Que ton argent périsse avec toi, puisque tu as cru que le don de Dieu s’acquérait à prix d’argent! Pierre (Actes 8: 20)
Ne vous amassez pas des trésors sur la terre, où la teigne et la rouille détruisent, et où les voleurs percent et dérobent; mais amassez-vous des trésors dans le ciel, où la teigne et la rouille ne détruisent point, et où les voleurs ne percent ni ne dérobent Car là où est ton trésor, là aussi sera ton coeur. Jésus (Matthieu 6: 19-21)
Vous entendrez parler de guerres et de bruits de guerres (….) Une nation s’élèvera contre une nation, et un royaume contre un royaume. Jésus (Matthieu 24: 6-7)
Le soir, vous dites: Il fera beau, car le ciel est rouge; et le matin: Il y aura de l’orage aujourd’hui, car le ciel est d’un rouge sombre. Vous savez discerner l’aspect du ciel, et vous ne pouvez discerner les signes des temps. Jésus (Matthieu 16: 2-3)
Dans le monde actuel, beaucoup de choses correspondent au climat des grands textes apocalyptiques du Nouveau Testament, en particulier Matthieu et Marc. Il y est fait mention du phénomène principal du mimétisme, qui est la lutte des doubles : ville contre ville, province contre province… Ce sont toujours les doubles qui se battent et leur bagarre n’a aucun sens puisque c’est la même chose des deux côtés. Aujourd’hui, il ne semble rien de plus urgent à la Chine que de rattraper les Etats-Unis sur tous les plans et en particulier sur le nombre d’autoroutes ou la production de véhicules automobiles. Vous imaginez les conséquences ? Il est bien évident que la production économique et les performances des entreprises mettent en jeu la rivalité. Clausewitz le disait déjà en 1820 : il n’y a rien qui ressemble plus à la guerre que le commerce. Souvent les chrétiens s’arrêtent à une interprétation eschatologique des textes de l’Apocalypse. Il s’agirait d’un événement supranaturel… Rien n’est plus faux ! Au chapitre 16 de Matthieu, les juifs demandent à Jésus un signe. « Mais, vous savez les lire, les signes, leur répond-t-il. Vous regardez la couleur du ciel le soir et vous savez deviner le temps qu’il fera demain. » Autrement dit, l’Apocalypse, c’est naturel. L’Apocalypse n’est pas du tout divine. Ce sont les hommes qui font l’Apocalypse. René Girard
Few tourists dining in the restaurants of San Gimignano enjoying the wines and cuisine of Tuscany know the dark history behind the many towers that loom over the town. These early Medieval skyscrapers rose above streets that were far meaner than anything we have today. Every north Italian city once bristled with these towers, hundreds of them. Bologna still has a few left. You can find the stumps of these towers in every northern Italian city if you look for them. Florence is filled with the remains of these towers. They are everywhere if you know what to look for. (…) Northern Italy was the only place in Western Europe where urban life survived the collapse of the Roman Empire. It was the most densely populated part of Europe at a time when large areas of Western Europe were becoming depopulated and reverting back to wilderness. (…) These towers were fortresses. They belonged to families that had their own private armies, and frequently waged war on each other. These military noble families made their fortunes through extortion, by shaking down merchants and shopkeepers, by blocking roads and charging tolls, through collecting protection money from the surrounding inhabitants. They constantly fought with each other over turf. When the fighting became fierce, these families and their soldiers would retreat into these towers and pull up the ladders for protection. Families kept their precious possessions in these towers, and used the towers to announce to the rest of the city who ruled in a particular neighborhood. (…) The other inhabitants of the city lived at the mercy of these feuding families. They lived in crowded tenements along very narrow winding alleys. (…) Whereas the noble families lived in towers of stone and had their own wells, everyone else lived in half-timber wattle and daub structures vulnerable to fire and flooding. For water, most of the inhabitants depended on the local river. The dark narrow streets were filthy, full of garbage, raw sewage, and animals, dangerous and crime-ridden. Disputes and criminal offenses were usually settled by vendetta, leading to generations-long pointless warfare between families and clans. Long before the first outbreak of the Plague, diseases such as typhus and cholera cut through these tenements like a scythe every summer. Due to the constant warfare between clans over turf, one day’s safe area would be another day’s no-man’s-land. To find anything similar today, we would have to travel to places like Somalia, southern Yemen, or the eastern Congo. Counterlight’s peculiars
After their initial appearance in Ireland, Scotland, Basque Country and England during the High Middle Ages, tower houses were also built in other parts of western Europe as early as the late 14th century, especially in parts of France and Italy. In Italian medieval communes, tower houses were increasingly built by the local barons as powerhouses during the inner strifes. Wikipedia
