In the pre-Trump, prepandemic paradise of 2015, when I first wrote in these pages about the then-new supertall, superthin skyscrapers being planned for the east–west corridor of Manhattan now known as Billionaires’ Row, a computer-generated image illustrated how radically the skyline was about to be transformed.1 Today a new generation of Gotham supertalls is nearing completion, with yet another crop in the planning stages, though the execution of many of those projects seems far from certain. Thus the question is no longer how much these proliferating behemoths will further alter the most identifiable vertical urban profile on Earth, but rather if they will be the last of their kind, at least in New York City.

As has been widely reported during the past year, the current plethora of unoccupied office space in the nation’s financial capital—where according to an April 2024 New York Times article by Matthew Haag, “across Manhattan, more than 18 percent of offices are empty, a near-record with no sign of improving in the near future”—seems certain to exceed demand for quite some time to come. This imbalance has been attributed to the dual factors of a fundamental change from in-person to remote work since the pandemic began in 2020 and a long period of high interest rates that have severely reduced the profitability of big new office buildings, the construction of which requires enormous loans. As one real estate industry insider told The New York Times in December, “It’s hard to justify putting a shovel in the ground when you have supply-demand fundamentals that are out of whack.” This sentiment was echoed in a recent New Yorker cartoon by Anjali Chandrashekar, which shows a father peering out at a high-rise skyline and telling his young offspring, “One day, son, all these skyscrapers that we built for no reason and lie empty will be yours.”

Lately several major high-rise projects in New York City have been put on hold by their developers. A Times headline on the last day of 2023 proclaimed, “That Building Boom? It’s Gone Bust for Now.” The story went on: “Nearly 20 large office buildings that developers have proposed, including the final tower near ground zero, have yet to break ground. Many are on indefinite hold,” and although a trio of large office towers was under construction, “nothing else [is] projected to go up for years.”

Most notable among the derailed projects is Affirmation Tower, a 1,663-foot supertall that would have become Manhattan’s highest structure. Planned for a Midtown West site adjacent to the recently completed Hudson Yards, it was the largest commission to date for the fifty-seven-year-old Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, best known in this country for the National Museum of African American History and Culture of 2009–2016 in Washington, D.C. Adjaye has been among the most lionized master builders to emerge on the international scene since the millennium and has been heaped with honors in his adopted homeland, including the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Gold Medal, a knighthood, and the Order of Merit.

This mixed-use scheme’s high-flown name seemed suddenly ironic after a well-researched Financial Times exposé in July 2023 detailed sexual assault and harassment accusations made against him by three female former employees. Although the architect has denied their allegations, he announced that he would be “seeking professional help in order to learn from these mistakes to ensure that they never happen again” and was stepping back from public involvement in some of his firm’s jobs. As a result, several high-profile cultural institutions paused work on their Adjaye commissions, and his career prospects appear to have plummeted. The consortium of development firms behind Affirmation Tower turned instead to OMA, the Rotterdam-based architectural firm cofounded by Rem Koolhaas, to design a new proposal, images of which were released in March of this year.

In any event, a contrarian attitude seems to have emerged among some professionals toward further high-end development in this fringe district of Midtown West. Despite all the hype generated to promote nearby Hudson Yards as Gotham’s latest “city within a city” à la Rockefeller Center, one exasperated broker on New York magazine’s real estate website, Curbed, pleaded, “Can we stop calling all these things trophies? It’s in the middle of nowhere.” Nonetheless, although the residential and retail portions of Hudson Yards continue to be a drag on the market, its commercial component, according to The New York Times, has “emerged as perhaps the most dominant office market in New York City, a bright spot as companies across the country cut space in the shift to remote and hybrid work.” Hudson Yards’ vacancy rate is 10 percent, nearly half the city’s average, and several of its buildings are fully rented, figures that are certain to spur developers to further expand their top-end office projects in Manhattan.


The business press has been warning that America faces a catastrophic collapse of the commercial real estate market after years of heedless overbuilding in this specialized category, the result of developers having ignored the steady shift away from centralized workplaces. Even before the pandemic this trend was well underway because of increasing reliance on the Internet, which makes it possible to work from almost anywhere. To make matters worse, the new Manhattan supertalls are far bulkier than their unprecedentedly narrow precursors and promise to increase the office supply-to-demand ratio even more.

