The High-Rise City
Chicago might be the birthplace of the skyscraper, but New York City is undoubtedly its home. A combination of inventions, and a Great Fire, gave the skyscraper the impetus to become the building that dominates most major city skylines around the world, and for New York, skyscraper fever began in 1890 when the World Building overtook Trinity Church, a building that had been the city's tallest for over a century.
Since then, New York has seen three different skyscraper booms: 1890 - 1930, 1960-1972 and finally the current boom that began with One World Trade Center. Most of these 200+ skyscrapers are located either in the financial district or Midtown. As mentioned in previous articles, New York hasn't (at least until very recently), taken building preservation very seriously so very few of the earliest skyscrapers exist. In fact, some skyscrapers stood for a matter of years, only to be replaced by taller buildings in their very spot.
I'm sure everyone has their favourite skyscraper in NYC, here is a list of my top 10.
10. New York by Gehry
At 870 feet, 8 Spruce Street is one of the tallest residential buildings in the world, and certainly one of the most unique. The building dominated the south eastern view from my New York office and its deconstructionist architectural style is unique.
It manages to be very modern, yet right at home in the historic neighbourhood it inhabits in the Civic Centre. Don't get me wrong, this building does stick out, but in a good way.
The view of the building from certain cross streets in Tribeca is breathtaking and it seems like a bonafide giant. It's crinkling, wave like exterior provides an unforgettable facade and it's one of the few skyscrapers I've seen that I had to look at a few times before I understood what was actually going on. It's a positive addition to the New York skyline.
Best viewed from: the intersection of West Broadway and Barclay St.
9. The New York Times Building
Completed in 2007, the 52 story, 1,046 ft tall New York Times Building is a stunning piece of architecture and houses the newspaper after which it is named.
As with most new skyscrapers, the building is very eco-friendly. Automated moving shades allegedly reduce energy consumption by over a tenth, whilst it has the same sort of 'double skin' that is found on the Gherkin in London.
Lit up at night, its golden hue looks spectacular. It has an almost timeless feel about it. This is a modern building that is designed to really fit into its surroundings, something that I really admire. With its facade on Eighth Avenue, this is one of the many new skyscrapers that have been constructed in the Midtown area.
Best viewed from: 8th and 41st
8. 40 Wall Street
Originally known as the Manhattan Company Building, this 927ft neo-gothic skyscraper was built at the twilight of the city's first skyscraper boom in 1930.
It was part of one of the more famous races in the city to be crowned the tallest skyscraper in the world. When it was first being designed the building height was constantly increased to keep it ahead of the Chrysler Building which was being constructed a couple of miles north in Midtown. When the building was completed, it was designed to be exactly two feet taller than its rival. For a brief moment, it became the tallest building in the world. Its victory however, was short-lived. Unbeknown to its designers and funders, Walter Chrysler had been constructing a spire for his building, hidden deep within the building. Once 40 Wall Street had been completed, Walter Chrysler hoisted up the spire onto his Chrysler Building and within two months had taken the crown of the world's tallest building.
Since its storied founding, the building has had a chequered past. In 1946, in thick fog, a USAF plane crashed into the building's 58th story, although the building escaped major damage. By the 1990s the building was in a state of disrepair and plans were being made to raze it to the ground before a willing buyer came forward. The building is currently known as the Trump Building (no prizes for guessing that mystery buyer) and is now worth over $1 billion.
It's ornate features, and a striking turquoise roof make it the absolute jewel of the financial district's skyline and I'm glad the building wasn't consigned to the heap of beautiful New York buildings that were destroyed in the name of progress.
Best viewed from: W Hotel rooftop, One World Trade Center observation deck
7. One World Trade Center
It might be the newest skyscraper on my list, but the history of One World Trade Center is one the whole world knows about.
On 11 September, 2001, two planes flew directly into the old World Trade Center complex, destroying three buildings, including the twin towers - giant skyscrapers that had dominated the New York skyline since the early 1970's.
During my time in New York, I heard eye-witness accounts from a substantial number of people about that day, and it's something I will write about at some point. However, anything to do with an event that is still so ingrained in New Yorker's memories was inevitably going to be very controversial. One World Trade Center is exactly that building. The vast majority of people that I spoke to find the design soulless and uninspired, devoid of the emotion that's found in the 9/11 museum located directly in front of it.
Personally, I quite like the new building. Sure, it looks similar to a lot of modern skyscrapers found around the world, for instance the Gran Torre in Santiago, Chile. In other respects, it's completely different. The height, 1,776 ft represents the founding year of the United States. The building itself is the tallest in New York City, in fact, it's the tallest in the United States and it has a large footprint. The glass design cleverly reflects the surroundings, and on spring mornings, it gives off a beautiful, colourful reflection, whilst on sunny summer days its a gorgeous blue. The building has advanced security features, perhaps the most well known is the fact it is designed to withstand collisions with planes.