In 1199, the city made itself independent from the bishops of Volterra and established a podestà, and set about enriching the commune, with churches and public buildings. However, the peace of the town was disturbed for the next two centuries by conflict between Guelphs and Ghibellines, and family rivalries.This resulted in families building tower houses of increasing height. Towards the end of the Medieval period they were 72 in number and up to 70 metres (230 feet) tall. The rivalry was finally restrained when it was ordained by the council that no tower was to be taller than that adjacent to the Palazzo Comunale. Wikipedia
Eddie avoided the Harlem River—it was overcrowded and overfished, even more so than the Hudson, littered with oystering boats. Several bridges had recently been built across the waters, disturbing the marsh birds. He knew it wouldn’t be long before the countryside disappeared, as it had in Chelsea, where there was pavement everywhere. (…) Past the area of Washington Heights was Hudson Heights, the highest altitude in Manhattan, at 265 feet above sea level. There was the pastoral village of Inwood, and although the subway ran this far, this section of north Manhattan was still dotted with small farms, including a house once owned by the Audubon family. Eddie joined the hermit in his agitation over the constant building in Manhattan. Apartment buildings were rising everywhere. Alice Hoffman (The Museum of Extraordinary Things, 2014)
By 1927, the commanding apartment buildings along Park Avenue were not just tall; they were immensely tall, true towers, the first skyscrapers built for permanent living. The tallest of them was the Ritz Tower, shooting up from the pavement at the corner 1 of Fifty-seventh Street and Park Avenue. Built for blue-bloodsand tycoons by Emery Roth, […] it opened in October 1926 and was one of the first residential buildings in 2 New York constructed in sympathy with the city’s landmark zoning law of 1916. Concerned about diminishing sunlight and fresh air in the canyonlike streets created by the closely massed skyscrapers of lower Manhattan, the city placed a limit on the maximum height and bulk of tall buildings. Height limits were based upon the width of the street a building faced; if a developer proposed to exceed the legal limit, the stories above it had to be set back, roughly one foot for each four feet of additional height. […] Forced to work within the confines of the so-called zoning envelope, architects began constructing “set-back” skyscrapers, with sections of the buildings set back further and further as they rose from their bases into the island’s sky. “Wedding cake” architecture, some New Yorkers called it […]. The Ritz Tower […] was forty-one stories high. The tallest inhabited building in the world, it dominated the skyline of Midtown Manhattan as the Woolworth Building did that of lower Manhattan. Residents of its upper stories had unobstructed views in all directions for a distance of twenty-five miles on clear days, “panorama[s] unexcelled in all New York,” Emery Roth boasted. It was a new way of living for the rich. They became sky dwellers, their “mansions in the clouds” higher than anyone had ever lived. In its architectural aspirations alone, the Ritz Tower expressed the shoot-for-the-moon spirit of the Jazz Age. Sculpted in rusticated limestone , it rose from its base “like a telescope,” up through its set-back terraces to a square tower crowned by a glistening copper roof. Donald L. Miller (Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America, 2014)
In this document, nature and the urban city are working as one. The document portrays a city that is thriving because they harness nature. The message is that making NYC greener will allow not only a more harmonious urbanization but it will also be artistic in nature. (…) In document 1, Eddie and Beck view the industrialization period to be negative progress, as New York is losing its farms and wildlife to the new bustling city life. Document 2 is founded on the roaring 20s outlook, where bigger is better. Document two shows that skyscrapers were a progressive movement. In document 3, we see a combination of both document 1 and 2. There is the value of nature and urbanization. Progress in this document is one where urbanization and nature become circular and live harmoniously. Corrigé bac anglais 2016
More than 100 years ago, New York pioneered zoning codes designed to bring light and air (if not Central Park views) to even its most disadvantaged residents. In 1879, the city introduced a “tenement law” that required small apartment buildings for the lower-classes to include airshafts; in 1901, the law was revised to call for large-scale courtyards. Around the same time, titans of industry were building skyscrapers in midtown and the Financial District. (In those days, large commercial enterprises were confined to a few neighbourhoods, a kind of segregation that no longer exists.) Some of the structures, particularly the Equitable Building at 120 Broadway, completed in 1915, with more than one million square-feet of space on a one-acre site, were so overpowering that, in 1916, the city began requiring setbacks at various heights, to make sure light and air reached the street. The setback requirements, generally ensuring large reductions in floor area above the 10th storey, and further reductions higher up, led to one of the most distinctive building types of the 20th century: the wedding-cake tower, with the striations required by law inspiring jazz-age architects to greatness. (The Empire State and Chrysler Buildings are