The Needles and the Damage Done

The narrowfication of Manhattan architecture

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What kinds of people did I expect to find here, in the public garden at the foot of 432 Park Avenue, New York’s tallest residential building? In the days before I arrived in Manhattan to chart a course across the city, I’d studied the plans and websites of the “supertalls,” the new crop of skeletal residential towers rising one thousand feet and more above midtown. The architects’ renderings of these new superstructures were charged with all the clichés of the genre: the plate-glass exteriors knifing skyward, the unobstructed views of the miniature city below, the lobbies at once massive and discreet. The humans were harder to grasp. Artists’ impressions showed the supertalls’ residents-to-be in a variety of unnatural poses: a couple in formal wear touching each other next to a baby grand, a woman alone on a balcony with a dining table set for eight. But it was the passers-by sketched at the periphery who interested me most. Would the people here be like they were there, smudged and passive with the bready limbs of a disaster movie’s sacrificial-crowd-in-waiting?

In the event, I found no one—save for a couple of office workers forking through their salads alone. Within minutes they left and the marble-slabbed garden, a bland corporate plaza built for smoking breaks and quiet moments of self-hatred, was empty. I detected no sign of the supertall’s inhabitants. In the place of residents were bodyguards marking time, and doormen, and fleets of black SUVs: a whole apparatus designed to shield the building’s residents from contact with the city. The residents, I surmised, were all up there—right at the top, perhaps, or ensconced in the tower’s twelfth-floor private restaurant, where a Michelin-starred chef serves important food that looks like it’s no fun to eat.

Another New York lay mere blocks away: a city of crowded subway cars and diners and panhandlers and mounds of sidewalk garbage piled high. But the supertall’s residents, whoever they were, wherever they were, did not know that place. Their building contributed to the density of urban life but insulated them from that life’s complications. They were in the city but not of it.

This, I soon discovered, is precisely the living condition supertalls are designed to engineer: one that maximizes the privacy of the super-wealthy and whose highest priority is that privacy’s protection. “Modern culture is a garden culture,” Zygmunt Bauman wrote in Modernity and the Holocaust. “It constructs its own identity out of distrust of nature. In fact, it defines itself and nature, and the distinction between them, through its endemic distrust of spontaneity and its longing for a better, and necessarily artificial, order.” The garden culture was rampant here: literally, via the appendage of this public apron to the building’s entrance, but more powerfully, and figuratively, through the clearing of a moat to buffer the building’s inhabitants from the city’s inconveniences—to offer them a city free of weeds.

Heading west, I passed the branch of Chopt Creative Salad Co. on 56th and Madison, then the fresh&co on the corner of Sixth and another Chopt between Sixth and Seventh, before looping up past the fresh&co on 57th and Seventh and arriving outside Central Park Tower, which sits next to an outpost of vegetable bowl purveyor Roast Kitchen. In the new city of the supertalls, man is born free but everywhere is in salad chains. The people are being made skinny to fit the skinniness of the buildings to come.  

The Air Up There

That “to come” should be emphasized. The new generation of supertalls arose only recently, from the depths of the financial crisis. 432 Park Avenue is only the second new supertall that’s complete; eventually these towers, almost all of them designed primarily for residential use, will form a belt stretching from One Vanderbilt, near Grand Central, over to Hudson Yards, the triumph of Bloombourgeois banality rising on Manhattan’s western edge. But the heart of the belt is here, on the three-block stretch of 57th Street formerly known as “Gallery Row.”

Lee’s Art Shop, Kate’s Paperie, and the old Rizzoli Bookstore all cleared out years ago; the only part of Gallery Row left today is the Art Students League, which counts Georgia O’Keeffe, Eva Hesse, Roy Lichtenstein, and Mark Rothko among its alumni.

This is the living condition supertalls are designed to engineer: one that maximizes the privacy of the super-wealthy and whose highest priority is that privacy’s protection.

