Sky High and the Logic of Luxury
From the pre-Revolutionary period until World War II, tenants in New York City were uniformly given three months’ notice of annual rent increases on February 1 (known as Rent Day). Many then sought cheaper deals, and when all leases expired on May 1 (called Moving Day) as many as a million residents changed houses in what amounted to a single mass migration. Lately there’s been another, more specialized real estate frenzy afoot in America’s largest city. Its most visible manifestations concern the world’s very richest people.
Last December a long-anticipated threshold was crossed when a duplex penthouse atop the French architect Christian de Portzamparc’s new One57 condominium, on Manhattan’s West 57th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, sold for an unprecedented $100,471,452.77. In 2014 seven more apartments at that address, built by the Extell Development Company, changed hands for between $32 million and $56 million each, which together accounted for more than a third of the year’s two dozen biggest New York residential transactions. This January, another duplex there fetched $90 million.
Portzamparc’s tower of monetary power stands two blocks south of Central Park, at the epicenter of Manhattan’s densest concentration of top-of-the-line apartment construction since Fifth and Park Avenues were built up between the two world wars. The block directly west of One57 awaits another Extell venture, Nordstrom Tower, designed by Adrian Smith (architect of the world’s tallest structure, the Burj Khalifa of 2003–2010 in Dubai) and Gordon Gill. Comprising a branch of the Nordstrom’s fashion retailer at street level, a hotel above the store, and condos on the uppermost stories—unobstructed park views commence at 225 feet high, hence this sequence—it will rise next to and over Henry Hardenbergh’s Art Students League of 1891–1892 and become the city’s tallest residential building at 1,775 feet.
Nordstrom’s piggybacking was made possible by the developer’s purchase of the art school’s air rights—that is, the titular transfer of empty vertical space above nearby buildings never used to the full extent permissible by zoning laws. Such stratagems are an essential part of the complex legal and economic equation (what the skyscraper historian Carol Willis has termed “invisible Monopoly,” after the real estate board game) that has allowed these super-tall, super-thin towers to multiply in Midtown North, as planners and police call the neighborhood.
Although several similar towers are planned around 23rd Street near Madison Square and in Lower Manhattan, the rarefied calculus of this niche market hinges on location. Thus, even though seasoned New Yorkers have long deemed Central Park South somewhat socially marginal—during the 1980s brokers dubbed it “Mistress Row” for the many kept women with apartments there—or the province of out-of-towners who frequented its fancy hotels (the Plaza, the St. Moritz, Essex House) and touristy restaurants (Trader Vic’s, Rumpelmayer’s, Mickey Mantle’s—which are now gone), foreign buyers consider it the golden core of the Big Apple.
On the same block as One57, SHoP Architects’ proposed 111 West 57th Street will have the dubious distinction of being the world’s slenderest building, thanks to the extreme contrast between its tiny 60-foot-wide base and attenuated 1,421-foot height. By way of comparison, the base-to-height ratio of Minoru Yamasaki’s ill-fated twin-towered World Trade Center of 1966–1977 was 1:7; 111 West 57th Street’s will be 1:23. The facade of 111 will be clad predominantly in terra cotta and bronze, and its full-floor apartments will all have views north to Central Park panoramas. Though a technical feat of engineering—the building is heavily weighted at its top to stabilize the thin structure in high winds—111 promises to be a simultaneously intrusive and elusive urban presence, the architectural equivalent of Chauncey Gardiner, Peter Sellers’s character in Hal Ashby’s film Being There.
The two financial prototypes for today’s ultra-luxury towers were David Childs and Mustafa Kemal Abadan’s Time Warner Center of 2000–2003 on Columbus Circle and Robert A.M. Stern’s 15 Central Park West of 2005–2008, both a few blocks north of 57th Street. These condominiums were specifically designed to attract an emergent class of plutocrats who might have difficulty buying into Manhattan’s most exclusive cooperative apartment buildings, whose boards of directors, unaccountable to antidiscrimination laws, routinely blackballed Jews, blacks, gays, single women, show business performers, or anyone they considered less than respectable.