elongated examples of the form; the setback laws allowed for towers of any height so long as they were less than a quarter of the area of the building lot below.) But in 1961 the city revised the zoning laws again, making the wedding-cake towers period pieces. Instead, entranced by Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building on Park Avenue, a masterpiece of bronze metal set back in a handsome plaza, officials switched to a zoning code that encourages standalone towers. In exchange for ceding open space to the public, developers could build straight up (the permissible height was governed by a calculation called “floor area ratio”, or FAR). The problem: not every architect is as good as Mies, or every client as generous as Seagram. The city was overtaken by banal, sheer towers set in plazas that offered very little to the public and, given the height of the new buildings, were often in shadow. But that was a time of a rising middle class, when affordable housing was being built all over the city, and residents commuted to jobs in blocky office buildings (increasingly, commercial tenants wanted large floor plates). Only the World Trade Center, 1,368 feet high, overtook the Empire State Building in height. But the 110-storey Twin Towers, anchoring their own downtown skyline and set in a giant plaza (called a “superblock”), were a special case. Otherwise, buildings of 40-60 storeys were the norm. No one, it seems, was anticipating the current wave of pencil-thin, supertall towers. The technology they depend on has been around for decades — “mass dampers”, which prevent thin towers from swaying uncomfortably, are nothing new. So has the structural know-how that allows them to rise safely even from tiny bases. One of the buildings, 432 Park Avenue, has recently topped out at 1,396 feet, from a site of just 90 feet square. The real generator of form now is the winner-take-all economy — and with it, the demand for sky-high condos at sky-high prices. Virtually all of the new buildings are condominiums with just one unit to a floor, which means they can get by with very few elevators. And that, in turns, mean they can be built even on very narrow lots. In other words, the demand for $20m to $100m condos, with views in all directions and no next-door neighbours, has given rise to a new building type – making the revised skyline the physical manifestation of New York’s income disparities. Amazingly, none of the towers required city permission (although they did require clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration, given Manhattan’s proximity to three airports). The city doesn’t limit height, just floor area ratio, and developers, can buy “air rights” from adjacent buildings, letting them go supertall “as of right”. (…) Not only are these new towers casting long shadows on Central Park; they are turning the New York skyline, for most of the 20th century a kind of ziggurat with the Empire State Building as its peak, into a jumble. As for life below? The buildings are making the city less pleasant for anyone who cannot afford one of the condos in the sky. Think of it as the new Upstairs, Downstairs, but on an urban scale. The Guardian
These buildings are transforming the streetscape of Midtown and Lower Manhattan, and they are transforming the skyline even more. Two new luxury apartment towers in the super-tall category are going up in Tribeca, at least so far. But the biggest impact has been in Midtown, in the blocks between 53rd and 60th Streets, where seven of the new condominiums are either under construction or planned. Four of them are on 57th Street alone, which day by day is becoming less of a boulevard defined by elegant shopping and more like a canyon lined by high walls. (And that’s just the buildings that have been announced. There are others rumored to be in the planning stages, including one that would replace the venerable Rizzoli bookstore, also on West 57th Street.) If there is any saving grace to this tsunami of towers, it is in their very slenderness. From a distance they read as needles more than as boxes; what they take away from the street they give back to a skyline that has been robbed of much of its classic romantic form by the bulky, flat-topped office towers that have filled so much of Midtown and Lower Manhattan. These new buildings will not exactly turn Manhattan into a sleek glass version of San Gimignano—“the city of beautiful towers”—but thin buildings at least make for a striking skyline, and they cast thinner shadows as well. Those shadows are no casual matter, since all of the new buildings are relatively close to Central Park, and they are arranged in an arc that extends from the southeast to the southwest corner of the park, not so different from the arc of the daily path of the sun. (…) The even more troubling shadow these buildings cast, however, is a social and economic one. If you seek a symbol of income inequality, look no farther than 57th Street. These new buildings are so expensive, even by New York standards, because they are built mainly for the global super-rich, people who live in the Middle East or China or Latin America and travel between London and Shanghai and São Paulo and Moscow as if they were going from Brooklyn to Manhattan. There have always been some people like that, at least since the dawn of the jet age, but it’s only in the last decade that