It can look like there's a glitch where the Manhattan skyline meets the southern edge of Central Park, as if the image of the city is breaking up with shiny bars of static appearing and shifting across the screen. That Midtown skyline, for so long anchored by the gleaming, illuminated, exuberant crowns of the Chrysler and the Empire State buildings, has been distorted by a new row of skinnyscrapers.
"Make no little plans," said the 19th-century US architect Daniel Burnham, "they have no magic to stir men's blood." But these towers do have little plans, tiny plans, in fact. Yet they also appear to have some magic: albeit the latest of them has been compared to a coffee rather than a blood stirrer.
The just-completed 111 W 57th is an impossibly slender stick with a crown that resembles a pack of very narrow cards in mid-shuffle. Its ethereal profile makes it the purest illustration of architecture as an expression of surplus capital. It is as if the wealth that has recently been accruing to the very wealthiest, in Pikettian terms, were represented as a graph and built in three dimensions: wealth manifesting as solid form.
Of course, money has always been manifested in architecture, through scale, luxury and labour. But here it achieves its endpoint, its most exquisite and extruded expression. The latest spike in the unhealthy ECG skyline of Manhattan's wealth-check joins the others in Billionaires' Row, which kicked off with One57 in 2014 and includes Central Park Tower and 220 Central Park South.
111 W 57th rises 1428ft (435m) from a glass sliver squeezed out of the side of Steinway Hall and it ends in a feathered crown that peters out into a web of diaphanous bronze. It is, in its way, quite brilliant. Superbly engineered, elegantly designed. But what exactly is in this exquisitely extruded stick? What does it mean? What does this extreme architecture tell us about Manhattan now?
"The Supertalls", Sharon Zukin, a sociologist, writer and academic, tells me, "help to create a subjective legitimacy for New York as the capital of capital . . . [but] they look out of proportion with human experience. As I walk around and see these needles piercing the skyline I try not to react emotionally but they monopolise the sky and rob us of sunlight."
The supertalls do certainly exert an outsize presence on the city. Their visual impact is out of whack with their engagement, their effect on citizens who will never be invited into them.
"The first thing you have to understand," says David Madden, an ex-New Yorker and professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, "is that this isn't housing. It isn't serving any social purpose. It's a luxury good, more like a land-bound yacht."
Madden points me towards a neat phrase coined by urban planner Samuel Stein: "vertical sprawl", the uncontrolled growth of a city not outwards but upwards. "I'm not opposed to the height at all," Madden says, "it's that the height has been wasted."
111 W 57th is the apotheosis of the city understood as real estate value rather than urbanity. These buildings, aimed at an often-absent class of super-rich, are often dismissed as safe deposit boxes in the sky. But is that a little simplistic? Is there really no more to it than stacked cash?
After all, the developers of the site — a joint venture by JDS, Property Markets Group and Spruce Capital Partners — have expensively and carefully retained the impressive 1925 Steinway Building, designed by Warren and Wetmore, architects of Grand Central Terminal and the Helmsley Building for the eponymous piano manufacturer. Once a mix of retail, warehouse and recital space, it now includes the grand, domed restored Steinway Hall and 16 storeys of stone-clad space transformed into private amenities, 14 apartments and some retail.
When you look up close you see that the tower, containing 46 condos, which looks so smooth and ethereal from afar, is actually clad in strips of complex terracotta moulding, with spiralling forms intended to evoke those on the Neo-Gothic Woolworth Building. The twists create turbulence to deflect the direct power of the wind, breaking it up across the surface. And that crown, the deck of cards with its stepped profile, is a gentle nod to the setbacks of the great Art Deco skyscrapers.
Each apartment has (at least) a floor to itself, interiors by Studio Sofield and its own elevator entrance. These are homes lifted above the physicality of the city and deliberately denuded of the possibility of accidental encounter with a neighbour or an ordinary citizen.
The apartments are marketed through their views across the city in every direction, astonishing yet divorced from the visceral experience of New York itself. That disembodied view, floating over but alienated from the city, is its essence: the park, the skyline, the Hudson and East Rivers, the rows of red brake-lights one way and white headlights the other, all appear as spectacular representations. The map, not the territory; soundless, stripped of smell or sensation. The view is owned in perpetuity because nothing can be built on the park to the north and most of the air-rights to either side have been bought up to facilitate the tower's great height.
The interior designers have appeared to struggle a little with the corporate nature of the glass curtain wall (unlike, say, at 432 Park, where the windows appear as squares punched into a blank solid facade). Floor-to-ceiling glass captures the view but never feels quite like home. Studio Sofield attempts to create a sense of domesticity through the more private bathrooms in which the walls and fittings are of Italian onyx, its extreme weight in strange contrast to the lightness of the glass walls elsewhere.
The building is branded right down to the bronze door handles, which appear in the stepped form of the tower itself. Their Art Deco evocation seems an attempt to commodify the identity of the building and reduce it, quite literally, to something you can hold in your hand. It's another kind of ownership: logo architecture.
