They’re now a part of the city skyline, but the rise of New York’s “supertalls” is a fairly recent and often controversial phenomenon in urban architecture. Where did such stark skyscrapers come from? Is there a chance that New Yorkers will grow to love the pencil-like glass towers in the same way that they now revere the once-controversial Chrysler Building? Author Eric Nash has the answers as he dives into the past, present and future of Midtown’s most notorious structures in his book Sky-High: A Critique of NYC’s Supertall Towers from Top to Bottom

central park tower
The Central Park Tower on Billionaires’ Row (W57th Street) Photo: Bruce Katz

Supertalls are defined as any building that measures 984 feet or higher and are the latest chapter of Midtown’s architectural progression from Dutch colony to global metropolis. New York currently holds the world record as the city with most of them, although cities in China and the UAE are threatening to scoop up the title shortly.

Back in New York, W57th Street — colloquially known now as “Billionaires’ Row” for its concentration of ultra-luxury towers — is the city’s center of the supertall movement. Extell Development’s Central Park Tower, located at 217 W57th Street, is the tallest of the Billionaires’ Row stack, although, as Nash notes, “The stats on Central Park Tower have been fudged by the developer for marketing superlatives.” Nonetheless, “No matter how you tote it up,” Nash writes, “residents of Central Park Tower’s triplex penthouse live up there with King Kong.”

And while new sky-high buildings are by now an expected and unsurprising addition to any cityscape, supertalls — which began appearing only within the past decade — have been branded unsightly and ungainly in comparison to previous design eras. “What distinguishes many supertalls is not just their height but their slenderness ratio,” says Nash. “A measure of width— or footprint—compared with its tallness. A building is considered slender if it has a ratio greater than 1:7, which, curiously, corresponds to the ratio of a classically proportioned Renaissance human figure (seven and a half heads tall). In comparison, the supertall is a supermodel, a Giacometti, an attenuated cruet of the old cartoon character Olive Oyl.” New Yorkers weren’t happy to welcome the new silhouette, either — as Nash notes, the advent of supertall construction set off myriad protests against the intrusion on the skyline

Gary Hershorn sunset reflection
The sun sets across buildings on the West Side of Manhattan and along Billionaires’ Row in New York City. Photo: Gary Hershorn

But what some New Yorkers who lined up to protest the shadow of supertalls may not have known is that the phenomenon of provocative new buildings and subsequent outrage is a city tradition. From the dawn of the passenger elevator in 1857 (still standing at the Haughwout building in SoHo) and the implementation of cast iron in construction, came the first sets of skyscrapers in the late 19th and early 20th century, including the Park Row Building (1899) Flatiron Building (1902), Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower (1909) and Woolworth Building (1912), which reigned as the tallest building in the world until it was pushed aside briefly by 40 Wall Street (1930) and more permanently by the Chrysler Building (1930)  and the Empire State Building (1931). It was the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings — now admired for their Art Deco style and implementation of setbacks as a reaction to the Building Zone Resolution of 1916 — that began the public’s love/hate relationship with new development. 

empire state building at night
The Empire State Building was the first architectural phase of what would lead to supertalls. Photo: Bruce Katz

“Like today’s supertalls, the Chrysler Building met with mixed press when it opened,” says Nash.  “Many critics were dismissive: ‘no significance as serious design,’ opined highly regarded architectural critic George S. Chappell, writing under the pen name T-Square in the New Yorker, ‘distinctly a stunt design, to make the man in the street look up.’ An unflattering comparison was made of the silver-crowned tower to an ‘up-ended swordfish.’