developers have put up buildings specifically with these buyers in mind. The Time Warner Center, at Columbus Circle, finished in 2004, was New York’s trial run, so to speak, at targeting this new market for condominiums with spectacular views at exceptionally high prices. But it’s a global phenomenon, with buildings such as One Hyde Park, in London, and the Cullinan and the Opus, in Hong Kong. The new 57th Street may be New York’s way of playing with the big boys as far as global cities are concerned, but it comes at the price of making Midtown feel ever more like Shanghai or Hong Kong: a place not for its full-time residents but for the top 1 percent of the 1 percent to touch down in when the mood strikes. (…) Even before the new wave of super-tall buildings, the condominium market in New York had become much more design-sensitive, and putting the names of well-known architects like Richard Meier, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, or Robert A. M. Stern on buildings has become a marketing advantage. In fact, at these prices it’s now gotten to be something of a necessity, the same way some women will only spend $3,000 or $4,000 on a dress if it has a famous designer’s name on it. Unfortunately, sometimes the result seems more like the architectural equivalent of a fancy label sewn into an ordinary garment. (…) They are places in which to park your cash as well as yourself and maintain your privacy in the bargain. Fueling the market still more is the fact that New York real estate has been seen for a while as both safer and more reasonably priced than real estate in much of the rest of the world. However irrational the prices of the new wave of super-luxury condominiums look to New Yorkers, these properties are cheaper than their counterparts in Hong Kong and London, which have sold for as much as $221 million. Not for nothing did Jonathan J. Miller of the real-estate appraisal firm Miller Samuel call the new condominiums “the equivalent of bank safe deposit boxes in the sky that buyers can put all their valuables in and rarely visit.” (…) If the size of the 432 Park Avenue tower, which replaces the old Drake Hotel, seems out of scale with its surroundings—which it is—it’s worth noting that it’s not the first residential building in the neighborhood to have that problem. Diagonally across the street is the building that might be considered the true first super-tall, super-thin residential tower, the Ritz Tower. It was built in 1925 to the designs of Emery Roth and Carrere & Hastings, and it rose 41 stories to 541 feet, a height that seemed every bit as outrageous in the 1920s as 1,396 feet does now. Ayn Rand was almost surely referring to the ornate Ritz Tower in The Fountainhead when she wrote disdainfully of “a Renaissance palace made of rubber and stretched to the height of forty stories.” These buildings have already given the 21st-century skyline the same kind of shock that the Ritz Tower gave it in the 1920s, when living 40 stories into the sky seemed brazen. Whatever impact all of this has on the cityscape, it will also have an effect on the handful of people who will live in these buildings, many of whom probably see these aeries as a chance to distract themselves from the ordinary woes that mere mortals suffer on the ground. Can height buy happiness? A few years after the Ritz Tower opened, the Waldorf Towers climbed even higher. Cole Porter maintained an apartment there for years. Could that be why he wrote a song that ended with the words “down in the depths of the ninetieth floor”? Vanity Fair
Twenty-six years ago this month, a coalition of New Yorkers led by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis won a historic victory for Central Park. At issue was a planned building on Columbus Circle by the developer Mortimer B. Zuckerman with 58- and 68-story towers that would cast long shadows on the park. After a lawsuit by opponents of the plan and a rally in Central Park at which over 800 New Yorkers with umbrellas formed a line to simulate the building’s shadow, Mr. Zuckerman relented and agreed to scale down his design, which eventually became known as the Time Warner Center. “One would hope that the city would act as protector of sun and light and clean air and space and parkland,” Mrs. Onassis said at the time. “Those elements are essential to combat the stress of urban life.” Today, as the city becomes denser and green space ever more precious, New Yorkers’ access to sunlight and blue skies above Central Park is under assault in ways that make Mr. Zuckerman’s original plans look benign. Fueled by lax zoning laws, cheap capital and the rise of a global elite with millions to spend on pieds-à-terre, seven towers — two of them nearly as tall as the Empire State Building — have recently been announced or are already under way near the south side of the park. This so-called Billionaires’ Row, with structures rising as high as 1,424 feet, will form a fence of steel and glass that will block significant swaths of the park’s southern exposure, especially in months when the sun stays low in the sky. (…) Despite the likely impact these buildings would have on the park, there has been remarkably little public discussion, let alone dissent, about the plans. Part of this is because few people seem aware of what’s coming. Many of the buildings are so-called as-of-right developments that do not