The extraordinary height-to-width ratios of characteristic supertalls built in the 2010s were made possible by advances in structural engineering and new high-performance materials, and they were taken to a once-unimaginable 24:1 differential at SHoP Architects’ Steinway Tower of 2015–2022 at 111 West 57th Street in Manhattan, now the world’s thinnest skyscraper. But now this feat appears to have been but a prelude to the new phase of massive high-rises. Their overall size seems likely to be limited only by economic conditions, rather than by the multitude of environmental and social factors that call into question the addition of still more office space in Manhattan. Illogically skewed priorities are apparent in the unbridled commercial expansion that continues to dominate the city’s construction plans. The tremendous danger posed to New York City by its 520-mile-long shoreline as ocean levels continue to rise, the concurrent threats to its mass transit system and other infrastructure as increasingly frequent and torrential rainstorms cause flooding even away from littoral areas, and the chronic shortage of affordable housing for working-class citizens who make the metropolis function have all received far less attention and funding than the seemingly reflexive creation of more and more redundant office space.

Supporters of undiminished development, however, have argued that most of today’s unoccupied commercial space is in buildings deemed unleasable because of their advanced age or dilapidated condition. The expense required to bring them up to competitive standards is deemed prohibitive by those less interested in the long-term environmental and economic benefits of adaptive reuse than in the immediate profits that can be reaped from creating state-of-the-art properties, even though they also threaten to be prohibitively expensive and to further exacerbate the overabundance of inventory.

As of September 2023 Manhattan had an estimated 10 million square feet of empty office space, which makes one wonder why an additional 10 million feet of new Class A office space is needed. Exponents of unlimited growth would be quick to assert that in order for the city to remain competitive in the global economy there must be a steady increase in Class A properties, an industry term that denotes either brand-new or newly renovated top-of-the-line properties in desirable locations with all the latest high-tech features and good access to mass transit. Class B properties are deficient in one or more of those attributes and account for a much larger proportion of the New York commercial rental market. Lately the neologism “trophy property” has appeared at the very apex of commercial property rankings, indicating Class A status amplified by factors such as a world-famous architect (often a Pritzker Prize winner, a number of whom have built in New York City since the millennium), a snob-appeal address, park or water views, and any number of increasingly spectacular amenities—celebrity-chef restaurants, private clubs, gyms with Olympic-size pools, and, for residential properties, concierge staff able to deal with the most outlandish of plutocratic whims.

Epitomizing this new wave of construction is a projected trophy property unveiled to the public in January 2023: 175 Park Avenue, a 1,575-foot-high supertall by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) planned for the northwest corner of Lexington Avenue and East 42nd Street. This is the site of the former Commodore Hotel, which in 1978–1980 was stripped down to its steel frame and remodeled into the Grand Hyatt New York by the architecture firm Gruzen and Partners in a redevelopment partnership between Donald Trump and the Chicago-based Pritzker family, owners of the Hyatt hotel chain.

The new tower, which will flank Grand Central Station to the east as Kohn Pedersen Fox’s supertall One Vanderbilt of 2016–2020 now does to the west, bears an address that seems a stretch even by the elastic standards of Gotham real estate legerdemain. There is to be no ground-level access from 175 Park Avenue to the renowned thoroughfare. It will only be reached through a second-story side entrance opening onto the elevated Park Avenue Viaduct of 1917–1928, which wraps around the train terminal.

To be sure, the Pan Am (now MetLife) Building of 1960–1963—just north of Grand Central and fronting on East 45th Street—is designated 200 Park Avenue despite having even fewer connections with that north–south boulevard than 175 Park will. It is not uncommon for New York developers to get permission for such so-called vanity addresses from compliant city officials, as happened with Rafael Viñoly’s supertall 432 Park Avenue of 2011–2015, even though its entrance is actually about 150 feet to the west of Park Avenue on East 56th Street. That prestigious designation cost the building’s developers, Macklowe Properties and CIM Group, a mere $11,000 to obtain from a city notoriously amenable to the wishes of real estate interests, which have habitually been among the largest campaign contributors to mayoral candidates of both major parties, thus perpetuating their political influence no matter who wins.