The 1990s witnessed the high-tech, telecommunications, and dot-com booms, the rise of hedge funds, the denationalization of the former Soviet Union’s natural resources, and the ascendance of China’s state-controlled capitalism. Together all these developments radically altered standards of private wealth worldwide. In the top bracket there were said to be only fifty or so extremely desirable apartment houses in Manhattan, symptomatic of the oddly persistent scarcity of premium housing in America’s financial hub. Here was a gaping hole at the high end of the market begging to be filled.
Although major fortunes have increasingly trumped religious, racial, or social biases, some co-ops require purchasers to have liquid assets equal to many multiples of an apartment’s price, which has limited sales in them to an even smaller portion of the so-called top one percent. If you buy a co-op, you buy shares in the building; if you want to leave, it is up to you to sell the shares to someone who can pass the board. Conversely, if a condominium board turns down a sale it must buy back the apartment, an effective deterrent to rejection. Thus the offspring of deposed African dictators are as welcome at condos as Social Register scions, and this ease of access has attracted shady characters who’d never get board approval at the toniest old guard citadels.
Well after 15 Central Park West was completed, high-priced resales there continued to dominate the “Big Deals” column in The New York Times’s Sunday real estate section, which celebrates each week’s largest residential property closings. Until the recent $100 million blockbuster at One57, the most expensive apartment in town had been 15 Central Park West’s penthouse, which former Citigroup CEO Sanford Weill sold in 2011 to a daughter of a Russian oligarch for $88 million. Weill more than doubled his investment four years after buying the full-floor flat for a then-record $42.4 million.
Nothing succeeds commercially like mimicry, and Stern’s limestone-clad, neotraditional design for that building was closely modeled after the 1920s and 1930s apartment houses of Rosario Candela, the Sicilian-born architect whose uncommonly capacious, generously detailed apartments are widely judged the city’s most coveted. (Last year’s second-costliest New York residential transfer amounted to $71 million at Candela’s legendary 740 Park Avenue.) 15 Central Park West has been nicknamed “the Limestone Jesus” because this $950 million endeavor was seen by many to have miraculously risen from the dead after the 2008 crash killed off several other grandiose development schemes.
The stupendous financial success of 15 Central Park West has brought Stern many more apartment building commissions, including 220 Central Park South, a condominium now in progress two blocks due north of Nordstrom—so due, in fact, that the buildings’ respective developers waged a costly legal battle because 220 would have blocked Nordstrom’s park views. The lawsuit was settled when each party agreed to shift its tower—Stern’s to the west, Smith and Gill’s to the east—and Extell received $194 million from the builder at 220 Central Park South for an adjoining Central Park South parking garage that allowed construction to proceed. The two broader elevations of Stern’s building face east–west rather than north–south, and at 950 feet it will rank only tenth-highest among Manhattan skyscrapers. This late-Deco pastiche in some ways is preferable to the other new condos crowding the area, which, faute de mieux, indicates the generally low architectural state of New York’s new housing for the super-rich.
The nascent Manhattan high-rise that has everyone talking is 432 Park Avenue, the skinny eighty-nine-story spire that soars above the northwest corner of East 56th Street and Park on the former site of the Drake Hotel. Set for completion this spring, it was designed by the Uruguayan-born, New York–based architect Rafael Viñoly. Now the highest residential structure in the Western Hemisphere at 1,397 feet, 432 Park is officially New York City’s second-tallest building (after David Childs’s inevitably symbolic if architecturally negligible One World Trade Center of 2005–2014). Actually, it’s the loftiest by twenty-eight feet in habitable space, since a broadcasting mast accounts for the uppermost 408 feet of the Childs tower.
Many observers report being bemused, not to say unnerved, by the Viñoly building’s strange ubiquitousness. Visible throughout all five boroughs and as far away as Long Island and New Jersey, it startles both visitors and natives with its thin looming omnipresence and seems to follow you around like a bad conscience. One doesn’t hear much about 432 Park’s design for the good reason that artistic niceties are almost beside the point in the mathematical conjuring that brought it and its peers into being. You could even say this structure resembles a three-dimensional balance sheet more than a fully articulated architectural façade.
