aerial view of the Empire State Building
Aerial view of the Empire State Building.

Skyscrapers: boon or blight? That appears to be the perennial question. For architect Cass Gilbert, designer of the famous Woolworth Building, the high-rise was a “machine which makes the land pay,” a response to various needs in the modern era of urbanization. But to critics, they were “freak” buildings destroying the ‘good city’ in a vainglorious attempt to create monuments by and for builders. In our time, that debate continues, more or less in the same terms.

A survey by the Skyscraper Museum found that there are only 58 buildings in the world that surpass 1,250 feet — the height of the Empire State Building — seven of which are located in New York City. The survey includes all buildings that in fall 2019 were believed to have a completion date by 2024.

On January 20, join Untapped New York’s Chief Experience Officer, Justin Rivers, and Peter-Christian Aigner, Director of the Gotham Center for New York City History as they dig into the history of skyscrapers with Jason Barr, an economic historian at Rutgers University and the author of Building the Skyline: The Birth And Growth Of Manhattan’s Skyscrapers. Learn about the birth, rise, and continued expansion of Manhattan’s skyline; the historical, economic, political, and geographic reasons for the construction and heights of supertalls and skyscrapers; and the good, bad, and ugly of the debate over this iconic architecture and its various impacts on Gotham. The event is free for Untapped New York Insiders (and get your first month free with code JOINUS).

aerial view of the Empire State Building

Building the Skyline: the Birth And Growth Of Manhattan’s Skyscrapers

Only one structure in the world, the Eiffel Tower, reached the height of 1,000 feet before 1929. The Chrysler Building reached its spire to 1,046 feet, and in 1930, the Empire State stretched to 1,250 feet. Supertalls were quite rare in the 20th century — the only supertalls constructed by 1974 were the Empire State, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, and Chicago’s Sears Tower. The first international supertalls were office buildings in southern China’s Pearl River Delta: Shun Hing Square in Shenzhen and CITIC Plaza in Guangzhou, both completed in 1996. In 1998 the twin Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur took the title of “world’s tallest building” away from the United States for the first time. The last of the 20th century’s giants was the slender Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai.

The development strategy of these supertalls is to pack as much of the FAR (floor area ratio) as possible into a very small footprint, especially since there are zoning restrictions on the FAR in New York. Architects and developers also tried to raise each floor of apartments as high up as possible to capture spectacular views. Elevators could be reduced to two to five shafts, unlike an office building, which also keeps the FAR profitable for the developer.

Since 2014, New York skyscrapers began to blossom. First came One World Trade Center in 2014, then just a year later 432 Park Avenue — which drew quite a lot of criticism. 2019 saw the opening of 30 Hudson Yards, and 2020 was an exciting year for supertalls as One Vanderbilt, 111 West 57th St and Central Park Tower all were completed. Learn more about the history and features of New York skyscrapers. Here are New York City’s seven supertalls!

1. One World Trade Center

1 World Trade Center, one of the tallest New York skyscrapers
One World Trade Center.

One World Trade Center, previously known as the Freedom Tower and one of the most recognizable New York skysrapers, is the tallest building in the U.S. and in the Western Hemisphere, as well as the sixth tallest in the world. The building stands at the symbolic height of 1,776 feet, in honor of the year in which the Declaration of Independence was signed. The height includes 408 feet of the spire. The building’s architect is David Childs, whose firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill also designed the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, and the Willis Tower. It overtook the Empire State Building as the tallest structure in New York City on April 30, 2012.

Floor area was as significant as height in the 1960s and ‘70s in the construction of supertalls. Each of the Twin Towers of the original World Trade Center independently qualified as the world’s largest building — with a floor area of 4.5 million square feet — as well as the world’s two tallest buildings at 1,363 and 1,368 feet. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, many predicted the end of skyscrapers, since people would be too afraid to work or live in them. Yet these fears were short-lived since the construction of the 94-story building began as early as 2006. One World Trade Center has an area of 40,000 square feet, nearly identical to the footprints of the original Twin Towers. Remnants of the original World Trade Center are still located near One World Trade Center, including the Twin Tower tridents, the slurry wall, the Koenig Sphere and the Survivor Tree.