require the public filing of shadow assessments, which can ignite opposition with their eye-popping renderings of the impact shadows will have on surrounding areas. (…) There are few New Yorkers around today with the gravitas and magnetism of Jacqueline Onassis to focus public attention on planning issues the way she did for Grand Central Terminal and Columbus Circle. That means New Yorkers who want to protect Central Park will have to do it on their own, by picking up their umbrellas once again and by contacting community boards, politicians, city agencies and the developers themselves, to demand immediate height restrictions south of the park. And they need to hurry, before the sun sets permanently on a space the park designer Frederick Law Olmsted envisioned as “a democratic development of the highest significance.” Warren St. John
Lorsque la Ville décidera de s’en soucier, il n’y aura déjà plus de soleil sur Central Park. Si personne ne s’est préoccupé de changer les lois concernant l’aménagement du territoire, c’est aussi parce que personne n’avait imaginé que des tours aussi hautes pourraient être bâties sur des terrains aussi petits. (…) Je ne suis pas contre l’érection de tours, et personne ne l’est à New York. Mais est-ce que quelques coffres-forts dans le ciel pour oligarques valent la peine de priver 42 millions de personnes [fréquentation annuelle de Central Park, ndlr] de soleil ? Warren St. John
Business du pénis (…) Il y a de cela. Mais c’est aussi un choix économique et marketing très rationnel. La force de New York, et son objet, est de changer et d’évoluer en permanence. La différence entre elle et les autres villes du monde, c’est que l’on n’a rien eu à demander à personne. Rafael Viñoly (architecte uruguayen du « 432 Park »)
New York est une ville de gratte-ciel. Il n’y a aucune raison qu’ils ne soient pas là. Harry Macklowe
300, 400 et même plus de 500 mètres… La folie des hauteurs sévit plus que jamais chez les milliardaires. Dans le quartier de Midtown, à Manhattan, sept nouveaux gratte-ciel sont en construction. Prouesses technologiques, ils promettent une vue imprenable sur Central Park. Quitte à lui faire de l’ombre. (…) Depuis quelque temps, le quartier de Midtown à Manhattan est le théâtre d’une nouvelle extravagance : pas moins de sept gratte-ciel résidentiels sont en construction, la plupart sur la 57e Rue, désormais surnommée « la rue des milliardaires ». C’est à qui construira le plus haut, le plus mince, le plus luxueux. (…) Personne, à New York, n’avait réalisé que sept nouveaux gratte-ciel allaient changer l’horizon de Manhattan et, du même coup, la vie des riverains. Jusqu’à cet après-midi d’octobre 2013. L’auteur et journaliste Warren St. John est au parc avec sa fille de 3 ans, lorsque, tout à coup, le soleil disparaît. Il lève les yeux à la recherche du nuage fautif, avant de réaliser qu’il s’agit de la tour One57 en construction. Contrarié, il épluche les pages « immobilier » des journaux, et découvre, ébahi, qu’elle ne sera pas la seule à voiler la partie sud du parc. Sans attendre, il écrit un éditorial dans le New York Times, qui met le feu aux poudres. Les associations s’en emparent et les riverains se fâchent. Lors de la réunion d’information organisée en février 2014 à la bibliothèque publique, 500 personnes se bousculent pour faire part de leurs inquiétudes. Trop tard. Les promoteurs n’ont jamais eu à consulter ni à demander la permission à qui que ce soit : dans cette partie de Midtown, il n’existe aucune restriction de hauteur. Ils peuvent construire aussi haut qu’ils le souhaitent, à condition toutefois d’acquérir les « droits aériens » des immeubles adjacents. A chaque parcelle est attribué un nombre maximal de mètres carrés constructibles, par conséquent, si l’on veut construire plus grand, et donc plus haut, il faut racheter les parts non utilisées des voisins. « Cela faisait plus de dix ans que, très discrètement, Gary Barnett amassait les mètres carrés en rachetant les droits aériens des parcelles limitrophes aux siennes », a fini par découvrir Margaret Newman, directrice exécutive du Municipal Art Society de New York. Cet organisme à but non lucratif, qui se bat pour préserver la « vitalité » de la ville, notamment par l’urbanisme, a produit une étude sur l’impact de ces gratte-ciel sur Central Park. Les promoteurs n’ont jamais eu à consulter ni à demander la permission à qui que ce soit : dans cette partie de Midtown, il n’existe aucune restriction de hauteur. « Lorsque la Ville décidera de s’en soucier, il n’y aura déjà plus de soleil sur Central Park, redoute Warren St. John. Avant d’ajouter : Si personne ne s’est préoccupé de changer les lois concernant l’aménagement du territoire, c’est aussi parce que personne n’avait imaginé que des tours aussi hautes pourraient être bâties sur des terrains aussi petits. » Et pour cause. « Il y a dix ans, c’était impossible », explique l’architecte Rafael Viñoly. Testée à maintes reprises dans un laboratoire du Canada (simulation des vents, d’un tremblement de terre, de tornades…), la Tour 432 est une véritable prouesse technique. Tous les 12 étages, il y a une rupture de deux étages vides, sans fenêtres, afin de laisser circuler l’air. Une nécessité. Sans cela, elle se casserait. « Même si les gens n’aiment pas en entendre parler, la vérité c’est que la tour bouge, et beaucoup », raconte Richard Wallgren, de Macklowe