accentuating verticality

The proposed 111 West 57th Street in New York (SHoP Architects)

There has been a lot of architectural press lately on the emergence of a new typology of skyscraper in the world, the ultra-thin tower for the ultra-rich. 57th Street in Manhattan has become known as “billionaires’ row,” and that reputation is only going to be further ingrained as a flurry of taller, more extravagant towers vie for the top spot, the most expensive real estate. The recently finished One57 Tower, standing slightly above the Midtown Plateau, will soon be dwarfed by these new neighbors (see image below). Ground has broken on two Robert AM Stern Architects designed neo-deco limestone towers, the long-delayed Jean Nouvel MoMA tower, and three even taller 1400 foot spires. The three tallest are the halfway-built 432 Park Avenue tower by Rafael Viñoly, the cantilevered Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill designed 217 West 57th, and the focus of this post: the SHoP designed 111 West 57th tower known colloquially as the “Stairway to Heaven.”

Diagram showing the current roster of skinny towers under construction along 57th (Joe Lertola & Bryan Christie Design via Vanity Fair)

As visually evident in the image above, the 111 West 57th Street tower will be one of the thinnest and tallest buildings in all of New York, not to mention the world, having a slenderness ratio of 1:24. This dynamic ‘feather pen’ building stands out amongst the others for its architectural merit, as I believe this building actually captures the city in a very contemporary way. The Viñoly, Nouvel, and Smith + Gill towers could all be anywhere starchitecture, and therefore appear slightly out of place at first, but will probably become synonymous as time goes on and they become part of the skyline’s story. The 111 building’s design team, unlike the two Stern buildings, took a new approach to building a ‘classic’ New York skyscraper; rather than directly replicating older forms and details. Don’t get me wrong, the Stern buildings are quintessentially New York in style, but are very conservative in keeping with traditions, whereas SHoP took elements from the most beloved Manhattan skyscrapers and created new forms combining ‘old’ materials with modern technology.

The terracotta pilasters and bronze filigrees casting shadows as they twist up the east side of 111 West 57th (SHoP Architects)

I normally argue for dense, low-rise urban forms, but if there is any place in the world where tall buildings make sense, and are part of the culture, it’s New York. The entire city is already dense, and has been for over a century, making verticality the only, and preferred, option. 111 West 57th recreates the classic New York skyscraper with a tapering of feathered setbacks, and a sculptural crown comprised of “a series of folded glass and bronze elements.” The architects deliberately chose terracotta and bronze as the main components not only because they are commonly found in older New York skyscrapers, but also as materials that age “gracefully over time.” Then, doing something with terracotta that was previously impossible, they designed a series of quarter-mile long pilasters, comprised of 30 piece sections, that undulate from side to side as they climb in a radial fashion emanating from the tower’s setbacks. The terracotta is intended to cast deep shadows which in-turn will create varying patterns throughout the day. The bronze elements slanted in-between the columns also reinforce the verticality of the overall design, as will the straight up-and-down bronze fins on the south side looking toward Midtown and the curved bronze reveals facing Central Park to the north.

The historic Steinway building will be retained and rehabilitated as part of the project (SHoP Architects)

One of the most important aspects of this tower’s design is its preservation of the existing Steinway Building, a landmarked beaux arts low-rise designed by Warren & Wetmore (of Grand Central Terminal fame). Instead of tearing it down or building up to the lot line and obscuring it, the new tower will rise behind, set back and to the side of the historic structure, allowing the Steinway Building to keep its deserving sidewalk presence. A new glass lobby will be built next door as the main entrance, a transparent lobby that will showcase the eastern facade of the older building as its western wall and purposely distinguish new from old.

Diagram showing the basic structural elements of the proposed super-thin tower (SHoP Architects)

The tower will only have somewhere around 70-80 residences, which will most likely mean that they will be out of 99.9% of American’s price ranges. Each floor is to be its own condo, 80′ north-south by 60′ wide, with full width living rooms and 14′ floor-to-ceiling windows offering unobstructed views of Central Park. Each side of the tower has a purpose, two for views and two for practicality. The simplicity of the complicated structural system is amazing for such a skinny building: elevators and MEP in the east-west elongated core attached to north-south shear walls on either side which create the rigid frame. The shear walls, although punctured with a few windows, somewhat act as a traditional party wall to its mid-block neighbors as well.

Rendering of 111 West 57th in its Midtown context next to the recently completed One57 (SHoP Architects)

Regardless of how you feel about current economics (and inequalities), this building shines as an architectural triumph, a re-envisioning of the history and place that is Manhattan. Hopefully the competition between these ultra-high-end skyscrapers will fuel even greater designs in the future, and not end in stagnation like at the end of last famous skyscraper race back in the 30’s. That race for the world’s tallest building title was between 40 Wall Street, the Empire State Building, and the Chrysler Building; some of the most cherished towers ever constructed. Perhaps I am giving too much credit to a building that has yet to be built, but I feel that a tower like 111 could join the ranks of New York skyscrapers, and be loved by more than just the select few who will ever reside there. [hour long presentation by the architects and engineers below]


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