Far more disruptive than the artful nomenclature of 175 Park is its overbearing scale. Computer-generated renderings created by the multinational graphics agency the Boundary indicate that it will dwarf the 1,046-foot-tall Chrysler Building of 1929–1930 directly across from it on Lexington Avenue. Even though such digitized concoctions tend to minimize the worst aspects of a scheme, the imaginary north-facing view of 175 Park doesn’t bother to disguise the fact that it will be half again as high as its famous neighbor. Boundary’s hyperrealistic image reduces that civic treasure and the other greatest Art Deco skyscraper—the Empire State Building of 1930–1931, which superseded the Chrysler Building as the world’s tallest structure upon its completion and now bookends this imaginary vista—to the scale of souvenir tchotchkes.

If built in its announced form, 175 Park Avenue will contain an astounding 2.1 million square feet of Class A office space, with another 453,000 square feet of hotel space in the uppermost portion of the tower and 10,000 square feet of retail space on three lower levels. Clad in reflective glass—mistakenly thought to diminish perceptions of architectural bulk in the same way that people were once advised to wear vertical stripes in order to look slimmer—the structure will be surmounted by a slightly tapering pinnacle outlined with a feeble pattern of interlaced Gothic arches. This perfunctory bit of styling is likely a nod to the more intricately detailed neo-Gothic top of Cross and Cross’s redbrick-and-terra-cotta General Electric Building of 1929–1931, nearby at East 51st Street and Lexington. Unlike that stylistically hybrid Art Deco landmark—part cathedral, part skyscraper—175 Park’s crowning motif will be repeated at ground level, though in bizarrely inverted form.

Boundary’s digital rendering of the tower’s base presents a nightmarish composition of four upwardly curved, intertwined skeins of fat metal tubes, one cluster at each corner of the building. This jaw-dropping design recalls Zaha Hadid Architects’ One Thousand Museum condominium of 2015–2019 in Miami, the undulating vertical supports of which in turn mimic the pointless structural exhibitionism of Santiago Calatrava. Here, though, SOM ups the visual ante with a zoomorphic surrealism that suggests a colossal nest of robotic boa constrictors as imagined by some coked-up sci-fi fanboy.

Several recent books address various aspects of the supertall phenomenon. Stefan Al’s Supertall: How the World’s Tallest Buildings Are Reshaping Our Cities and Our Lives does not stick very closely to the premise of its promising subtitle and meanders off into discursive and extended asides. Similarly, Sky-High: A Critique of NYC’s Supertall Towers from Top to Bottom, by Eric P. Nash and Bruce Katz, might more accurately be described as a celebration rather than a critique, in that it addresses very few of the problems raised by these postmillennial urban interlopers.

Heightening one’s sense that Sky-High is a promotional effort is the dazzling quality of its many glossy color illustrations, which—whether digitally enhanced or not, I have no idea—bring to mind cunningly manipulated fast-food advertising rather than serious architectural photography. During my career as a critic, I’ve become wary of pictures that make buildings look better than they are at first hand, especially if they contradict my specific cavils. That has made me partial to the work of those rare architectural photographers (the late Cervin Robinson and present-day practitioners Richard Pare and Iwan Baan) who have been able to take what I call good bad pictures—strong compositions that can hold a page but do not rely on sleights of hand to make their subjects look better than they really are. In contrast, the too-slick-to-be-true photographs by Bruce Katz in Sky-High, in which every façade glistens and nearly every horizon is blue, seem to depict an alternative universe rather than the far-from-perfect New York City of my long experience.

Katherine Clarke’s Billionaires’ Row: Tycoons, High Rollers, and the Epic Race to Build the World’s Most Exclusive Skyscrapers offers a brisk journalistic account of the frenzied speculative activity that surrounded the rapid postmillennial residential development of a stretch of Manhattan’s West 57th Street between Fifth and Eighth Avenues, with outlying properties on nearby thoroughfares including Central Park South. As has been widely reported, these supertall condominium towers have attracted many absentee foreign nationals who are using their multimillion-dollar apartments as a safe investment haven guaranteed by the supposed political stability of the United States.

As Clarke notes, many enormously rich Americans have bought into these buildings, too, including the hedge fund manager and Harvard antagonist Bill Ackman, who paid $91.5 million for his apartment in Christian de Portzamparc’s One57 of 2009–2014; the computer tycoon Michael Dell paid $100.5 million for his. Both were far outstripped by the $238 million laid out by the hedge fund manager Ken Griffin for the four-story, 23,000-square-foot penthouse at Robert A.M. Stern Architects’ 220 Central Park South of 2013–2019, now the highest price ever paid for a dwelling in this country.