Tenants were reticent to invest in the new buildings amid the Great Depression, too: the Empire State Building was nicknamed the “‘Empty State Building’ for its lack of tenants and did not turn a profit until 1950,” writes Nash, “nearly two decades after it opened” while Raymond Hood, the architect of the nearby McGraw-Hill Building on W42nd Street (1932) “treated his kids to roller-skating parties in the empty, resounding corridors” of the structure. 

chrysler building in sun
The Chrysler Building was once regarded as a controversial structure. Photo: Bruce Katz
McGraw Hill building
The McGraw-Hill Building (center), one of the city’s pre-eminent skyscrapers built in 1932, took time to fill with tenants. Photo: Phil O’Brien

Slowly but surely, however, some skyscrapers became not only architecturally accepted (and populated) but lionized as landmarks of the city’s character. Time marched on; mid-century zoning changes “allowed many similar towers-in-a-plaza to replace the outdated setback style,” writes Nash. “Seemingly overnight, the all-masonry palazzos of Midtown Manhattan transformed into glass boxes,” including the “mixed-use, sky-high supertall,” which Nash calls “the building typology of the 21st century… Except for museum-building, which carries an aura of prestige, few hotshot architects are concentrating on anything else, like civic buildings or affordable low-rise housing,” he adds, noting “the exception of Steven Holl, the hyper-prolific Bjarke Ingels (of VIA 57), beleaguered Santiago Calatrava (who spent 14 years of his life and career mired in the Oculus downtown), and a handful of others.”

And though the current slew of supertalls “were built fair and square with AOR (As of Right) and through municipally decreed changes in zoning codes,” adds Nash, “the city’s byzantine, 1,300-page zoning resolution on air rights has more loopholes than Swiss cheese. For example, 432 Park was allowed to build taller than its total gross floor area (or GFA) would normally allow, because its mechanical floors were not counted as part of the overall height.” And he doesn’t anticipate the current zoning regulations changing anytime soon. Nash told W42ST: “Changes in zoning codes are few and far between.  There have only been a handful of major categories of reform since the setback zoning code of 1916 was proposed, the first zoning code in the nation,” he said. “Most recently, community planners have been focusing on more pressing issues like affordable housing, business district enhancement, and flood resilience rather than As of Right reform, because supertalls are seen as something of a boon in many sectors, so I don’t expect to see much of a change in the near future.” 

Steinway Tower
The Steinway Tower on W57th. Photo: Bruce Katz

Could supertalls like the Central Park Tower one day garner the same level of reverence as the Empire State Building? Nash seems optimistic. “ New York City is in constant flux, and each generation has a certain affection and attachment to their version of the city. In a sense, the skyline is the identity of the city and the public is fond of recognizable features.  Over time, representations of the city have come to include newcomers like the former World Trade Towers and the distinctive triangular roof of the Citicorp Building, so yes, I do think the towers on Billionaires’ Row eventually wil become beloved emblems of the city,” he said. “Remember, the next generation of young New Yorkers will not have an alternative skyline of Central Park to compare with Billionaires’ Row, so their affection for the city will be transferred to the new outline of the city,”

He added, “One generation’s outrage becomes the following generation’s nostalgic New Yorker cover.  I think my partner, the photographer Bruce Katz, captured that neatly in an opening spread of the book—New Yorkers going about their activities, practicing yoga on the public lawn of Central Park, with the new buildings abiding in the background.” 

Bethesda Fountain Supertalls
Bethesda Fountain in the foreground of Central Park as supertalls loom above the treeline. Photo: Phil O’Brien

Mayoral policies and developer relationships also have a deep influence on the enduring nature of supertalls, writes Nash, who notes that “the most critical, and often criticized, role the city government plays in development is in incentives and tax abatements for supertalls. Bloomberg flippantly remarked, ‘If we can find a bunch of billionaires around the world to move here, that would be a godsend.’” 

“The conditions that led to the creation of Hudson Yards are something of a one-off that I don’t think we will see again,” Nash said. “To finance his pet project, and to attract his fellow billionaires to the city, Bloomberg allowed tremendous tax abatements totaling $6 billion to the developers, and even took the step of extending the 7 train subway line to connect to the Yards at a cost of $2.1 billion from city coffers.  Given the current fiscal climate, with crying needs for the homeless, infrastructure repair, policing and transit fare hikes, I don’t think we are likely to see the circumstances that created Hudson Yards again.  That horse has left the stable and there is no going back.” 