Properties. Quant à la tour Steinway, elle sera dotée, sur son toit, d’une boule d’acier de 800 tonnes afin de faire contrepoids. Les promoteurs ne donnent pas seulement dans la surenchère de silhouettes élancées, mais aussi de luxe. Piscine, restaurant et salle de cinéma privés, chef étoilé à disposition, terrasses haut perchées, spas pour chiens (!), salle de fitness suréquipée, espace de jeux pour les enfants, chambres aux étages inférieurs (sans la vue donc) pour loger le petit personnel… Ils redoublent d’imagination pour appâter leur richissime clientèle. Certains vont même jusqu’à installer des systèmes de trottoirs chauffants devant l’entrée afin qu’en hiver ces dames en talons aiguilles ne soient pas incommodées par la neige. Dans un petit film promotionnel kitschissime, Macklowe Properties met en scène « la vie de château dans les nuages » : de jolies femmes en décolleté sirotent leur champagne à 400 mètres de haut aux côtés de messieurs très chics, une danseuse de ballet fait ses pointes devant une baie vitrée dominant Manhattan, une femme est alanguie dans un bain de diamants, une sculpture de Giacometti profite sereinement de la vue… « Ce n’est pas une vidéo typique, convient le vice-président Richard Wallgren. C’est un pitch de vente plus subtil, qui parle d’art de vivre et d’esthétique de l’immeuble. » (…) Un salon et des fenêtres XXL, des salles de bains en marbre blanc, une hauteur sous plafond de 4 mètres… 70 % des appartements du 432 Park Avenue sont déjà vendus, alors même que la tour ne sera entièrement achevée que dans un an. « Et le reste sera vendu d’ici deux mois », Harry Macklowe n’en doute pas. « La demande pour ce type de logement est énorme. Tout le monde veut en faire un investissement. » Les très riches uniquement. Et beaucoup sont russes, chinois, brésiliens, en quête d’une résidence secondaire (qui sera vide la majeure partie de l’année) et, surtout, d’un bon placement. Certains parlent de ces appartements comme des nouveaux comptes en banque suisses. « Sauf que ça paie mieux qu’une banque suisse et c’est plus discret, se félicite Michael Stern, de JDS. Il n’existe pas d’endroit plus sûr où placer son argent. » Et pas seulement pour les riches étrangers. « Deux tiers des acheteurs sont américains », affirme Richard Wallgren, de Macklowe Properties. Côté One57, « 50 % des acheteurs sont américains », assure Jeannie Woodbray, la responsable commerciale, exemples à l’appui : un patron de mode, un vendeur de vitamines de l’Idaho, un concessionnaire automobile du Minnesota, un propriétaire d’une ferme de cochons dans le Midwest… Harvey Sandler, à la tête d’un fonds d’investissement, vient de racheter un appartement du 58e étage à 34 millions de dollars à Enterprise SSO, qui l’avait acquis en mai dernier pour 30,55 millions de dollars. Soit une culbute de plus de 3 millions de dollars en quelques mois. Selon Noble Black, de l’agence immobilière Corcoran, intermédiaire de cette juteuse transaction, « le marché du résidentiel superluxe est devenu tellement dingue, que certains attendent déjà les prochaines tours, plus neuves, plus hautes… ». Et les avantages fiscaux qui vont avec. Consentis aux promoteurs (en principe contre l’obligation de construire des logements à prix modérés) comme aux acquéreurs, ces faveurs n’ont pas été remises en cause par Bill de Blasio, le nouveau maire démocrate de New York, élu en novembre 2013. Pendant sa campagne pourtant, en partie financée par des promoteurs immobiliers comme Gary Barnett ou Michael Stern, il avait fait de la réduction des inégalités son cheval de bataille. Aujourd’hui, la frénésie est telle que même Lower Manhattan s’y met. Livrée en 2011 et s’élevant à 270 mètres, la « 8 Spruce Street », ou « tour Gehry », comme l’appellent les New-Yorkais, avait amorcé la tendance en devenant à l’époque la tour résidentielle la plus haute de New York. Bientôt, la cascade de demeures individuelles de la « Lego Tower » de TriBeCa, sur Leonard Street, atteindra 250 mètres. Quant à JDS Developpement, elle a déjà les plans d’une tour à Brooklyn. Louise Couvelaire
Quand Manhattan se prend pour San Gimignano …
Hauteurs de 300, 400 et même plus de 500 mètres, surenchère de minceur entrainant la condamnation forcée d’étages entiers pour raisons de sécurité, appartements à près de 100 millions de dollars qui s’arrachent comme des petits pains, milliardaires russes, chinois ou brésiliens prêts à débourser des fortunes pour ces véritables « coffre-forts du ciel » à salon et fenêtres XXL, salles de bains en marbre blanc et hauteur sous plafond de 4 mètres qu’ils n’occuperont que quelques jours par an, vue imprenable sur Central Park condamnant à l’ombre des dizaines de millions de visiteurs dudit parc chaque année, associations de riverains découvrant quand il est trop tard le système d’avantages fiscaux et de revente de « droits aériens » des immeubles adjacents permettant ces nouvelles folies …
A l’heure où entre l’argent facile de Wall street et, mondialisation oblige, la continuation de la guerre par d’autres moyens qu’est devenue l’économie …
C’est un nouveau sujet en or qu’assassine la cuvée du bac d’anglais 2016 …
Comment ne pas être frappé par l’étrange ressemblance …
Qui sur fond d’interminables vendettas entre familles rivales (les fameux guelfes papistes et les ghibellins impérialistes) …
Avaient défrayé en leur temps la chronique de la Toscane des XIII-XVe siècles ?
