As more people migrate to urban areas, developers are struggling to find buildable parcels in cities. To overcome this obstacle and make the most of small lots, architects are taking advantage of new building materials and innovations in engineering to design thin skyscrapers. What are the benefits and challenges associated with this new trend in architectural design?
The high demand for buildable parcels in cities such as New York, has driven the prices for land in major metropolitan areas to astronomical levels. For example, in 2015, the average price for buildable lots located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side was $1,095 per square foot. As developers and investors move in search of developable space, land prices in the Outer Boroughs are beginning to approach some of those in parts of Manhattan. In this soaring market, developers are building “skinny skyscrapers” to maximize the return on their investment. NYC codes defines a building as a skinny skyscraper when the height is more the seven times the narrowest side of the base. The new build going up at 111 57th Street fits this description; this much talked about super tall, super skinny skyscraper has a slenderness ratio of 1:24. This trend toward building supertall skyscrapers structures is also exemplified by 432 Park Avenue. While real estate developers and investors are enthusiastically embracing these buildings, the public has voiced concern and even opposition to these structures. What firms are setting the trends in super skinny and super tall skyscrapers? What challenges are posed by these structures?
The Tallest Residential Tower in the Western Hemisphere: 432 Park Avenue
Regarded by many as the one of the first projects that ignited the super tall and super skinny trend, 432 Park Avenue, designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects, looms 1,396 feet into the New York skyline from a base measuring 93’6” giving it a height to width ratio of 15:1. Construction of the tower began in 2011 and was completed in 2015. While offering “helicopter views” of New York from its penthouses, both architects and the public are not pleased with the way in which the structure has altered the city’s iconic skyline. Some people have even taken to referring to it as a match stick.
You can watch the construction of the tower in this time lapse video.
You Tube Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_TH0bEJvY4A
The First Truly Skinny New York Skyscraper: The Icon
Designed by Ismael Leyva Architects, P.C, The Icon is a 43 story residential tower located at 306 West 48th Street. Completed in 2012, The Icon represents the first super skinny skyscraper in New York. The footprint of the building is only 23 feet wide, making the structure thinner than some of the city’s townhouses with a height to width ration of 15:1. Each floor has three units, and each unit occupying floors 20 and up have unobstructed views of Midtown, Central Park, and the Hudson River, thank to the cantilever design and floor to ceiling windows. In fact, the design of some units on the ninth floor and above seem to float in midair. The dynamic lines of the building and the blue tinted mirror like glass make the structure visually interesting, thus avoiding the matchstick comparisons.
The Evolution from Matchsticks to Green Toothpicks: 303 East 44th Street, New York City
In Spring 2016, construction will begin on the world’s skinniest skyscraper. The 47 feet wide footprint of this 48-story mixed use tower is not the only distinguishing feature of this building; the tower’s 2,800 square feet of units feature 1,400 square foot of private gardens. The innovative design includes 16-foot-high open air gardens between every second floor.
The project’s lead architect is Eran Chen, founder of the architectural firm ODA New York. The engineering of the central core and perimeter of the building not only reduces wind load but it also maximizes the natural light in the units while allowing unobstructed 360-degree views in the city and beyond, including the East River. As the design team discusses in the video below, they wanted to soften the hardness of the urban environment by introducing green space similar to that found in suburbia.
Vimeo Link: https://vimeo.com/130457336
The Challenge of Building Super Skinny and Super Tall: Swaying Public Opinion and Critics
While advances in materials and engineering make building structurally sound and wind resistant tall and thin structures possible, swaying public opposition to projects, as well as the opinions of those in the design-build profession, often presents a significant challenge. Balancing the aesthetics, form, and function of a tall building in an urban environment with the social value the structure brings or diminishes to the existing neighborhood has challenged architects since the close of the 19th century. In fact, the community aspects of tall building design presented such complexity that the father of the skyscraper, Louis Sullivan, opted to forego a discussion of them in his essay, The Tall Building Artistically Considered.
In the 21st century, the social and community impacts of super tall and super skinny skyscraper construction mimic the nature of those in the late 1890s and 20th century, but the effects of the building on the surrounding community are amplified. While New York City is the focus of this article, developers and local officials in other cities, such as London and Melbourne, are also facing public backlash about the proliferation of super tall and super skinny skyscrapers.
Some examples of the concerns voiced by those opposed to the ultra-tall and thin buildings include the following:
- Adding more development to the dense urban environments that many already consider to be overbuilt is problematic. Given one of the functions of super skinny skyscrapers is to take advantage of parcels for other types of development, these structures can be viewed to act as infill taken to the extreme. In addition to adding more people to congested city streets and sidewalks, the towering structures often block the view of the sky from street level and block air circulation, according to opponents.
- Supertall towers transform the skyline and the character of a city. In the past, skyscrapers, such as the Twin Towers, housed corporate headquarters and offices; thus they acted as symbols of productivity and industry. Today’s supertall towers, with construction costs that match their heights, feature penthouses with multimillion dollar price tags that often act as investment vehicles. In an article published on the website Denzeen, Aaron Belsky, Dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, argues that the new generation of skyscrapers is changing cities from places where people from all walks of life went to work to monuments to wealth only a select few have hope to obtain. In this environment, the only role ordinary people play is to observe and admire the treasures acquired by the top echelons of international society.
- In urban areas experiencing housing shortages, many question whether these towers are a socially responsible use of space. The cities where most of the super skinny and super tall skyscrapers are located, including New York, London, and Sydney, face a shortage of affordable housing. While many of these towers have residential units, the prices of the apartments are far beyond what the average person can afford. In fact, Steven Holl, an award-winning principal architect at Steven Holl Architects, refers to these buildings as the architectural manifestation of wealth inequality that is pervasive in these cities. He goes on to discuss that lack of social purpose served by these buildings by the fact they provide no public spaces. Others question the utility of the supertall skyscrapers since the structures are beyond a scale that is “human-friendly.”
- The super tall and skinny skyscrapers cast long shadows in cities craving sunlight. In November 2015, a group of protesters calling themselves Stand Against the Shadows marched in the streets of Midtown Manhattan to bring attention to the three-quarter mile shadows cast by the new super skinny and super tall skyscrapers built along Billionaires Row. The prestigious non-profit Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS) supported these efforts. The group published a study Accidental Skyline that demonstrated how these ultra-high towers cast long shadows into Central Park, as well as into other public spaces.
Some of the reforms MAS and other citizen advocacy groups are calling for include
- Regulation of the height of super skinny and super tall structure
- Review of the lot merger process that facilitates the construction of these buildings
- Establish special districts around Central Park and other public green spaces that prohibit construction of super tall and super skinny skyscrapers
As property values escalate in cities, developers and investors search for ways to maximize the return on their investments. While innovations in architectural design, engineering, and material science provide new ways to construct buildings on small urban parcels, design professionals, and urban planners face the challenge of balancing the development proposals they receive with the opinions and needs of the everyday citizens who reside in their cities.
What is your opinion about the latest super tall and super skinny skyscrapers? What, if any, restrictions, would you want to be placed on their design and construction?