Light has long been one of the academy’s big draws, with the long strip windows of its upper-floor studios drinking in the sun from the north. In the League’s second-floor gallery, an attendant described the “Faustian bargain” the school had struck with the developers of the concrete pile rising over the adjoining block. Central Park Tower will be the tallest of the supertalls, eventually topping out at 1,550 feet—enough to place it a fair distance ahead of the spireless World Trade Center. Even half-built, the tower already has a suffocating heft to it; it bears down on the street with the inexorable slow-motion aggression of a glacier.

The supertalls’ emergence in New York is the product of a decades-long accumulation of structural incentives: tax breaks for big developers, deregulation of rent-controlled apartments, and the political establishment’s endemic, starfucker-like fascination, fed by whatever-goes campaign finance laws, with the rich and the shiny over the poor and the needy. From a planning perspective, though, the only way supertalls in New York can get supertall is by buying up the air rights of the neighboring properties and stacking them on top of each other. (This was the sky-conquering stratagem pioneered in part by the supertalls’ spiritual godfather, Donald Trump.)

The League sold out for $23 million in 2005, then for another $32 million in 2013 to allow a cantilever. The fabled north light is now obliterated by the scaffolding of Central Park Tower and a protective shed covering the League, whose street-level cladding calls mournfully back to the school’s shriveling currency in the life of a city now given over to the silly rich. “The Art Students League is very important,” reads, on one column, a quotation from mid-1980s alumnus Ai Weiwei. Thanks to its setting, the sentiment succeeds only in conveying the opposite of the meaning intended.

The supertalls are usually described in terms that underscore their upward thrust. They’re towers, turrets, blades, glaives, “calligraphic” in their majesty and slenderness. But after a while I began to see them as structures whose energy is directed down, not up: as needles to sterilize the unruly city. Eventually New York will be like the apartment interiors sketched in the supertall mock-ups, with their fruitless kitchens and pristine ottomans, their warm cream sofa blankets thrown just so: a place uncluttered.

Straying north, I hit Piano Row, another faded stretch of the dying city whose two remaining keyboard stores, while technically perhaps constituting a line, are probably no longer enough to make a row. For generations concert soloists stalked these blocks in search of their next Bechstein, or Bösendorfer, or Fazioli. A salesman in one of the surviving stores told me how Glenn Gould, under contract to Steinway, would come in secret to practice on a Yamaha in the front room at Ostrovsky’s, his keyboard crouch so low and so pronounced that stools had to be used to block the bottom of the store window, even with the blinds lowered, in order to protect the pianist from public view. Ostrovsky’s shut down years ago; in its place there now stands a parking garage. The salesman told me that these days, most of his store’s customers are “hedge funders and finance couples: exactly the people who will move into the new towers, once they’re finished.”

I relay all this not out of some dewy nostalgia for the Manhattan that is passing into history, or with any particular fondness for the old money–new money amalgam of townhouses and bank headquarters that has defined midtown ever since the ascent of the poetically tiny Michael Bloomberg. Midtown is not a hill worth dying on; for starters, it’s not even a hill. With a few museumified exceptions, every city is a place of perpetual erasure and recreation. The Manhattan of Frank Sinatra caressing his Jack Daniels on the rocks at Patsy’s before a set at the Carnegie Club has no more relevance to us today than the Manhattan of the Locofocos and Preserved Fish did to him.

Cities change, of course they do; but what matters is for whom they change, and at what cost. Demolition, displacement, accommodation, and compromise are the conditions of urban life. But the city of the supertalls is engineered to take its denizens beyond these conditions, to deliver them into frictionlessness. It’s a place of moonshot wealth, skinny buildings, no resistance, and no surprises; a city that’s not really a city at all, but its own comfortable superstate.

The Gospel of Secession

Gentrification is not quite the right word for what’s happening here. Midtown is no derelict precinct primed for an influx of the affluent. What’s emerging instead is a vision of where development is headed next: toward a culture of the secessionist city. The techno-libertarians, machine fanatics, and psychopaths of Silicon Valley have long dreamed of an exit from regular society, through colonization of the seas and the stars. In the form of the supertall, they may have found, for themselves and others like them, an elegant solution: one that gives them a society apart, a realm of perfect exclusion and perfect control, but nevertheless leeches off the encircling polity while entrenching the political influence of the rich.