In addition to being the tallest skyscraper in the city, it also highest the highest observation deck which has a good view of the Statue of Liberty, financial district and Midtown skyscrapers. It's already become an icon of the NYC skyline and I think sooner, rather than later, it will be as synonymous with New York as the Empire State Building.
Best viewed from: Dumbo, Brooklyn, Governor's Island, Exchange Place, NJ or the Staten Island Ferry
6. Met Life Tower
Skyscrapers built during the first boom period lent heavily from the Chicago School of architectural thought, and the Met Life building, completed in 1909 is no different.
Built in three layers, the focus is on an ornate and decorative top layer, and the Met Life Building certainly has that. For four years, this magnificent Midtown masterpiece was the tallest building in the world. It was heavily refurbished during the early to mid 1960's, where a considerable amount of its original renaissance-esque ornamentation was removed.
However, despite this change, it still retains the feel of the older skyscrapers and the gilded cupola at the top is without a doubt the highlight as it illuminates every night in the New York skyline. In fact, it is designed in a way that even if all the other lights within the building fail, the illumination from the top will still shine. It was for this reason that the Met Life insurance company used the light prominently in all its early advertising as a slogan for stability.
For its history and its facade, its well worth visiting. At 700 ft it's not the tallest, but its at night that the building really comes into its own. The cupola providing a brilliant illumination that makes the building glitter in the New York skyline.
Best viewed from: 5th and 23rd, Madison Square Park
5. 70 Pine Street
Another skyscraper that really shines at night is 70 Pine Street. Built in a magnificent Art Deco style, the skyscraper was part of a four way race between the Chrysler, 40 Wall Street and the Empire State Building to be the tallest in the world. On its completion in 1932, it became the tallest skyscraper in Lower Manhattan and kept that record for the next 40 years.
It's gothic spire is a reflection of the popular design at the time, and it's a building that oozes character. At 952 feet, its no slouch either, easily one of the taller skyscrapers in the city.
It's lighting at night is attention grabbing to say the least, ensuring the roof and spire feature prominently. I had a clear view of the skyscraper from my bedroom and I lost count of the number of visitors who would confuse it for the Chrysler Building. It does, in my view, look like the Chrysler's Lower Manhattan twin, especially when lit up at night.
It's used primarily as a luxury residential tower these days, to cater for the growing demand for homes in the city's financial district.
Best viewed from: W Hotel rooftop, Cedar/Pine open square, One World Trade Center observation deck
4. Flatiron Building
It is described as one of the most photographed buildings in the world, and it's unique shape is still a source of wonder and amazement, despite this being the oldest skyscraper on the list.
Built in 1902, the 22 storey Beaux-Arts styled building was initially met with mixed reviews. However, today it is almost unanimously seen as one of the city's favourite buildings. Located just a block from the Met Life building, the photography area in front of the building provides good views of the Flatiron, Met Life and Empire State Buildings, and is almost always busy with tourists and photographers.
A friend of mine works in an office within the building and spoke about the severely outdated interior. Sometimes it's easily to see the exterior beauty of a building without really thinking that people still work inside. Bathrooms for men and women are on alternative floors, windows are small and it's a world removed from the offices that house large multinational corporations now.
That being said, just look at it. The design, the history and the location of the building make this one of my favourite buildings in New York.
Best viewed from: 5th and 23rd, Empire State Building observation deck
3. Empire State Building
There is no building that represents New York, nor the United States, more than the Empire State Building. It's often used as a reference point in films to show a New York or US setting. Built at the dawn of America's rise to superpower status, for over 40 years after its 1931 construction, this was the tallest building in the world. At 1,250 ft, it's still considered one of the taller buildings in the United States and is an American cultural icon.
The first thing that hits you when you first see this building is the sheer size of it. It's not only tall, but it has a very large footprint, in fact it takes up an entire block. It's one of the reasons why I was a little unsure whether I liked it or not when I first saw it - it's almost too big. It doesn't just dominate the New York skyline, in many respects it is the New York skyline. You really can't escape it, whether at street level, on higher floors or if you are across the river in New Jersey or Brooklyn.
Designed in the art deco style that was popular at the time, it ended the first phase of skyscraper construction in New York when it blew away its competitors for the race to be crowned the tallest building in the world. It's one of those buildings that you really must see to appreciate its size. In fact it's so large, in 1945 a military plane crashed into the 80th floor of Empire State Building and barely caused damage.
At night, the lights change colour, and on special events it will feature the colours most associated with the event (e.g. yellow for the release of the Simpsons Movie, pink for breast cancer awareness etc.). And it was on viewing it at night that my love affair with the skyscraper finally began. It's incomparable to anything else in the world. You can find equivalents to the World Trade Center around the world, but nothing comes close to matching this.