While Stern clings to a passé postmodernism in much of his work, Viñoly hews closely to the reductive aesthetic of high modernism. The basically white exterior of 432 Park Avenue imparts a graphic feel accentuated by the flatness of the building’s four identical sides, as well as the bold contrast between its dark glass windows (six large square panes per story) and white concrete panels that frame the minimalist fenestration. But what most sets this oddly disturbing composition apart is the way it shoots straight upward to its full, vertiginous height.
Together with the building’s relatively small footprint—ninety-three feet square (about one quarter the length of a football field)—this uninterrupted ascent approximates the proportions of a medieval defensive tower in an Italian hill town. The configuration was made possible by city regulations that waive upper-story “wedding cake” setback requirements—instituted in 1916 to prevent overbuilt Lower Manhattan streets from turning into lightless, airless canyons—but only if a building occupies no more than one quarter of its lot. Now that prices for Manhattan residences in prime locations have gone through the roof, it hardly seems wasteful to leave 75 percent of a plot empty on a $1 billion speculation like 432 Park.
Among this new breed of towers, design elements not directly tied to profit are often downgraded or eliminated as overall costs climb. For example, Portzamparc poetically predicted that the rippling glass exterior he initially planned for One57 would evoke a cascading waterfall. As executed, however, the flat surface of the building’s variously blue, gray, and silver panes fades into a pixelated blur even from a short distance. With today’s mathematically generated super-spires, it’s best to paraphrase Mae West: “Architecture has nothing to do with it.”
The convergent forces that have shaped this sudden juncture in Manhattan’s architectural development were examined in “Sky High and the Logic of Luxury,” an illuminating exhibition held at the Skyscraper Museum in New York just as these remarkable mutants were beginning to drastically alter the cityscape. If anything, this prescient overview—curated by Carol Willis, founding director of the museum and author of Form Follows Finance: Skyscrapers and Skylines in New York and Chicago
1—came a bit too prematurely to fully benefit from the dawning public awareness that a singular departure was upon us. As Willis wrote for the exhibition’s wall texts:
Beginning around 2012, sales of condos in ultra-luxury buildings reached $8,000–$10,000 per sq.ft. and in some cases even higher. These records have set a new standard that developers use to raise the budget for project expenses. The “logic of luxury” is the idea that high development costs for a project are good business strategy if they can produce extraordinary profits….
Expensive land and air rights, “starchitect” design fees, special engineering and construction, extra-high ceilings, and abundant amenities all factor in a simple math that stratospheric sale prices justify….
Sophisticated engineering and advances in material strengths have made these spindles possible, but it is the excited market for premium Manhattan real estate that is driving both heights and prices skyward. Predicated on Central Park views and other exceptional vistas, these aeries appeal to a distinct clientele to whom developers direct their marketing psychology.
Happily, Willis plans to write a book that will expand on this exhibition’s findings, but she is not the only analyst to draw direct connections between the sudden emergence of this construction binge and the workings of high finance.
Today, more New York real estate than ever is held by absentee owners, and in at least five large Manhattan condominiums most units are not primary residences. Although many such pieds-à-terre are doubtless used by Americans, they are most attractive to foreign nationals eager to secure a foothold in the US in the event of trouble in their homelands. International capital flight has thus been the decisive impetus in this booming sector of the New York property market, as people from all over the world seek a politically stable and financially secure haven for themselves and their assets.
In February, The New York Times published “Towers of Secrecy,” a five-part investigative series by Louise Story and Stephanie Saul that focused on condominium buyers from four countries (India, Malaysia, Mexico, and Russia) and revealed how clandestine ownership of apartments in the city’s most expensive buildings is often abetted through shell companies, to say nothing of a veritable industry of New York City facilitators. For example, the reporters found that a majority of apartments in a half-dozen luxury condos are nominally owned through entities that are often obscure, including One57 (77 percent), Time Warner Center (64 percent), and 15 Central Park West (58 percent). And 58 percent of New York City condominiums are paid for entirely in cash, which makes buyers more untraceable because no mortgage documentation is involved. As Story and Saul write:
An entire chain of people involved in high-end real estate sales—lawyers, accountants, title brokers, escrow agents, real estate agents, condo boards and building workers—often operate with blinders on. As Rudy Tauscher, a former manager of condos at Time Warner, said: “The building doesn’t know where the money is coming from. We’re not interested.”