Hudson Yards June 2023
Hudson Yards in June 2023. Photo: Phil O’Brien

It may be too late to make Hudson Yards an affordable housing neighborhood, but “I do think there are many ways to make the Yards more accessible as a public place,” said Nash. “A bridge has been built to annex the High Line, which has become a tremendous asset for the city, both for city dwellers and tourists.  I think the answer for the city is to make Hudson Yards more attractive from a landscaping point of view.  The current complex was designed rather haphazardly, and I think a bit of brilliant landscaping would attract more visitors, and spread the wealth around, at least for small businesses and art galleries, like with the High Line.” 

Here in Hell’s Kitchen, “There have been some interesting hybrid solutions, notably Bjarke Ingels designed ‘courtscraper’ at Via 57 West, which provides housing units of various heights and affordability centered around a European-style private courtyard,” Nash added. “One thing about architects is that they love limitations, because parameters to a problem force them to come up with creative solutions.  I think the coming decades in skyscraper design will surprise and delight all of us.”

VIA 57 is an example of new construction done right, says Nash. Photo: Phil O’Brien

Asked what exactly he believes the next evolution of urban design will bring, “The future, as it is said, is unwritten,” said Nash. “You really can’t go backwards in terms of skyscraper design.  The Art Deco setback skyscraper was a response to a set of problems at a certain time in history.  Skyscraper evolution has moved to two iterations since then, the all-glass curtain wall and now the supertall.  It remains an open question whether financing for more supertalls is viable.”

Join the Conversation


  1. Supertalls are a blight on the skyline. Manhattan is more than ever a concrete jungle, 6 years ago I moved into Hell’s Kitchen, I had a partial view of the Hudson River from my balcony but not anymore two more buildings in construction have blocked my view. In a southerly direction I was able to see the Statue of Liberty and Freedom Tower, no longer now all I see is a ugly pod hotel.

  2. They will never match the beauty of the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building. What is there to admire? The light glass or the dark glass? They are made up of cheap pre fabricated, toxic material and certainly won’t last as long as the Empire or Chrysler, now approaching 100 years. There is absolutely no craftsmanship, no arches, gargoyles, turrets, no sun making shadows, only glare. Edward Hooper would be lost trying to get something out of these buildings. The architects think if they put a funky angle in somewhere that makes up for it. I don’t think so. You can’t make an arch out of glass. Hudson yard is as grey and menacing as the February sky. Oh yeah, what about the Vessel? It was supposed to rival the Eiffel Tower….Ha ha ha ha ha… its demise is indicative of the whole development. I’d rather look at a tenement, it is more “gazeworthy” KB

    1. Well said. I imagine What If every square foot that’s been built since 1945 adhered to the tenets of real, pre-mordern, “Art of Building” Architecture, instead of the fraud of Modernism or the soul-less, wannabe “new traditional” that’s been foisted upon us.

      Built environments of the pre-war era were paradise on earth compared to “architecture” of despair that 99% of post-war structures present. How was a “less-advanced” society so ridiculously superior in terms of the buildings they left in their wake?

  3. Pure ego trips. From the arrogant developers and architects who foist these monstrosities on the city to the overly-moneyed jerks that buy them.

  4. The super-talls create congestion.
    Funny how the City insists there is congestion – and keeps enabling more congestion

  5. A wonderful piece as so truly noted in article –
    “One generation’s outrage becomes the following generation’s nostalgic New Yorker cover. “

  6. We do have some satisfaction on foggy days though. Look up at one of those greed-towers and realize that they are shrouded in white mist with no view at all.

  7. The Seagram Building a 38 story glass box in Midtown, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1958, was considered by critics to be the ideal for modernist buildings. Surprised to see no mention.

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