Guelfes et Gibelins
Ancien professeur de l’ université Paris IV-Sorbonne († 2013)
Familles, clans et factions
Dans les années 1100, les villes d’Italie du Nord et du Centre se sont affranchies de l’empereur et de leurs évêques. Pourtant, les mots de « communes » et de « républiques marchandes » que nous employons volontiers ne tiennent pas compte des réalités. Ces communes ne faisaient jamais appel à de larges consultations des citadins. Les grands marchands étaient, en fait, des nobles, seigneurs de quartiers entiers dans la cité et de fiefs seigneuriaux dans les campagnes, capables de réunir sous leurs bannières des troupes de clients et de vassaux armés. Tout le pouvoir fut, en tous temps, aux mains de cette aristocratie qui se réservait les plus hautes charges et plaçait ses fidèles aux postes d’exécution. Elle n’a jamais rien cédé et les cités n’ont pas connu de conflits nés d’une opposition sociale, riches contre pauvres par exemple, mais ont sans cesse souffert des affrontements entre familles, clans et factions au sein de cette noblesse. La conquête du pouvoir, la course aux offices furent responsables de guerres civiles atroces. Ni quartier, ni partage : deux seuls partis, jamais plus, l’un au gouvernement, l’autre, vaincu, qui subit ou s’enfuit, laisse la place. En plusieurs villes, à Florence et à Sienne et à Pise notamment, ces partis furent d’abord les Guelfes et les Gibelins, les mots faisant référence à deux lignages princiers d’Allemagne, les Welfs de Bavière et les Hohenstaufen de Souabe qui se disputaient l’empire. Dans Florence, les clans ennemis se sont déclarés pour l’un et pour l’autre. Par la suite, l’une des factions, les Guelfes, eut l’appui du pape, l’autre, les Gibelins, celui de l’empereur. À vrai dire, les auteurs de l’époque parlent rarement de parte ; ils disent plus volontiers brigate, ou setta, mot qui n’a ici rien de péjoratif, et insistent surtout sur le groupe parental, sur la famille. Giovanni Villani (1280-1348), le plus fin analyste de ces conflits, n’emploie jamais le mot de parte mais écrit, ne trouvant rien de mieux, quelli della casa di… : « ceux de la maison des… ». À Bologne, c’étaient les Geremei et les Lambertazzi, deux clans familiaux, naturellement ennemis à mort. Tous comptes faits, Guelfes et Gibelins font plutôt figure d’exception. On prenait des noms de couleurs : ainsi les Blancs et les Noirs à Florence, lorsque les Guelfes, vainqueurs, se sont partagés en deux factions acharnées à se détruire. Ailleurs, on désignait l’ennemi par un surnom, souvent malséant, rappel d’une mésaventure, d’une déconvenue, d’une disgrâce physique des chefs même : à Orvieto, les Malcorini – « les sans paroles » – et les Beffati – « ceux dont on se moque » – ; à Pise, les Raspanti qui, maîtres du gouvernement, pouvaient raspare – « gratter » – et les Bergolini –« trompés, privés de tout ».