A report jointly issued in February by Wealth-X (a self-described “private wealth consultancy”) and Sotheby’s International Real Estate confirms that New York is the world’s favorite refuge for second-home buyers from abroad (London is number two). The largest proportion of non-American purchasers of residential real estate in the city are British, contradicting conventional wisdom that Russians and Chinese are dominant. Although The New York Times recently reported that in the year ending in March 2014 Chinese buyers accounted for $22 billion in real estate sales in the US—almost one quarter of all purchases by foreigners—they prefer suburban houses to metropolitan apartments. According to one Sotheby’s broker, “New York City is the concrete jungle, much like Beijing or Shanghai. Long Island offers fresh air, no pollution, the waterfront.”
The stratospheric amounts now at stake in newly built Manhattan buildings perhaps can be best understood by comparison with today’s contemporary art market, where multimillion-dollar paintings and sculptures have become favored instruments in the global transfer of vast and largely unregulated sums. The more expensive the object, the more money can be shifted internationally in one transaction, with the artworks themselves—mere markers to some degree—making a useful stopover at the Geneva Freeport, the tax-free air entrepôt in Switzerland used by dealers and collectors to reduce or eliminate import duties and value-added taxes. However, much as the new super-tall New York condos may serve that same general purpose, these are no works of art. If, as Goethe posited, architecture is frozen music, then these buildings are vertical money.
Interestingly, there’s a clear architectural disparity between the bland billionaires’ behemoths of Midtown North and the smaller, livelier, but scarcely inexpensive condominiums clustered around the High Line two miles to the southwest in Chelsea. Unlike the 57th Street corridor, where city planning loopholes have been cunningly exploited to capitalize on the immense profits to be reaped from supersized condominiums, areas adjacent to the High Line have not been “up-zoned.” Greater building heights are largely confined to nearby north–south avenues.
The enormous popular success of the High Line and the arty cachet of its environs—the city’s principal contemporary art galleries crowd the West 10s and 20s, and the Whitney Museum of American Art will open its new home at the elevated park’s southern end this spring—have made this a much-sought-after neighborhood among affluent young creative sorts.2 As a result, developers have been willing to sponsor architecturally inventive schemes in Chelsea to appeal to an audience more aesthetically sophisticated than the cautious foreign investors who gravitate to blue-chip Midtown North.
The art world favorite Annabelle Selldorf has designed both galleries and apartments near the High Line. Developers particularly like Pritzker Prize winners for the implicit cultural validation they bring to a project, as Portzamparc did when Extell hired him to design One57. The Pritzker laureates Shigeru Ban and Jean Nouvel have built condominiums near the High Line, and foundations have been laid for a thirty-nine-unit condo by the award’s 2004 recipient, Zaha Hadid, alongside it at 28th Street. Her swoopingly streamlined eleven-story composition—in a retro-futuristic style—is scheduled for completion in 2016 and will rival prices achieved in Midtown North if its penthouse sells for the reported $35 million asking price. That building’s developer, Related Companies, has enlisted another Pritzker honoree, Rem Koolhaas, to do a building next to the High Line at West 18th Street.
In tandem with all this high-priced development, New York City housing since the turn of the millennium has become far less affordable (especially for young people, except for those who work in financial services or other highly lucrative fields). Last year the median price paid for dwellings in the city rose to a new high of $1.31 million, with more than seven thousand residences valued at $5 million or more. Gone are the days when aspiring writers, artists, actors, dancers, and other low-earning bohemians could count on finding a solo dwelling in Manhattan. Apart from the newfound fashionableness of Brooklyn—where the hippest sections are now prohibitively expensive—even the remotest reaches of the outer boroughs are being gentrified, and longtime tenants sometimes find themselves priced out of their own neighborhoods.
To combat this trend, New York State Senator Brad Hoylman of Manhattan last fall said he would sponsor a bill in the Albany legislature to impose a property tax surcharge on nonprimary residences in New York City valued at $5 million and higher, which one study says could generate some $665 million to subsidize low- and middle-income housing. Predictably, the city’s powerful real estate industry—largely controlled by a few dozen family-owned firms, some with long-standing ties to politicians of both major parties—is up in arms over the idea, and thus the prospect of the bill’s being approved by one of the country’s more compromised state governments appears quite unlikely.
