Second Look: New York Hall of Science by Wallace K. Harrison/Harrison and Abramovitz, 1964; Polshek Partnership Architects, 2004

Queens, NY: Its power undiminished after 40 years, a 20th century cathedral to science is about to be rediscovered as a luminous addition debuts this week.


Beauty in Garbage: Naka Incineration Plant by Yoshio Taniguchi

Hiroshima: An incineration plant is devised as real-time science museum and tourist destination (complete with waterfront park).


Second Look: George Washington Bridge Bus Station / Pier Luigi Nervi, 1963

One of Nervi's few completed projects outside Italy is a superb example of the poetry he wrought from ferro-concrete.


INSIGHT: The Might-Have-Been Memorial


(click on pictures to enlarge)

Kristen Richards

Kristen Richards