Although there are signs that demand for high-end condominiums in New York City is softening in part because of an oversupply of unsold units, the Manhattan office rental market is facing a much more serious and imminent crisis. An estimated $1.5 trillion in commercial real estate loans is set to expire before the end of 2025, and widespread defaults by owners unable to rent their “underwater” properties—those whose debt exceeds their value—could have a dire effect on municipal services by seriously reducing the tax base. As taxes on the general public are likely to be raised to make up for such a shortfall, an accelerated exodus of residents to more affordable states (as has been happening already—in 2022, 65,000 New Yorkers traded their driver’s licenses for Florida registration) could initiate a “doom loop” (today’s overstated, overused term for an inexorable downward spiral) much worse than the city’s 1975 insolvency crisis.

As reported in a front-page New York Times article by Matthew Haag, published in April 2023 under the headline “Office Market in Dire Straits in Manhattan” and the subhead “Buffeted by High Rates and Remote Work”:

Rapidly rising interest rates have intensified concerns that the New York City office market, the largest in the country and a pillar of the city’s economy, could be at grave risk. That one-two punch could be worse than anything corporate landlords have experienced before, experts on the sector say, leading major banks and real estate analysts in recent weeks to warn that languishing properties along with falling property values and higher borrowing costs could increase the odds of a recession nationally and a budget crisis for the city.

A March 2024 New York Times piece by Alan Rappeport, “City Coffers Feel Impact as Building Prices Fall,” notes:

New York City’s comptroller laid out a “doomsday” scenario last summer where the value of the city’s offices settled at 40 percent below their prepandemic peaks. This would translate to budget shortfalls of approximately $322 million in 2025 and $1.1 billion in 2027.

This trend already seemed clear by 2001, when the loss of some 15.5 million square feet of office space in the destruction of the World Trade Center raised doubts about whether the site should be rebuilt exclusively for that use rather than with housing as part of the mix. This was a legitimate concern because Lower Manhattan had become increasingly residential since the Twin Towers were built, largely as a result of the development of Battery Park City during the 1980s and the later residential conversion of several commercially obsolete Financial District office towers, the two most architecturally important of them being Cass Gilbert’s neo-Gothic Woolworth Building of 1910–1913 and Voorhees, Gmelin and Walker’s Art Deco One Wall Street of 1929–1931.

Nonetheless, the reconstruction of Ground Zero proceeded as though nothing had been learned from this historic juncture, and it was quickly forgotten that the Twin Towers had finally reached full occupancy only months before September 11, twenty-eight years after their completion. Many believed that the international financial crash of 2008 was certain to have a cooling effect on the rapid pace of high-rise construction in New York. But the relatively speedy recovery of the economy after that crisis saw a return to commercial development as usual, with very little adjustment to the fact that office occupancy rates might never return to their previous level. And that is to say nothing of the nation’s largest city being susceptible to unforeseen calamities such as the pandemic of 2020, as well as natural disasters caused by climate change, a threat made more palpable with each unprecedented inundation of the metropolis’s antiquated and increasingly inadequate infrastructure.

One suggested solution to the glut of unleasable office space has been to convert it to residential use, including affordable housing, now that the New York City rental market is at its tightest since 1968, with only a 1.4 percent vacancy rate. However, this is more easily said than done without changes to zoning regulations that make many office buildings unsuitable for such retrofitting. Current statutes stipulate that no dwelling space shall be more than forty feet from a means of egress, and although that has been possible in older buildings with smaller footprints, the far more expansive layouts of much post–World War II Manhattan commercial construction disqualify them as dwelling spaces.

One clever strategy that some developers have adopted is to create vertical ground-to-rooftop voids within the deepest recesses of such overlarge floor plates, an acceptable trade-off that reduces rentable square footage but makes the remaining structure legally habitable. Nonetheless, widespread commercial-to-residential conversions will depend primarily on the profit to be realized from more and more housing space in the city, which may also decline in concert with falling demand for office space as working from home morphs into working from anywhere. In order to encourage this much-needed adjustment from one market sector to another, the 2025 New York state budget—which was passed by the legislature and signed by governor Kathy Hochul in April—includes tax benefits for developers who convert offices into apartments. According to New York City officials, this could result in 20,000 new affordable units.

