>The Future of Manhattan’s Skyline

>The City of New York is abuzz this morning over the impact of a proposed new building in Manhattan – and it’s not the one you are probably thinking of:

While the rest of the commentariat squabbles over Cordoba House, more popularly known as the “Ground Zero mosque”, many architects, historians, developers, business leaders, community leaders and politicians are debating the plans for 15 Penn Plaza, a proposed re-development of the old Hotel Pennsylvania site across from Penn Station at 34th Street. The new structure, designed by architects Pelli Clark Pelli (headed by César Pelli of Petronas Towers and Canary Wharf fame) is an office tower which will stand 1216 feet tall: just shy of the city’s iconic, 1250 feet tall Empire State Building, located a couple of blocks away. As one can see in the architect-rendered image reproduced below, the proposed glass wedge at 15 Penn Plaza will block views of the Empire State Building to the west.

Proponents say that the construction project will provide jobs and much-needed income to the city at a time of economic crisis – indeed, much as the construction of the Empire State Building itself did during the Great Depression. They believe that the long-term benefits to the city will include the creation of thousands of square feet of income-producing space once the building is completed, as well as alleviating numerous traffic problems as a result of the infrastructure improvements that are part and parcel of the site proposal. They also point to the fact that the skyline of Manhattan has been a constantly changing and evolving one over the centuries, rather than a static series of long-established vistas.

Detractors say that the proposed 15 Penn Plaza tower is unattractive architecturally, and hardly compares to the iconic art deco Empire State Building located only 900 feet away. Not only would the building of the tower ruin the views of Manhattan from the Empire State (a significant source of tourist income) but, they argue, a building of this size should be blocked from construction within 17 blocks of the Empire State, in order to preserve the iconic views of New York. The impact of this tower in the long-term, they feel, would detract from the impact that the Empire State has on the entire economy and culture of the city.

The Empire State Building is currently the tallest building in Manhattan, a title it originally held from its completion until the construction of the World Trade Center, and which it re-gained after 9/11; when the new, 1776-feet tall World Trade Center is finally completed it will once again “shrink”. Yet the World Trade Center is located in Lower Manhattan, not Midtown. Throughout its history, the Empire State has stood in majestic isolation in the Midtown skyline, offering sweeping views of the city from its observation decks, and serving as a kind of center post about which the rest of Manhattan appears to rotate. Its solitary splendor has inspired filmmakers, photographers, writers and artists for the past 80 years. In both versions of “King Kong” for example, the tower is the location for the climax of the film, while hip-hop artist Lauryn Hill used the visual impact of this great central tower of Manhattan to superb and clever effect in her 1998 music video for “Everything Is Everything”, with the Empire State serving as a kind of spindle for the transformation of the island of Manhattan into a giant record turntable.

In thinking about this issue I reflected on the various cries to allow the construction of tall buildings here in Washington, D.C., if not in the so-called “monumental core” around the National Mall, at the very least in other parts of the city where such buildings would not block the sight lines from the Capitol or White House. In the late 19th century, construction of the 164-feet tall Cairo apartment building here in Washington caused an uproar in Congress that led to the passage of the Heights of Buildings Act, which has kept construction of all buildings in the Federal city to below 150 feet, unless an exemption was granted for an exceptional structure. The end result is a city whose streets are marked by sunlight and trees rather than swirling clouds of dust falling from tall buildings into dark canyon-like streets and sidewalks. In many parts of the city, one can see the Washington Monument or the dome of the Capitol peeking above the rooflines, something which serves to unite much of the city visually.

When it comes to architecture, one cannot simply consider the building itself, but rather the significance of what surrounds it: there is something to be said for uniqueness. This brings us back to where we began, in a sense, with a reflection on the Córdoba mosque. However once again, the subject is not the proposed structure for Lower Manhattan, but rather the original for which it is named.

Following the re-conquest of Spain, the center of the great Mezquita (“Mosque”) of Córdoba, with its iconic horseshoe-shaped striped arches and vast forest of pillars, was replaced with a beautiful but incongruous Gothic cathedral nave. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (known in Spain as King Carlos I), gave the green light to the project in 1523 without even having visiting the site – to his later regret. When he came to see the building for the first time in 1526, he is reported to have said, “Here you have built what you or anyone might have built somewhere else, but you have destroyed something that was unique in the world.” As New York’s elected officials consider the proposed 15 Penn Plaza project, this lesson from history ought to be an important part of their consideration.

Architect’s rendering of the proposed 15 Penn Plaza tower,
shown just to the left of the Empire State Building.

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