T O   ' N Y C   S K Y S C R A P E R S '

link to image of Downtown waterfront


The beginning | Rockefeller Center | Modernism | The future

A hundred times
I have thought,
New York is
a catastrophe,
and fifty times:
it is a beautiful catastrophe.

  Le Corbusier *


New York City has perhaps the most varied skyscraper "family" in the world. All prevailing design styles from the late 19th century to date are represented there -- as well as several buildings that have either become cornerstones in skyscraper design, or have been notable for their sheer size, stimulating imagination even more.

Neither any other city is as much defined by its high-rises than New York. For example, the Empire State Building must be as well-known a symbol around the world as, say, the Statue of Liberty.

Now, let's take a brief look at the historical background -- and future -- of the New York City skyscraper...


In the late 19th century the booming of real-estate business in downtown areas of great cities in the U.S.A., such as Chicago and New York City, combined with the new technical developments of predicting and counting loads and stresses, the use of steel frame (pioneered by William Le Baron Jenney) and the introduction of the personnel elevator.

The corporations of the industrial age proceeded to get their headquarters into the large cities, near the other related companies as well as the downtown stock exchanges. The co-operating companies often proceeded to occupy the same building, for convenience reasons, and the space needed was provided by building spacious buildings -- and taller and taller.

The first examples of these new high-rise buildings were built in Chicago, but NYC's role as an ever-growing world-trading centre with rising real-estate values made sure that New Yorkers were not going to sit idly by and watch "the inlanders" go on building higher unabated. Another reason for the office buildings in NYC taking a skyscraper form was, along with the price of land plots in itself, the fact that individual plots, derived from the colonial times, were small and sometimes difficult to assemble for the construction of a wide-based building (similar problems are still around).

Building high is not only a means of maximizing the building area but it also has a prestige value: the higher, the grander. (The height competition has in fact continued until today, when as late as in 1973 the Sears Tower (link) in Chicago took the title of the World's tallest building from the World Trade Center. Today, the world's tallest building is in Taiwan, although the new categorization may give multiple choices)

The term "skyscraper" came from sailor slang, meaning the tallest mast of a ship, and thus the new tall buildings that rose close to the mast forests of Downtown Manhattan in the late 19th century were dubbed accordingly.

The growing densities, made possible by the high-rise building, made the real-estate prices soar up, which dictated even higher building to get the most of the purchased land. The formal grid layout of Manhattan (introduced in 1811 not only because it allowed greater efficiency and economy for developing and expanding the city, but also because the buildings would be thus easier to locate and identify in legal documents), the space restriction and, in the beginning, an almost total lack of building regulations added to the incentive to build high.

Until the mid-1910s, the skyscrapers in NYC, such as the Park Row Building and Flatiron Building, were generally characterized by their influence from past architectural styles and their straightforward massing, which was dictated by developers' will to utilize the valuable plots to the maximum.

Consequently, the set-back form of the skyscrapers dating from the 1920s and prevalent well into the 1950s (like in the "stepped pyramid" of the 120 Wall Street) was, in turn, a method of "countering" the effects of the 1916 zoning regulations.

At the same time, also the style of the NYC high-rise changed along the themes of Art Deco to one of overall simplicity, yet extensive detail. The age of the set-back Art Deco skyscraper was best epitomized by such landmarks as the Chrysler Building, Empire State Building, and Rockefeller Center, which combined the ideology of new architectural "language" with extensive decor -- and sheer size.


Rockefeller Center (between Fifth and Sixth Ave. and 48th and 51st St. See a map of the center) was the giant building undertaking of the Depression era of the 1930s, and was completed in the 1940s.

The idea for a plaza-centered commercial center was derived from the original 1926-1929 plan for providing a new home for the Metropolitan Opera. To provide the open space large enough to contain the Opera house and the other, commercial, buildings, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. made a donation of land of leased Columbia University property. A design by Reinhard & Hofmeister in September 1928 included, in addition to the Opera, office towers, a 37-storey hotel, and a 35-storey apartment building. The buildings were at this point to be all built by their respective owners, with Rockefeller only acting as a land donor.

  As the market crashed in October 1929, Metropolitan Opera pulled out of the project and Rockefeller had to proceed alone in order to gain something from the expensively collected plots. The development proceeded from that point on as a privately-funded commercial venture, the largest of its kind. Its realization took Rockefeller a loan of $65 million (at a 5 per cent interest) as well as selling of personal stock for 1/40(!) of their boom years' value. Despite the hard times he also demanded extra quality in everything, like the extensive use of commissioned artwork or the stupenduous Radio City Music Hall indicated. In April 1932, after lengthy persuasion, its originator allowed the complex to be named Rockefeller Center.

