The Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel had a fantasy: to build a beautiful modern skyscraper atop the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown Manhattan, the pinnacle of which would reach 1,250 feet. The Tower Verre, as Nouvel calls it, would have been slender and elegant, reaching the same height as the iconic Empire State Building. The City Council did not like that, and thus intervened, slashing 200 feet off the final proposal. Says Nouvel: “What is surprising is that Manhattan should be afraid of verticality.”
The same battle is occurring all throughout New York City. It’s a battle against a can’t-do psyche that Americans from a previous generation would consider anathema. Locals worry about the shadows. Unions jockey for position. Bureaucrats and public “planners” pine over architectural aesthetics they know nothing about. And litigators litigate. In the end, Americans abridge a Frenchman his American dream — 200 feet’s worth.
Critics have decried the “arrogance” of Nouvel’s work, the tower’s “brooding omnipresence.” How dare he build something as tall as the great Empire State Building? Who does he think he is?
Another proposed skyscraper, the even more brazen 15 Penn Plaza, would be built a few feet shorter than the Empire State Building — and just one block away! Detractors claim it would “deface” the skyline, blocking from view the Empire State Building from certain angles. The owner of the Empire State Building decried the new building himself, with a lame appeal to postcard sentimentality: “We view this as an assault on New York City and its iconography … the end of the image of New York City that billions of people hold dear.”
Give me a break. Nostalgia is one thing. Believing that the past should be better than the future — and that to aim otherwise is an affront to our predecessors — is quite another. We can appreciate the past without embalming the city, without transforming Manhattan into an “urban mausoleum.” Without, in short, becoming Paris.
Despite the politicized resistance, most New Yorkers agree. Though the destroyers of dreams have always been at odds with the doers and developers, the destroyers lack the idealism inherent in the American psyche. The developers see in the Manhattan skyline the American character. A skyscraper’s rise is a testament to human courage and continuity. When it’s said that animals are our equal, one need only point to a skyscraper and say, “Your monkey can’t do that.”
Ayn Rand captured the humanity and sentiment of the Manhattan skyline perfectly in The Fountainhead:
I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline. Particularly when one can’t see the details. Just the shapes. The shapes and the thought that made them. The sky over New York and the will of man made visible. What other religion do we need? And then people tell me about pilgrimages to some dank pesthole in a jungle where they go to do homage to a crumbling temple, to a leering stone monster with a pot belly, created by some leprous savage. Is it beauty and genius they want to see? Do they seek a sense of the sublime? Let them come to New York, stand on the shore of the Hudson, look and kneel. When I see the city from my window — no, I don’t feel how small I am — but I feel that if a war came to threaten this, I would throw myself into space, over the city, and protect these buildings with my body.
She was right. Manhattan is situated picturesquely; the island is long and narrow and therefore cannot grow outward — only upward. Its grid-system of streets allows people to see the north and south horizon whenever they wish, surrounded by a forest of steel sequoias. And we are worried about a landmark being obscured from view? We should only hope that the Empire State Building is dwarfed by surrounding structures in the ensuing decades.
That’s one of Manhattan’s unique caveats: a building visible 25 miles away is invisible 3 blocks away.
The skyline is also a reminder that there are many throughout the world who, given the technological capability, would topple it in its entirety at a moment’s notice. That’s the other side of human nature. And it’s all the more reason why the builders should build: tall, short, ugly, beautiful — put it up. Amazingly, despite the recession, New York City developers are doing just that.