That being said, do yourself a favour and skip the observation deck. If you want to see the New York skyline, visit the Rockefeller Centre. Why? Because (a) if you are in the Empire State Building it means you are missing seeing a vital part of the skyline (sort of like visiting the Burj Khalifa, if you are in there, all you are looking at is desert), and (b) it's poorly designed. Unlike the open area in the Rockefeller Centre (either from Top of the Rock or Bar 65), the entire perimeter is fenced off so viewing is poor. A large number of suicides meant the fencing was a necessity, but it does take away from the view. For me, it is overpriced, the queues are too long and it just isn't worth the time.
Best viewed from: Anywhere and everywhere. You can't miss it!
2. Woolworth Building
When it comes to aesthetic beauty, there aren't many skyscrapers more beautiful than the Woolworth Building. Another one of Lower Manhattan's famous old skyscrapers, the Woolworth Building dates back to 1912 and for almost two decades, this neo-gothic building was the tallest in the world.
Today, the 792 ft building is dwarfed by One World Trade Center, but it retains a beauty that few other skyscrapers can match. In line with the dominant architectural thought of the time, the focus was on designing a building that was both functional and aesthetically pleasing and the Woolworth Building managed to do both.
It's facade is a throwback to European Cathedrals, earning it the nickname, the 'Cathedral of Commerce'. It's design was meant to make the building appear even taller than it is, the straight lines and articulated piers achieve this. However, as with the Met Life Tower, a significant amount of exterior ornaments were removed during its refurbishment during the late 1970's.
As beautiful as it is on the outside, it's the lobby that makes this building completely different to others. Considered a 20th century masterpiece, the lobby features stained glass windows, mosaics, balconies and sculptures. You must book a guided tour in advance if you do want to visit the lobby.
Best viewed from: City Hall Park
1. Chrysler Building
Before moving to New York, there was one skyscraper that I was itching to see, one skyscraper that looked unbelievable in all the photo's I came across, and it didn't disappoint. The undoubted jewel of the New York city skyline, this magnificent skyscraper is the epitome of art deco design.
Completed in 1930, the Chrysler Building was funded by Walter Chrysler, and was the headquarters of the Chrysler Corporation for over 20 years. It was also a player in the race to be crowned the tallest building in the world. It looked as though 40 Wall Street would take the crown when it raised its final height by two feet in a secret ploy when it was thought the Chrysler Building would be too far advanced to be able to counter. However, little did the architects of that building know that Walter Chrysler was secretly constructing a spire for the top of the Chrysler Building and once hoisted up, the skyscraper took its place as the tallest in the world. It also began an argument on whether spires should be included in the final height of a building.
The victory was short lived. Within a year it was dwarfed by the Empire State Building that then kept the crown for 40 years. In fact, when I first saw the Chrysler Building I was actually surprised by how much smaller it was than the Empire State Building. At 1,046 ft, its a tall building, but it is incredibly slender. Whilst the Empire State Building is a one block monolith, the Chrysler Building is a smooth, sleek and streamlined building.
The details of the building are incredible. The corners of the 31st floor are decorated by replicas of 1929 Chrysler radiator caps. More spectacular still are the ornaments on the corners of the 61st floor, beautiful shining eagles that you can make out even from street level. However, the best feature is undoubtedly the crown of the skyscraper. Built with non-rusting steel, there are 7 arches that beautifully merge together and melt into the buildings spire. It is honestly a thing a wonder. The Chrysler is just as beautiful at night. Bright white lights follow the arches and highlight the crown of the skyscraper so it can be seen from miles around.
Unlike some of the other skyscrapers on the list, there isn't an observation deck at the top. I've heard that a dentist occupies one of the higher floors, so a good way to see the inside is to sign up to his dental practice. But the most remarkable aspect of this building is the facade. New York has a lot going for it, but it lacks the overt beauty found in many European cities. However, the Chrysler Building is not only the most beautiful building in New York, it is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen.
Best viewed from: 43rd and Fifth, 43rd and Madison, 42nd and Vanderbilt,
Working in the Civic Centre, I had wonderful views of the Thurgood Marshall US Courthouse, a 600 ft tall skyscraper built in 1936 in the classical revival style. Just down the road is the Manhattan Municipal Building a 40 story building that is so wide it looks almost like a giant wall.
Perhaps one of the most divisive new skyscrapers is 56 Leonard Street, or the Jenga Building as it's more popularly known. At 821 ft, the luxury residential tower is a giant in the New York skyline, and its bold facade is built to stand out. My colleagues hated it, saying it ruined the feel of the TriBeCa neighbourhood it inhabits, I like it. It's different, loud and creative, a perfect reflection of the city.
The new Bank of America tower is the fourth tallest in the city at a height of 1,200 ft. Its asymmetrical design is certainly different and not for all tastes. I found myself undecided on whether I thought it worked or didn't, however, at night the changing lights mean that it adds a little fun to the skyline.
It isn't all beautiful, for the 10 on this list, there are comfortably another 10 that really shouldn't have left a blueprint stage and maybe one day I'll write an article on those. But for now, let me know if you agree with my choices, or if there's any skyscrapers I left out with a comment below.
Originally posted: September 2017
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.