New York City has a skyscraper complex.
Once the undisputed leader in producing buildings of that type, the city has fallen far behind. There’s little hope of ever matching the heights reached regularly now overseas, and even the city’s contender for Tallest Building in the Nation—the recently structurally complete One World Trade Center—is unlikely to overtop its rival in Chicago since its transmission tower was stripped of its planned white radome by some cost-cutting chicanery.
So it was with some relief last week when New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission gave final approval to the design of a new tower planned for 105–111 West 57th Street. At 1,350 feet, it’s no slouch—that height, in fact, will put it higher than the roof of the Empire State Building (sans mooring mast) and, at present, a respectable number 26 on the list of tallest proposed buildings anywhere in the world.
But the metric in which 105–111 West 57th may beat all-comers (for a time) is not height. As designed by New York City’s own SHoP Architects, the all-residential tower has a slenderness ratio of about 1:23. At its widest, the building will measure only 58 feet. When it is completed in 2016, the SHoP design will have a strong claim on being the skinniest tall building in the world.
Given the preponderance of narrow building sites on the Manhattan grid—the default dimensions of a typical lot are only 25 by 100 feet—perhaps this will become a new mark for the city’s developers to shoot for (if not aspire to). Indeed, another very slender tower has already been proposed for a site down the street at 217 West 57th. Will New York become a city of Skinny Minnies, the fat trunks of eras past surrounded by a fresh field of tall reeds? It could be quite beautiful. Particularly if other aspects of the SHoP design are taken to heart.
The tower’s short walls will be finished with low-iron glass (to the north, overlooking Central Park) and various sun-beating systems (to the south). But the side walls, incorporating the lion’s share of the concrete and steel structure, are a new take on something old. And they will also be very New York: a system of terra-cotta blocks, to be supplied by craftsmen at venerable Boston Valley Terra Cotta in 26 distinct profiles, ranging in shape from the nearly traditional to the almost-futuristic. The blocks will be stacked in strips between tall windows to create a kind of wavering, rippling effect—a challenge to the lingering blobitectural impulse still seen in so much new construction. I’m looking at you, Frank Gehry.
The new take on terra-cotta, and the sensitive way the tower interacts with the adjacent historic Steinway Building, no doubt warmed the hearts of the Landmarks Preservation Commission overseers. And that updating of a native New York way of building sets a worthy precedent.
"It's Art Deco meets CATIA," says Chris Sharples, AIA, a partner at SHoP involved with the project. "The idea here was, how could we design a truly New York skyscraper? Not just something that you could take from Beijing or Shanghai or Dubai and plant here."