The height of folly: Safeboxes in the sky

Can’t our society find something better to do than give billionaires playpens over a quarter-mile up?


You can never be too rich or too thin, an article in the high-fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar quipped way back in 1963. But can a skyscraper for the rich ever be too thin?

New Yorkers these days have good reason to ask that question as they look up and contemplate the latest addition to Manhattan’s skyline, the 84-floor “Steinway Tower” at 111 West 57th Street, right in the middle of New York’s Billionaires’ Row.

Just how thin does this new 111 West 57th happen to go? The Steinway Tower rises 1,428 feet up off the street. The width: 57 feet. The resulting 24:1 ratio makes this edifice “the most slender skyscraper in the world,” beating out the 15:1 ratio of Manhattan’s 432 Park Avenue and the 20:1 of the previous skinniest skyscraper, Hong Kong’s Highcliff Tower.

The architects for 111 West 57th have had to exercise considerable ingenuity to keep their handiwork upright at such a narrow width. They clad the surface, notes Financial Times architecture critic Edwin Heathcote, with spiraled terracotta molding designed to create a turbulence that will “deflect the direct power of the wind.” They’ve also incorporated into their needle’s design a “mass damper,” an 800-ton “vertical slab of steel” to limit the tower’s swaying.

All this ingenuity will no doubt be well rewarded. The developers figure to have plenty of cash to pay off their contractors. They’re hawking their 46 tower condos at price points that range from $7.75 million for two-bedrooms that each occupy entire single floors to $66 million for the Steinway Tower’s penthouse summit, an eight-bedroom extravaganza that stretches out over three full floors.

The owners-to-be of these Steinway Tower condos will all have fantastic, 360-degree views of the world’s most iconic cityscape. What they won’t have: places that anyone expects them to actually live in. The billionaires buying into 111 West 57th are essentially purchasing high-status safeboxes in the sky that only figure to be occupied a small part of the year.

No one can really call the condos in the Steinway Tower “housing,” explains London School of Economics sociologist David Madden, an ex-New Yorker. These units, he adds, aren’t serving “any social purpose.” Each one amounts to a “land-bound yacht.”

So cogitate a bit about the situation we have here: The cleverest architectural minds and the most accomplished builders of our time have constructed a modern eighth wonder of the world that will largely sit empty for the bulk of every year. And let’s also keep in mind that the new Steinway Tower hardly stands alone. Manhattan now boasts a number of similar safebox-in-the-sky skyscrapers, all built within the past dozen years. These towers may not run quite as slender as 111 West 57th, but they serve the same function. Their “residences” all regularly sit lifeless.

What sort of society, maybe we should be asking, would choose to waste its resources and talents building ever more elaborate residences without residents?

Wait, we have even more to ruminate on here. All this waste is coming at a time when record numbers of Americans can’t find decent housing they can afford. Just under half of all Americans, the Pew Research Center disclosed this past January, consider the availability of affordable housing in their local community a major problem. Only 14 percent of Americans consider housing availability no problem at all.

But the problems inherent in luxurious super tall and skinny skyscrapers, average New Yorkers are learning, can go well beyond waste. This past February, huge chunks of ice fell off the upper reaches of the Steinway Tower and injured three people below. One of the three, Deneice O’Connor, was driving her Honda at the time. The ice, the New York Daily News reported, “smashed through the car’s sunroof and windshield.”

A stunned O’Connor pulled over to the curb as long panes of ice kept falling around her. She found shelter under an awning.

“I truly believe I cheated death,” she told the Daily News.

Super-tall luxury towers, observes the architecture and design magazine Dezeen, also pose a particularly striking threat to our beleaguered environment. The floor-to-ceiling glass walls on 111 West 57th and other luxury skyscrapers give views to die for. But they also require high levels of air conditioning that make them “notoriously energy inefficient.”

In China, the global center of the luxury needle tower boom, the inefficiencies of mostly empty super talls have generated an official backlash. Authorities last October announced a total ban on skyscrapers over 500 meters and strict restrictions on towers over 250 meters, about 820 feet.

China currently hosts 99 skyscrapers that stretch over 300 meters high, the global benchmark for defining a super tall structure.

China’s restrictions on super talls have already begun encouraging some fresh new approaches to building up. The Italian design firm Carlo Ratti Associati, for instance, is incorporating the principles of “vertical forestry” into its plans for a new 218-meter skyscraper in Shenzhen, China’s third most populous city.

The Ratti Associates tower will have “facades covered in plants,” in a design that will create a vertical hydroponic farm expected to generate 270 tons of food per year, “enough to feed roughly 40,000 people” through “a self-sustained food supply chain” that manages everything from cultivation to consumption “all within one building.”

A tall, skinny building, the new tower plans in China suggest, doesn’t have to be a “svelte monstrosity to immoral excess” — one New Yorker’s tag for 111 West 57th — or aspire to “the exclusion of the 99.99 percent.” Tall buildings can have some redeeming social value.

On the other hand, the Steinway Tower suggests, grand concentrations of private wealth cannot.


If you liked this article, please donate $5 to keep NationofChange online through November.