Chrysler Building by William Van Alen, completed in 1930.
Thomas Danthony Chrysler Building by William Van Alen, completed in 1930.

I’m walking down Fifth Avenue, approaching Grand Army Plaza. It’s March and the bare trees offer a clear view of the tall buildings on the other side of Central Park. The skyline from this vantage point in Manhattan is newly dominated by One57, Christian de Portzamparc’s skinny 75-story tower, under construction on West 57th Street. This oligarchs’ aerie will be the tallest residential building in the city, but with its curved top, it’s about as poetic as an elongated Braun toothbrush.

Most of the tall buildings in my view are equally banal. The tops of the two dark towers of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Time Warner Center, adorned with a few mysterious slots, are as blankly expressive as Darth Vader’s helmet; Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA’s Brancusi-like Hearst Tower is abruptly truncated when it reaches the 46th floor; and the less said about the pedestrian Trump International Hotel and Tower, the better. The silhouette of Robert A.M. Stern, FAIA’s 15 Central Park West is the best of the bunch, but its rather pallid rendition of a prewar apartment building doesn’t exactly make my heart sing.

Things get a little better along Central Park South. If you ignore the garish red neon sign on its roof, the Art Deco Essex House is pretty interesting, though not as striking as the Hampshire House next door, which starts with a series of stepped terraces facing the park and terminates in a châteauesque roof and two tall chimneys. And if I look to the north I can just make out the two tempietto-topped towers of the San Remo. All three buildings date from the 1930s, when American architects such as Emery Roth (the San Remo), Caughey & Evans (the Hampshire House), and Frank Grad (the Essex House) knew something that most contemporary architects seem to have forgotten: how to celebrate tallness.

New York Times Building by Renzo Piano Building Workshop and FXFowle Architects, completed in 2007.
Thomas Danthony New York Times Building by Renzo Piano Building Workshop and FXFowle Architects, completed in 2007.

I suppose the amnesia began with the International Style, which insisted that all buildings, short or tall, have a flat roof. What is easy to forget is that in the 1950s, when the Lever House and the Seagram Building were built, modernist towers in New York were relatively rare, and amid a lively roofscape of steeples, temples, domes, and assorted pitched roofs, the stolid boxes had a certain stylish aplomb—like someone showing up at a black-tie dinner in sneakers. But skylines composed entirely of flat-tops are deadly.

That most American city skylines today are animated—especially at night—is probably due to the lingering influence of Post-Modernism. While Philip Johnson and John Burgee, FAIA’s Chippendale highboy top on the Sony Tower appears pretty tame today—it doesn’t hold a candle to the San Remo—Johnson did push skyscraper design in a more creative direction. I recently saw his and Burgee’s “Gothic” PPG Place in Pittsburgh which, while not as evocative as Cass Gilbert’s steeple-like Woolworth Building, has stood the test of time remarkably well. So has their Pennzoil Place in Houston, still one of their best skyscraper designs.

Of course, PoMo itself didn’t last, and architects turned in other directions. Perhaps the two most striking skyscrapers of the early 2000s are Foster’s 30 St Mary Axe in London and Jean Nouvel, Hon. FAIA’s Torre Agbar in Barcelona, both circular in plan and both rocket-like in form. Still, the fact that these buildings are popularly known as “the Gherkin” and “el supositori” (the suppository), respectively, suggests that the public sees them as odd rather than uplifting.

Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, completed in 1958.
Thomas Danthony Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, completed in 1958.

Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA, topped the New York Times Building (2007) with a crown by extending the sunscreen six stories into the air beyond the roof. From afar, the delicate corona is barely visible, but what is conspicuous is a 298-foot-tall mast—not an antenna but a sculpture. Since most tall buildings are topped by actual transmission towers, putting a nonfunctioning mast on a building strikes me as an ineffectual gesture. It does get the New York Times Building into the record books (as the fourth-tallest building in the city), since the top of the mast reaches an elevation of 1,046 feet, which is exactly the height of the mast of the Chrysler Building.