True, this isn’t the total exit of Peter Thiel’s seasteading reveries, but it’s close enough, and obtainable at a fraction of the effort of other secessionist schemes. The thinness of these buildings, often cast as a great wonder of engineering, needs to be understood in these terms. The ectomorphic state of the supertalls is not dynamic; it does not represent some great urban energy, a loose-limbed frontier spirit standing tall. Rather, it is a symbol of emaciation. The old city is gone, and in its place we will get what? Whatever the rich want.

I stopped by the new Nordstrom Men’s store on Broadway and 57th, the first wing in a gigantic retail complex that will eventually colonize the base of Central Park Tower and its surrounds.

The Art Students League will be shrouded but kept barely alive as a sop to its billionaire neighbors; though they may not engage with it, they will have the comfort of knowing there is art close by.

Snatches of conversation fluttered past as I pawed at $600 raincoats and impractical pants. “They’re super light.” “I’m from Paris, originally.” “It’s a really handsome driving shoe.” Back at the League I sat in on a fourth-floor portraiture class. There I found students painting by the chemical glow of a temporary set of lights rigged outside the school’s old windows. The effect, designed to mimic the north light, was closer to the glare of a midnight roadwork site. Once Central Park Tower is complete, a student explained, the protective shed will be removed and the League’s students will go back to painting by natural light. But with another development rising on a plot to the school’s north, she added, “it’s never going to be the same.”

The spectacle of an art school entombed, facing a future in which students will paint in the dark: it could be a metaphor, but the image does not capture the whole truth. Art can never be fully extinguished from the supertall city to come. On the contrary, commerce needs it to maintain the illusion of a rich urban experience. The Art Students League will be shrouded but kept barely alive as a sop to its billionaire neighbors; though they may not engage with it, they will at least have the comfort of knowing there is art close by.

Destructive Creation

These structures can’t do without their art; art is a setting stone of the supertall experience, often literally so. Squashed at the foot of these new towers you’ll often find a patch of ground given over to art, or some unthreatening facsimile of it (nothing too confrontational, please; you’ll upset the neighbors). Even the MoMA has its own supertall now. The developers of these structures don’t want to kill art but accessorize it, turning its venues into fungible commodities for the amusement of the clientele. When you sign up to live in a supertall, you get your wellness center, your relaxation suite, your in-house restaurant, your private and sheltered porte-cochère. Now you get your art experience, too.

I tracked back toward 111 West 57th Street, which won’t be the tallest of the talls but will be the thinnest—a quality that’s now an authentic selling point in a hot global market for unusually proportioned residential architecture. “Of all the new towers,” says a critical notice from Paul Goldberger of Vanity Fair printed across the scaffolded street-level facade of the construction site, “it is the only one that gets even more delicate as it rises, ending not with a climactic crown but by almost disappearing into the sky.” The building, to be finished in terracotta and bronze, already rises like a stake jammed into the shell of the nearly century-old Steinway Hall, the piano company’s historic and now-abandoned home.

Steinway & Sons sold its leasehold interest in the building in 2013 and endured a period of transience before settling in a new showroom off Bryant Park. Following this thread of supertall-triggered displacement, I wandered down Sixth Avenue, past halal meat carts and faded business hotels and the carceral slab that houses the Murdoch media empire. Steinway & Sons now sits on the corner of 43rd and Sixth in a space that swaps the Beaux-Arts elegance of Steinway Hall for the shoe-squeak sterility of a car showroom. The space used to belong to the International Center of Photography, which, once Steinway & Sons moved in, was forced to move fifty blocks south to the Bowery. When I stopped in, some days later, the photographic museum featured an exhibition about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II—a reminder of the segregationist cruelties into which modernity’s “gardening culture” has historically led us.

