Looking up

Skyscrapers are New York. No city is more closely associated with any single type of structure. Yet the glamorous towers that define the city in the popular imagination sprang up in a few surprisingly short years. Virtually every one of the city’s best-loved spires, those slender, elegant monuments to Manhattanism, went up over two decades.

The Woolworth Building was first to emerge in Downtown in 1913. Then the action moved to Midtown with the gleaming art deco radiators of the Chrysler Building (1930), the attenuated Aztec steps of the Empire State Building (1931) and, finally, the sleek, slender towers of the Rockefeller Center (1933, though some construction continued after that). After the second world war, modernism kicked in and from then on everything was just extruded – towers became little more than rectangular plans sucked upwards and clad in glass.

That moment of American exuberance was replaced by the cool, rational influence of the European avant-garde. The Twin Towers, now mourned, were the zenith of the era – pure, dumb boxes, leavened with a little pseudo-Islamic pattern at their base. Why extrude one square when you could extrude two, get that bulk discount on materials? The architect, Minoru Yamasaki only needed one plan – savings all round.

But now, stand in SoHo, Tribeca or Chinatown and look back towards where it all started, at the cluster of Downtown towers around the Woolworth Building and you can’t help noticing a tower that gleams as brightly and mesmerically as the Chrysler must have when its stainless steel, hyper-polished car-parts finial fanned out across its spire.

The city’s newest skyscraper is immodestly being called “New York by Frank Gehry”, as if it was a celebrity scent. But, despite the marketing spiel, it is an extraordinary structure, the first skyscraper by the architect of the Bilbao Guggenheim and the first in New York in a generation to cause a stir.

It is a shimmering tower of steel, its surface gently rippled like net curtains fluttering in the wind. It glints in the sunlight from almost anywhere in Manhattan – and looks even better from across the water in Brooklyn. Yet, at street level, you’d never know it was there. It sits on a solid, sober brick base on Spruce Street, a block containing a public school and facilities for the neighbouring hospital, part of a planning trade-off that allowed the developer to build the 76-storey tower – currently billed as the tallest residential building in the western hemisphere.

What is a little surprising is that Gehry’s tower – just a few short blocks away from the World Trade Center site and completed just a few days before the unveiling of the 9/11 memorial – has prompted no reaction to the idea of living so high in the air, none of the fear of terrorism that is still so palpable in airports and public buildings, with their X-ray culture.

Perhaps it is defiance, perhaps bloody-mindedness – perhaps it is just that the skyscraper is so engrained in the DNA of the city. Many developers now feel that the only way to guarantee good money for condos is to get above the masses, that it’s only above 20 storeys where things get interesting.

There has been a glut of towers recently, none as tall as Gehry’s but all residential and many of real architectural quality. This is a surprise for several reasons: partly because of 9/11, partly because of the interminable economic crisis, but also because, for decades, New York architecture has been predicated on that familiar extruded-grid formula. The city may have long been a centre for architects, for their education and their debates – but it has not been a centre for architecture. Frankly, for decades, there wasn’t much going on.

The High Line – the disused elevated freight railway line that runs north through Chelsea and that, in the past five years, has been greened into a serpentine linear park – has spurred the most intense activity. None of the towers along its length is a real skyscraper but the area is beginning to look like a museum of contemporary starchitecture. West Coast architect Neil Denari, for years an inspiration to students, has managed to get an extraordinary-looking tower called HL23 built, a sinuous, steely structure that leans out over the highline like a sci-fi spaceport. There are also buildings nearby by Jean Nouvel and Shigeru Ban.

A little further west, at 200 Eleventh Avenue, is Annabelle Selldorf’s new condo tower, which has been christened the “Sky Garage” thanks to the car lifts that take residents to their front doors without their feet having to touch the ground. Although all the attention has been on the lifts, it is the building that deserves it more. Its arcaded three-storey base is clad in rust-toned terracotta, bonding it in to the heavy industrial architecture that forms the area’s solid, gritty fabric; from it emerges a steely tower that rises through a further 16 storeys. It is one of the most elegant contemporary buildings in the city, suggesting an architectural language that reconciles the warehouse solidity of Chelsea with the sleek glassiness of the Midtown condo.

Rafael Viñoly, meanwhile, is about to reveal a skinny tower that is set to be one of the city’s tallest. It is sited near Central Park, where condos, with their protected park views, command a premium. Although other potential star projects have (perhaps temporarily) hit the buffers – including Jean Nouvel’s elegantly crystalline 75-storey tower adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art and OMA’s radical One Madison Park – the city’s rediscovered enthusiasm for architecture is palpable.

Of course, the most visible skyscraper will be the one formerly known as the Freedom Tower and now more humbly known as One World Trade Center. Designed by David Childs of corporate giants Skidmore Owings & Merrill, it’s a classic extruded box, only with the corners chamfered, a huge and ugly aerial stuck on top and a lot of blast-proof concrete at the bottom – a wasted opportunity, in short, for a piece of meaningful, socially engaged architecture as a response to terrorist atrocities.

For a while, it seemed the New York skyscraper was dead. It took a couple of Europeans, Norman Foster and Renzo Piano, to inject life back into a genre that the city’s developers had perhaps begun to take for granted. Foster’s Hearst Tower (2006) and Piano’s New York Times Tower (2007) brought a new sensibility to the Manhattan archetype, a reminder that a skyscraper’s value is defined not just in terms of commerce but also in terms of the cityscape.

The revival has come about with poignant timing for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. At Ground Zero, the huge memorial fountains marking the footprints of the Twin Towers manifest themselves as anti-skyscrapers, the voids at their centre seemingly descending to a bottomless well of sorrow. Elsewhere, the city busies itself with a skyscraper renaissance, its energy and resilience unchecked. It is hard to imagine a better riposte to the terrorists.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture correspondent

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