The Center was a work by a group of architects under the combined name of Rockefeller Center Associated Architects (Hood & Fouilhoux, Reinhard & Hofmeister and Corbett, Harrison & MacMurray), formed in 1929 (initially for the Metropolitan Opera project). First Harvey W. Corbett, and later Raymond Hood and Wallace K. Harrison were the dominant participators in the project.

Between 1930-35 the plan for the Center was established and the first ten buildings completed. By 1940, all the original 14 buildings had been completed over the 17-acre area of the Center. The buildings were clad in Indiana limestone and had uniform vertical striping, a theme derived from Hood's Daily News Building. The center -- or the "Radio City", as it was also called -- was crowned by the Opera's commercial equivalent, the 259-meter RCA Building with its curious triple set-back of upper floors, a corporate and stylistic symbol.

Already the original plans for the Center included an extension west of Sixth Avenue, but the Sixth Ave. "El" (Elevated Railway) stood in the way until it was removed in 1939. In the 1960s and '70s the modernist buildings for McGraw-Hill, Exxon, Time-Life etc. were finally built across Sixth Ave. as an extension to the Center. Also they had similar facade themes, in this case dense striping of stone-clad supporting piers. (About the beginnings of the Extension: the Time-Life and Exxon Buildings.)

As well as a triumph of construction financing during an era of country-wide depression, the Center was even more remarkable for its vision of a large center of high-rises tied together to a complex entity by underground concourses, pedestrian routes, parking areas and shops, restaurants and other services inside the complex.

Even the influential Swiss architectLe Corbusier admitted it was sound and "harmonious in its functional elements". Rockefeller Center has been later used as an an example for other multi-block urban plans elsewhere. The Center is the working place of sixty thousand people and is visited daily by 175,000.

Article The Triumph of Rockefeller Center


It was the 1922 Chicago Tribune Building competition that brought the ideas of European Modernist skyscraper design to America in the form of Walter Gropius's entry, the 38-storey Philadelphia Savings Fund Society Building (or PSFS, by George Howe and Swiss William Lescaze, 1929-32) (link) that realized the ideas in a skyscraper design, but it was Le Corbusier, one of the other influential Modernists, who would make the proposed style a success.

In his book When The Cathedrals Were White he had written remarks after his visit in NYC in 1936. He encouraged the trend of constructing high buildings, but of remarkably different nature: instead of using as much as possible of the available building space for the building, a large portion would be left unbuilt, the building occupying only part of the plot; the building itself would be a simple slab all the way to the top, without setbacks; the facade would have to be made of glass, instead of stone or tiling, with which the skyscrapers in NYC had so far been clad. In a way, with his primary plan for the United Nations headquarters (1949-1953), Le Corbusier was himself the initiator of his proposed new skyscraper style in New York City.

The "International Style" of the skyscrapers became more and more simplified and popular among architects as the Lever Building rose over Park Avenue in 1952. Its example was then followed all over the world with anonymous glass curtain-walled office buildings, which, however, more often than not strived to maximize the interior space rather than sacrifice some for open space in a Corbusian sense (ironically, the NYC 1961 zoning revision helped the developers to -- at least as a principal -- reach both these goals). Since the 1980s, on, there has been a trend of making the appearances of the buildings more varied from the Modernist glass-walled slab form, with the old styles and materials returning to the skyline, but the old need to present the prestige of the owner has remained.


Although New York City has under the last decades suffered from severe decrease in the amount of corporate headquarters -- in 25 years to one quarter of the original -- the growth in commercial services such as banking, insurance and advertising has balanced the loss of industrial management. In 1994, out of the largest industrial and service companies in the USA, as ranked by their revenues in the Fortune 500 list, 49 had their headquarters in NYC, whereas in the second-ranking city, Chicago, there were 17 of them. The 1999 list, compiled from the revenues in 1998, still had a tally of 45 companies in the city.

Despite reductions in employment also in the service sector by the early 1990s, the continuing international connections in banking and services (as well as communications, with the highest number of Internet domains in the country after LA) continue to keep New York City as an important commercial center that will continue the tradition of building high. (New York City also continues to be regarded as a stable and safe target for real estate investment especially due to the post-Millennium upheavals in the financial markets and the loss of faith in the stock-based investment.) Sometimes that involves replacing an older structure, but that's what the nature of building in NYC -- the city that never sleeps -- has always been and undoubtedly will continue to be also in the future.

Also see
Characteristics of a skyscraper according to J. Carson Webster
- The Birth of the Skyscraper by Columbia University










lo-go © e t dankwa 19 March 2006