Something in the Woodshed

Passing west along 42nd Street and down Tenth Avenue, which still has some of the junkyard charm of the city being swept away, I arrived finally at Hudson Yards, this bum’s rush of steel-and-glass suppositories fingered to the heavens. Different architects were brought in to design the six main towers in phase one of the new development; now almost complete, all six have ended up as largely identical reflective sticks of blue glass. This is where the High Line will end, dribbling out in a loop around the rail yards with a view back onto midtown’s fresh eruption of supertalls. A fitting exclamation point, you might say, since the experience of walking the High Line has fed our collective voyeurism and class envy (the slick lines of the new Chelsea condos, the living rooms so close and so brazenly on display that we can almost sit in them) in a way that few probably thought a public park could.

A mini-festival was under way to preview the opening of The Shed, the art bauble grafted onto Hudson Yards’ southern perimeter. A six-story cultural center with a translucent retractable outer shell, The Shed will, according to the Hudson Yards promotional materials, “not only change the way New York looks, but how the world looks at New York City.” Whether the art that comes out of The Shed will be any good, or just social media-ready kitsch delivered in unnourishing experiential baggies for the ’gram, we don’t yet know. What we do know, however, is that the new venue’s art will be made to work, to prove a “fit” with the cultural tastes of the supertallified city: an injunction writ large in the choice of that utilitarian name, not The Tent or The Shell or The Cave or The Castle but The Shed.

On the corner of 34th and Tenth I skirted a picket line. Passing cabs and buses blared their approval as a union leader railed against the greed and corruption of the developers behind Hudson Yards, where four thousand laborers work on any given day, many of them non-unionized. “New York City is a union town,” cried the protesters—a claim that once held true but increasingly doesn’t. At The Shed event four blocks away, earnest young architects stood before carts draped in plans and diagrams and spreadsheets and held mini-lectures on the work of British architect Cedric Price, who died in 2003. In the early 1960s, one of the architects explained, Price and theater director Joan Littlewood designed The Fun Palace, a modular hangar that could be pulled apart and recalibrated to fit new forms of artistic production and social interaction. It was never built, he added, but Price’s ideas provided the inspiration for Hudson Yards’ new auditorium. We wanted a Fun Palace, we ended up with a Shed.

Price was the kind of architectural eccentric, rumpled and erudite, that architects themselves love—a man so uncompromising in his beliefs he succeeded in building practically nothing over the course of his four-decade career. Many of Price’s lectures survive on YouTube, where you can watch him—wine glass in one hand, cigar in the other—ruminate on the tyranny of construction and the need for architects to leave space alone. Were he a young architect rising up through the ranks today, I doubt anyone would take him seriously; he’d be dismissed as abstruse, a utopian, a dilettante, a drunk. Dead and irrelevant, however, the renegades of the past can be commercially useful to us.

Price himself devised a plan for Hudson Yards, the architect added. It involved carving out a lateral opening through one of the existing buildings on the site’s eastern edge and anchoring a network of turbines in the Hudson to direct wind back into the city, west to east, thereby creating a new “green lung” for Manhattan. There were no towers, no condos, no art experiences, no sheds. Price’s plan for the development of Hudson Yards, in other words, was to not develop it. It received one vote from the six members on the board charged with choosing a winning proposal. That vote came from the architect responsible, two decades later, for The Shed.

The architects packed away their carts and space was cleared for a contemporary dance performance. As the dancers took up first positions, several spectators produced phones from their pockets to capture the precious cultural moments to come. It occurred to me that Price, a committed socialist, would hate all of this: the maximalism, the rush to build, the gooey accommodations between art and business. And he’d probably feel he had more in common with the protesting unionists four blocks away than the customers-to-be of the clumping towers rising over The Shed.

By this point the picket line had dispersed. The protesters headed east along 34th Street and south down Tenth Avenue toward the trains that would take them back to their homes in the outer boroughs and beyond. And there, suddenly, it appeared, just as it had been in the artists’ renderings I’d studied before I began this journey through the new city: a single file of passers-by, stooped and penumbral and annihilated by the vertical power of the supertalls. The crowd at the Shed event continued ’gramming.

Aaron Timms is a writer currently based in Brooklyn, New York.

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