Nonetheless, this brave initiative is surely more equitable than incentives given to developers of Manhattan’s new safe deposit boxes in the sky. As Charles V. Bagli reported in the Times in February, under New York City’s Property Tax Exemption Program, known as 421a, the $100 million apartment at One57 qualified for a 95 percent tax cut worth about $360,000 this year. (Such abatements decrease over time and usually expire in twenty-five years or less.)
In return for these breaks, developers are required to create housing for low-income tenants, but fewer than 10 percent of new dwellings in the city have been earmarked as such. Some of those subsidized units are located in the new luxury towers themselves (though in a few instances are accessible only through a separate entrance that activists have scorned as “the poor door”). Developers can also support off-site affordable housing in order to qualify apartments for 421a status, as Extell did with One57 by underwriting sixty-six such units in the Bronx. However, in his 2015 State of the City address, Mayor Bill de Blasio asserted that “the city has for decades let developers write their own rules…. Sometimes projects included affordable housing…but far too often, they did not.” He identified six neighborhoods outside Manhattan where developers would be compelled to build 80,000 units of affordable housing over the next decade, and twice that number of market-rate properties in general.
If the mayor’s promises are kept, they come just in time. Lately in New York, no one has it as bad as the growing homeless population, estimated at nearly 68,000 in 2014—an increase of about 5 percent over the preceding year. And while homelessness nationwide has declined by about one third since 2010, it has risen by 21.5 percent in the city during the same period. None of these demographic shifts is accidental. During his twelve years in office, Mayor Michael Bloomberg repeatedly declared his intention to make New York—a municipality long renowned for turning generations of poor immigrants into middle-class taxpayers—into what the political blogger Alex Pareene has termed the billionaire businessman’s “perfectly engineered technocratic dream city.”
As Bloomberg said in 2013, “If we could get every billionaire around the world to move here it would be a godsend.” In fact, he believes that economic inequality in the city is attributable not to growing poverty among the many but burgeoning wealth among the few:
The reason [the income gap] is so big is that at the higher end we’ve been able to do something that none of these other cities can do, and that is attract a lot of the very wealthy from around the country and around the world. They are the ones that pay a lot of the taxes. They’re the ones that spend a lot of money in the stores and restaurants and create a big chunk of our economy. And we take the tax revenues from those people to help people throughout the entire rest of the spectrum.
Such Reagan-era fantasies of trickle-down economics aside, Bloomberg’s brand of wealth redistribution would seem more heavily weighted toward plutocrats than paupers. A dispassionate but ultimately critical analysis of the three-term mayor’s grand vision for Darwinian upscale urbanism can be found in Bloomberg’s New York: Class and Governance in the Luxury City by the anthropologist Julian Brash, which received insufficient attention when it was published four years ago.3 Brash shows that the mayor imagined the city
as a place of competition, elite sociality, cosmopolitanism, and luxury, populated by ambitious, creative, hardworking, and intelligent innovators…. The Bloomberg Way constituted an effort to establish the dominance of the ascendant postindustrial elite vis-à-vis other social groupings in New York City.
This had, according to its critics on both the left and right, “deleterious effects…on small businesses, the middle class, and taxpayers.”
Today’s race to erect ever-higher, ever-more-luxurious Manhattan condominiums recalls the early-twentieth-century competition to win New York City bragging rights for the world’s tallest building, as one record-breaking tower after another rose in dizzying succession. Yet not one of New York’s postmillennial claimants to that lineage possesses an iota of the aesthetic élan that distinguished those early skyscrapers, internationally renowned as America’s signal contribution to modern architectural form. Here one can point, for example, to the Woolworth, Chrysler, and Empire State buildings.
In contrast, the smokestack-like protuberances that now disrupt the skyline of midtown Manhattan signify the steadily widening worldwide gap between the unimaginably rich and the unconscionably poor. Those of us who believe that architecture invariably (and often unintentionally) embodies the values of the society that creates it will look upon these etiolated oddities less with wonder over their cunning mechanics than with revulsion over the larger, darker machinations they more accurately represent.
—March 3, 2015
Stop the Megabuilding! May 14, 2015