New Old New York City
Over the last decade, New York City has seen an increase in condominium development in pencil towers that cater to the super-rich, especially along the stretch of 57th Street that has come to be known as Billionaires’ Row.1See documentation of the exhibition “New York’s Super-Slenders” at the New York Skyscraper Museum (2016). I live in Midtown, and I see these buildings every day. Most are bland and repetitive. But there is one exception: 111 West 57th Street, also known as Steinway Tower, designed by SHoP Architects and expected to be completed this year. The tower is stepped back and heavily ornamented on the east and west sides (concealing two structural shear walls), while the north and south sides boast floor-to-ceiling windows with full views toward Central Park and Downtown, respectively. This building is similar in concept to its contemporaries, in that it maximizes a very small plot of land in Midtown, taking advantage of air rights to build an egregiously tall structure. Yet it stands out in a positive way, because in Steinway Tower, SHoP Architects have produced a clever pastiche of traditional skyscraper design in NYC.
Steinway Tower’s most obvious feature, the stepped-back form, directly references a 1916 zoning resolution that restricted the height of Manhattan buildings in relation to surrounding streets.2City of New York Board of Estimate and Apportionment, “Building Zone Resolution,” July 25, 1916. The resolution, in turn, can be traced to office towers such as Ernest R. Graham’s Equitable Building in the Financial District, completed in 1915. A solid rectangle 36 stories tall, the Equitable Building overshadowed a half-mile of adjacent city, including Trinity Church directly across Broadway; public outcry against the shading-out of the church, designed by Richard Upjohn in 1846, prompted passage of the zoning law.3Sally A. Kitt Chappell, “A Reconsideration of the Equitable Building in New York,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians vol. 49, no. 1 (1990): 90–95, https://doi.org/10.2307/990500. The results are evident in many beloved buildings from the 1920s and 30s, such as the Empire State Building and the New Yorker Hotel. Another feature that separates Steinway Tower from its neighbors while linking it to New York’s design past is the ornamentation on its east and west faces, which references the Gilded Age facades of Louis Sullivan’s Bayard-Condict Building (1899) and Daniel Burnham’s Flatiron Building (1902). Steinway Tower features glazed terra-cotta tiles and bronze window ornaments that form a wave-like pattern; the tiles are painted in different shades of gray, accentuating the step-backs while creating an active visual field.
Additional historical references are visible across the mass of the building. The crown, a hollow steel structure that is inhabitable, is situated above a mechanical penthouse and a tuned mass damper. As compared to the abrupt flat roofs on surrounding buildings, the crown caps the tower elegantly. This design element evokes precedents such as the Chrysler Building (1930) and the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower (1909). Another reference to traditional skyscraper design in NYC arises in the materiality of the terra-cotta and bronze. During the early 20th century, terra-cotta was utilized across the city as a fireproof cladding, for instance in the Woolworth Building (1912) and the Manhattan Municipal Building (1914).4Lucie Levine, “10 of NYC’s most impressive Terra-cotta buildings,” 6sqft, October 4, 2018. Updated to the 21st century, the terra-cotta blocks on Steinway Tower undulate to encourage shadow play across the ornamented façades. The bronze details give the building a metallic sheen and further detailed depth, adding to the visual complexity of the façade, while remaining a touchpoint with forebears such as Rockefeller Center (1939) and the American Radiator Building (1924).
What makes the surrounding condominium towers so unappealing is a symptom of their profit-driven design: they appear alien, rejecting their surroundings so completely that they might have been built anywhere in the world. Examples of this approach can be seen just steps from Steinway Tower on 57th Street. One57 (2014) and Central Park Tower (2021) are full rectangles sheathed in glass, forms that could be mistaken for office buildings were it not for their slenderness and location. 432 Park Avenue — the tallest residential building in the world at the time of its construction in 2015 (now the third tallest) — has been likened to “a middle-finger because of its contentious height.”5Stefanos Chen, “The Downside to Life in a Supertall Tower: Leaks, Creaks, Breaks,” New York Times, May 4, 2021. Steinway Tower, in contrast, is deeply connected to New York. It could be seen as a designers’ memoir in which skyscraper history is considered and reconfigured.
In my opinion, 111 West 57th Street instantiates a specific answer to the question, “What is beautiful?” Its appeal derives from the sensuous layering of pure visual pleasures that can be divorced from function. The pencil-thin tower caters to billionaires; that is its function. But the design of this billionaires’ habitat can also be read as an array of informational layers, and in this way, the building is beautiful. More than eight million people see Steinway Tower every day, and it gives back to the public at large in the form of gratuitous enjoyment. The designers have reframed part of the architectural canon of New York City for today. Beauty becomes a civic value, free for everyone.
- See documentation of the exhibition “New York’s Super-Slenders” at the New York Skyscraper Museum (2016).
- City of New York Board of Estimate and Apportionment, “Building Zone Resolution,” July 25, 1916.
- Sally A. Kitt Chappell, “A Reconsideration of the Equitable Building in New York,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 49 no.1 (1990): 90–95, https://doi.org/10.2307/990500.
- Lucie Levine, “10 of NYC’s most impressive Terra-cotta buildings,” 6sqft, October 4, 2018.
- Stefanos Chen, “The Downside to Life in a Supertall Tower: Leaks, Creaks, Breaks,” New York Times, May 4, 2021.