William Van Alen, the architect of the Chrysler (completed in 1930), integrated that building’s mast into the design; he didn’t simply stick it on top. But that is exactly what SOM did at One World Trade Center. There, the mast—a real antenna this time—reaches the 1,776-foot mark, making this the tallest building in the United States, at least according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, which adjudicates such things. Tall it may be, but its insubstantial exclamation mark appears lackluster compared to the robust sculptural mast atop the Empire State Building, say, or Chrysler’s lyrical pinnacle. Peter Sagal, the host of National Public Radio’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me, had it right late last year when he called One World Trade Center’s so-called sculptural antenna “the comb-over of architecture.”

Sony Tower by Philip Johnson and John Burgee, completed in 1984.
Thomas Danthony Sony Tower by Philip Johnson and John Burgee, completed in 1984.

With the London Shard (2012), Piano adopted a different strategy. He made the entire building into a spike, something that Foster had explored in the earlier (unbuilt) Millennium Tower in Tokyo. The Shard strikes me as oddly insubstantial, perhaps because the façades are composed of overlapping planes. The first spiky high-rise was surely Frank Lloyd Wright’s proposed mile-high skyscraper, the Illinois, an impressive 1956 drawing of which is currently on display in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Frank Lloyd Wright and the City” exhibition. But unlike Foster and Piano, Wright did not make his spire smooth. Instead, he introduced a series of jagged setbacks as the building got progressively taller, which is a more effective strategy: The building appears to push its way up into the sky. Had Wright’s mile-high skyscraper been built, I doubt it would have acquired a jokey nickname. People don’t make fun of buildings they admire.

Why do skyscrapers of an earlier period—even unbuilt ones like Wright’s—seem so much more convincing in their verticality than today’s designs? I think these earlier architects understood that the essence of a skyscraper was uplift. They had studied church and cathedral spires, and the role of proportion, details, and silhouette in creating the impression of upward thrust. Christopher Wren’s church spires offer a veritable tutorial. As Geoffrey Scott explained in his classic, The Architecture of Humanism: “A spire, when well designed, appears—as common language testifies—to soar. We identify ourselves, not with its actual downward pressure, but its apparent upward impulse. … We transcribe architecture into terms of ourselves.

Woolworth Building by Cass Gilbert, completed in 1913.
Thomas Danthony Woolworth Building by Cass Gilbert, completed in 1913.

John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood understood soaring when they designed the effervescent top of Chicago’s Tribune Tower, which is based on the Late Gothic “Butter Tower” of Rouen Cathedral. So did Eliel Saarinen, whose masterful second-place entry in that 1922 competition achieves the vertical thrust of Gothic architecture while dispensing with Gothic forms. The pinnacles and subtle setbacks of Saarinen’s design influenced Hood in his later tall buildings, such as the American Radiator Building on Bryant Park, the Daily News Building, and his masterpiece of skyscraper design, the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center, now called the GE Building.

It’s difficult to point to skyscrapers today that measure up to Hood’s achievement. The Burj Khalifa, designed by Adrian Smith, FAIA, and SOM, and completed in 2010 in Dubai, comes close to capturing the upward impulse that Scott alluded to. But photographs of the façade (I haven’t visited the building) suggest a degree of standardization and repetition—and an absence of scale as the building rises—that risks producing an impression of monotony. Still, the Burj Khalifa is more convincing than the other skyscrapers that have cropped up in Dubai or Shanghai and Beijing, with their twisting and turning, bending and leaning, shimmying and shaking.

GE Building (formerly the RCA Building) by Raymond Hood, completed in 1933.
Thomas Danthony GE Building (formerly the RCA Building) by Raymond Hood, completed in 1933.

Having exhausted the repertoire of funny shapes, some skyscraper designers have recently turned to “cut-and-paste architecture,” as The Guardian referred to the Office for Metropolitan Architecture’s De Rotterdam project. Retro Miesian boxes are deconstructed and reassembled in slightly haphazard fashion, like so many giant toy blocks. SHoP Architects takes a similar approach in their B2 Bklyn project, as does Frank Gehry, FAIA, in three 80-story towers proposed for Toronto. Reviving midcentury modernism in this mannered fashion is bizarre to say the least.

Today’s skyscrapers can amaze, surprise, shock, and sometimes even frighten. But they do not engage us in the way that Scott described. They make us feel puny rather than uplifted. He might have called it the architecture of inhumanism.