The supertall skyscraper—now defined as a structure of at least 300 meters (984 feet) tall, twice the height of a skyscraper as it is now construed—has been largely a postmillennial development; only twenty-two of them were completed before 2000 (most in the US), whereas since then there have been more than two hundred, the vast majority of them in China, a shift that reflects its burgeoning economic might. A decade into the new millennium came the advent of the megatall skyscraper, which must be at least 600 meters (1,969 feet) high. Four now exist; the first of them, SOM’s 2,717-foot-high Burj Khalifa of 2004–2010 in Dubai, is still the world’s tallest building, with the others in Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Mecca.

Among the Manhattan supertalls now under construction, none has drawn more public attention than 270 Park Avenue, alternately known as the JPMorgan Chase Building because upon its completion in 2025 it will serve as the headquarters of America’s largest bank. That firm is now temporarily housed nearby at 383 Madison Avenue of 1999–2001, a full-block tower designed by David Childs of SOM (who was also responsible for One World Trade Center of 2006–2013, the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere) and completed just seven years before Bear Stearns, the financial services giant that commissioned it, failed in the crash of 2008 and left this colossal vestige on the market.

JPMorgan Chase’s new home is being erected just north of Grand Central on the Park Avenue site previously occupied by SOM’s Union Carbide Building of 1957–1960. That High Modernist classic was designed by Natalie de Blois (although her boss, Gordon Bunshaft, arrogated credit), and it was generally deemed one of the better International Style skyscrapers of the postwar period.2 Nonetheless, JPMorgan Chase hired Foster and Partners to design an entirely new structure, which entailed the largest planned demolition of a building ever undertaken. That process, all the more complicated because of the hemmed-in site, took two years to complete.

Of all the architects today specializing in the new supertalls, none is more renowned within the profession for his stunning results than the American architect Adrian Smith, who will turn eighty in August. After he received his degree from the University of Illinois Chicago’s College of Architecture and Arts, he spent nearly three decades as a partner in that city’s branch office of SOM, where the most conspicuous of his efforts was the Burj Khalifa. In 2006 he left to establish his own Chicago-based firm, Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill.

Paradoxically, Smith remains virtually unknown to the general public despite the high visibility of his work. In Manhattan, for example, he was responsible for the 1,550-foot-tall Central Park Tower of 2014–2020, a mixed-use residential and retail scheme on the western reaches of Billionaire’s Row and the second-tallest building in the city (and the Western Hemisphere), as well as the world’s tallest primarily residential structure. All the same, he is not an architect whose name alone can sell a top-tier luxury apartment, as is the case with Robert A.M. Stern, the design impresario of Manhattan residential schemes that have been veritable gold mines for developers and buyers alike.3

Smith and Gill’s Central Park Tower, for all its structural ingenuity in maximizing its small site, is not a particularly interesting design, with a series of slightly diminishing setbacks on its rectilinear aluminum-and-glass-clad surface as it rises ever higher. Not only does it lack the vertiginous élan and propulsive contours of the Burj Khalifa—which somewhat resembles an upended telescope extended to its maximum length—but the effect of its perfunctorily articulated lower stories on the 57th Street streetscape is deadening. The New York architectural historian and urban design gadfly Andrew Alpern recently sent me a photo of its glassy base in an e-mail with the subject line “Bleaker Street,” and it is hard to deny that whatever sporadic architectural quality West 57th Street once had, it’s been fatally overwhelmed by the crushing new hulks, and this one in particular.

An enormous monograph devoted to the designs of Smith and Gill, Supertall Megatall: How High Can We Go?, documents the firm’s impressive output with a stunning array of photographs and technical diagrams, though the book’s detailed discussion of advanced technology will likely be incomprehensible to all but the most well-versed engineering mavens. It would be impossible for laypeople to challenge the assertions put forth in this hefty tome, which weighs more than six pounds and seems intent on imposing its importance on readers by sheer size, in much the same way that the Burj Khalifa is intended to fill its viewers with a sense of awe rather than admiration.

Despite the stunning architectural imagination and technological prowess that Adrian Smith and his cohort can exert to bring such prodigies to fruition, in light of all the other urgencies the profession should be addressing instead—climate change and social equity being the two most urgent—the devotion of so much talent, money, and effort to erecting ever higher supertalls and megatalls verges on the obscene. The world is burning—literally and figuratively—and this flagrant waste of capital and imagination makes the biblical parable of the Tower of Babel all too easy to comprehend as both the most ancient and the most modern of human follies.

An earlier version of this article misstated the number of years between the World Trade Center’s completion and September 11.