From the street, it’s easy to miss the new 96-storey apartment block on 56th Street at Park Avenue in Manhattan.

Yet from a distance, it is now my standout building in New York. The impossibly slender tower — just 28.5 sq m square — looks so much taller than surrounding skyscrapers that it has been described as “a skewer in a pin cushion”.

I have become obsessed by the almost childlike simplicity of 432 Park Ave, which, at 425m, is the tallest building in New York, if you discount the aerials on top of the Freedom Tower.

Like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind fashioning Devils Tower, Wyoming, out of mashed potato, I’ve even tried to build a model of 432 Park with my granddaughter’s Duplo bricks.

I needed 25 square bricks to replicate its 15-to-1 height-to-width ratio. If that doesn’t sound startlingly thin, try this; measure 12cm of a pencil, typically two-thirds of its length. Look at that length side-on, and you have the proportions of 432 Park Ave.

The real 432 Park isn’t finished, but the block is already contentious because, it is argued, it is a stack, albeit a beautiful stack, of apartments for the hyper-rich, none of whom will probably live there. The flats are really bank deposit boxes in the sky.

A fair point, but 432 is still, I’d argue, a marvellous object.

The building’s controversial developer, Harry Macklowe, has called 432 “the culmination” of his life, and the architect, the Uruguayan Rafael Viñoly, has said: “Harry thinks this is the most important building in the history of architecture.”

The thing I keep wondering, however, is how the heck does 432 Park stay up?

When I requested a tour and an audience with Mr Viñoly, I assumed it must just have incredibly deep foundations.

I’ll come to that. First, I was shown an 87th floor apartment.

With tall ceilings and astonishing views, it is how I imagine a huge flat on an airship would be. Even helicopters are below you. It was a windy day, I should add, and 432 did not seem to be nearly as unstable as my Duplo

Mr Viñoly is 72, and lives mostly in Tribeca, but is a Manchester City fan, who designed the club’s training facility and goes to games. He habitually wears four pairs of glasses — three on his head and one on his nose. “It’s an affectation,” he says disarmingly.

So to those foundations. “This is the most amazing thing,” he says.

It turns out that they go down just 16m — to scale, half a Duplo brick or 4.5mm of pencil.

“This town is sitting on the most reliable rock anywhere. Once you go down 65 feet, you’ve found the centre of the Earth. It is so hard and heavy, it’s a very efficient way of seating high buildings.”

It’s a misconception, I learnt, that a tall structure is like a lever in the ground, transmitting horizontal force to the bedrock. Indeed, if 432 moved underground as the wind pressed it, it would wreck neighbouring basements. The foundations’ job is to withstand weight, not turning forces.

The building flexes by as much as 60cm — but, counter-intuitively, Mr Viñoly explains, it moves more in the middle than at the top. Unusually, 432 Park’s concrete skin, the visible fascia, is the main structure. And concrete
laced with steel can bend without cracking.

The pressure on 432, from head-on wind and the unpredictable vortices that exist in cities, is relieved by openings in the concrete every 12 floors, which expose a circular core for air to flow round. You can see these breaks — they are part of the look of the building.

But even the swaying that remains would cause motion sickness, not because of movement, but acceleration. This is duly damped by twin 660-tonne concrete pendula suspended at the top of the building.

So is 432 Park Ave the limit, thinness-wise?

“No, you could go six times this height,” says the architect. “The real limitation on height, apart from fear, is elevator technology. But they now have carbon fibre cable that stretches less.”

“In fact,” he adds, “we have a project in Manhattan over a mile high. I don’t believe it will be built. But it could be.”

Hold on. That’s 100 Duplo bricks. Could be a tricky build.


Get alerts on New York State when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article