The extreme slenderness of this tower is a form made logical only by the insane real estate prices of this neighbourhood. Cass Gilbert, architect of the 1912 Woolworth Building, cited by the architects as an inspiration, said "a skyscraper is a machine that makes the land pay". But this is less the machine itself than a blade, a drillbit. With a plan-to-height ratio of 1:24 it is the slimmest of the pencil towers, the skinniest ever built. The previous record holder, Hong Kong's Highcliff Tower, had a ratio of 1:20, 432 Park Avenue only 1:15.
The profile may be slim, but the apartments are pretty big. Prices range from US$7.75 million to US$66m (NZ$12.1m to NZ$103.1m), with the cheaper ones in the historic building below and the most expensive being the triplex penthouse (eight bedrooms, 10 bathrooms) at the top.
The tower apartments measure 4492 sq ft (417 sq m), a bit more than five times the size of an average Manhattan rental apartment. There are three bedrooms, a Great Hall and the usual accoutrements of luxury living, from dressing rooms to an oversupply of WCs.
Bigger than most of the grandest condos in the historic co-ops, these kinds of purchases do not subject their potential owners to the same scrutiny as those notoriously fussy co-op boards.
The apartments can be bought through offshore entities, their ultimate owners obscured, along with the sources of their wealth. And, like much of Billionaires' Row, they will probably remain largely empty. "These are not apartments for New Yorkers," says sociologist, urbanist, author and near neighbour Richard Sennett.
There have been suggestions that this is an exemplar of density, a hint to the future of city centres. Gregg Pasquarelli, one of the founders of SHoP, the architects of 111, tells me that the tower "occupies only the space of perhaps three brownstones". In other words, to accommodate this many HNWIs at street level would take up an entire city block.
"The problem with super-thin high rises," writes Samuel Stein in an essay for The Baffler, "is not their size per se, it's that so few people live in them".
Stein compares it to a kind of vertical suburbanism. But the residents at 111 W 57th eschew the gardens and attics of a house for those views. These are maximum security units, with only a single point of entry at street level (and, worryingly, only a single stair for escape). Is it better to isolate billionaires into a very visible landmark taking up minimal space at ground level rather than occupying entire rows of under-inhabited housing? And surely no one would argue that if this tower had not been built, the site would have been given over to social or affordable housing.
"The supertalls have killed 57th Street," says Sennett. "It used to be a cosmopolitan neighbourhood of actors' studios, small offices, studio workshops, housing . . . now it's only chain stores, the little restaurants have all closed and the only people around are doormen. The towers represent an absence, of their residents and of what has become a ghost street."
Yet the tower has received remarkably good press. Pasquarelli is understandably pleased with it: "A century ago people were complaining about the condo co-ops on Fifth Avenue, about knocking down brownstones and single-family dwellings. When your city stops changing that's when you should be worried."
There have been gushing editorials about its slender profile, its elegant echo of Deco, the fineness of its terracotta and bronze facade. Its engineering is an incredible feat, made possible by advances in concrete technology and by a new generation of lift cables which were once woven of heavy steel but can now been made of lightweight carbon-fibre. In contrast to this new lightness there is also the tuned mass damper, an 800-tonne vertical slab of steel that slows down the sway of the slender tower in the wind (it still sways, but perhaps less noticeably).
There are criticisms of the long shadows cast over Central Park but, in truth, the slimness of the tower means the darkness passes fast, moving across the grass and casting far less shade than the stubby condo towers that were previously the default type.
There may be legitimate concern about the way in which these towers commodify a view of Central Park, which is a public amenity funded by those who pay taxes here, a building that casts shade but gives little back to the city. It also wasn't a great look that SHoP managed to stymie an attempt by its architectural workers to unionise during construction of this tower for the super-wealthy.
But perhaps the real critique here is of the lost potential of the skyscraper. Sennett refers to the difference between Billionaires' Row and the Rockefeller Center, a place of constant public and civic activity. In Rem Koolhaas's 1978 book Delirious New York, written as the city was mired in bankruptcy but while its cultural scene was, arguably, at its apex, the Dutch architect argued that the skyscraper contained all the potential of a self-contained city. A "social condenser" is what he called it: "A machine to generate and intensify desirable forms of human intercourse."
The slender profile of 111 W 57th represents the proud nail in the coffin of that potential. It transforms an archetype which was, since its birth at the end of the 19th century, a container built to accommodate the complex needs of the contemporary metropolis.
The skyscrapers of the golden era, the 1920s and 1930s, aspired to the condition of the vertical city, connecting the street to the sky via a labyrinth of corridors and arcades, shops, hotels, restaurants, subways, studios, theatres and, of course, offices with their own set of stratifications from secretaries to executives. This skinny tower aspires to something very different, the exclusion of the 99.99 per cent.
Ultimately, this is a skyscraper that has been built because it was possible, physically, economically and politically, to build it. Finance and engineering collide in the refinement of a new, very contemporary type of tower. It is, in its way, just as emblematic of its time as the buildings of the 1920s were of theirs. The economies of global cities are built on real estate, that is how they maintain growth. These towers may look insubstantial, but this is not a glitch. It is the new reality in which unimaginable wealth towers over the city uncontained, not by accident but by design.
• Edwin Heathcote is the FT's architecture and design critic
Written by: Edwin Heathcote
© Financial Times