Des affrontements constants
Ces villes « marchandes », merveilleux foyers de création artistique, présentées comme des havres de paix, étaient en réalité des cités guerrières, en luttes continuelles. Chaque parti comptait ses hommes de main, ses masnadieri, et ses seguaci. Opposer le château du seigneur rural à la ville de ces marchands est une erreur. Chaque grande famille se faisait construire une haute tour, refuge et base d’attaque. Aujourd’hui, Florence, Bologne et même San Gimignano ne donnent qu’une pauvre idée de ce qu’étaient ces cités hérissées de donjons dressés parfois à cent mètres de hauteur. À Bologne, de 1266 à 1299, plus de deux cents actes notariés authentiques ont permis d’identifier cent quatre-vingt-quatorze tours et de connaître exactement les mesures de cinquante-quatre d’entre elles. Florence, comptait, ces années-là, plus de deux cents tours ; cent soixante-quinze sont situées sur le plan. Pour Gênes, un registre fiscal du XVe siècle, à une époque où de nombreuses tours étaient en ruines, en cite encore soixante debout, dont douze dans l’étroit périmètre de la petite place de San Giorgio.La guerre naissait d’un rien, d’un défi lors d’un bal ou des funérailles d’un chef, lors du passage d’une cavalcade, ou pour de sordides querelles de voisinage. Plus souvent, de propos délibéré, pour prendre la place du parti nanti. Les chroniqueurs du temps ne cessent de parler des mutazioni, des rumori, des bollori di popolo, toujours du fait des partis : « des rumeurs et grandes nouveautés que connut la cité de Pise à cause des sectes des citadins », ou : « Florence étant dans une grande effervescence à cause des sectes et des inimitiés… ».Guerres inexpiables dont on ne peut imaginer la sauvagerie ! Ni héros ni sens de l’honneur ; seulement la haine, la surprise et la ruse. Les chefs entraînaient le petit peuple à piller et à brûler. À Vicence, « il y eut un grand feu qui dura six jours, si bien que le quart de la cité fut brûlé » et Villani intitule l’un de ses chapitres « Comment il y eut un nouveau feu à Florence et se brûla une bonne partie de la cité ». Massacres et tueries ; exterminer les vaincus allait de soi, ainsi à Brescia : « et il fut donné licence à la parte guelfa et, pour trois jours, ils pourraient tailler en pièces le parti des Gibelins ». Au soir des combats, la ville était livrée aux passions et aux raffinements de cruauté. À Spolète en 1319, les Gibelins vainqueurs jetèrent les Guelfes en une prison où ils mirent aussitôt le feu et les firent tous périr. À Rieti, en 1320, les Guelfes noyèrent plus de cinq cents Gibelins dans le fleuve qui fut tout teinté de sang. On parle de cadavres des chefs traînés dans les rues, livrés à des troupes d’enfants qui les dépècent, jouent pendant des heures aux boules avec les têtes ; « il y en eut de si cruels et animés d’une telle fureur bestiale qu’ils mangeaient de la chair crue ». On refusait des funérailles chrétiennes aux morts ; on les enterrait hors de l’enceinte urbaine, afin qu’ils ne risquent de rendre la cité impure.
Rien ne pouvait apaiser ces haines, cette soif de pouvoir et de vengeance. Pourtant, l’Église ne cessait de prêcher la réconciliation et de réunir les chefs pour qu’ils jurent de s’entendre et de soumettre leurs querelles à un arbitrage. À Gênes, en 1169, l’archevêque fit sonner les cloches et appeler tous les citoyens à un parlement sur la place publique ; les deux factions, Avogati et della Volta, jurèrent, sur les reliques de saint Jean-Baptiste, de respecter la paix. Le 4 août 1279, à Bologne, le légat et neveu du pape fit prêter serment sur l’Évangile aux cinquante premiers membres de chaque parti. Quelques années, quelques mois de répit, pas plus… Vaines aussi les prédications et solennelles processions des moines mendiants et des « mouvements de paix », les Flagellants, le Grand Alleluia de Spolète, les chevaliers gaudenti de Bologne qui, à Padoue, firent construire la chapelle des Scrovegni, décorée par Giotto en 1304-1305.
Des représailles terribles
Les guerres civiles ne pouvaient connaître qu’une seule fin : ni accord, ni compromis ou apaisement mais l’anéantissement complet de l’autre. Les vainqueurs célébraient leur retour au pouvoir par un grand triomphe. En 1267, les Guelfes de Florence, déjà assurés de leur succès, ont attendu le jour de Noël pour faire leur entrée dans la cité, armes et bannières déployées, et fêtèrent ensemble, de la même façon, par des processions et des actions de grâces, la victoire de leur parte et la naissance du Christ. Le Palazzo della Parte Guelfa, devint un second palais communal.
Pour les malheureux vaincus, injuriés, traités de lupi rapaci, la mort, la ruine, l’exil. En 1249, à tous les nobles guelfes de Florence, emmenés prisonniers à la suite des armées impériales, « on fit arracher les yeux puis on les assomma et on les jeta dans la mer ». Dix ans plus tard, ce fut au tour des Gibelins d’être exécutés, décapités sur la place publique. Partout, dans les bourgs modestes mêmes, des mesures de bannissement parfaitement orchestrées frappaient non seulement les nobles mais les artisans, les boutiquiers, partisans vrais ou supposés. C’étaient les banditi mis au ban de la Commune, rebelles, que l’on appelait simplement, les « gens du dehors », les usciti ou estrinsei, de la parte di fuori, évidemment parti des conjurés, que l’on opposait aux intrinse de la parte di dentro.
Les proscrits couraient d’hasardeuses fortunes. Né en 1265, d’une famille noble de Florence mais peu fortunée, Dante Alighieri, avait pris parti pour les Blancs. En 1301, chargé d’une mission à Rome, il apprend que sa ville est aux mains des Noirs et ne rentre pas. Condamné à une forte amende et à l’exil puis au bûcher, il se réfugie, poète errant, chantre de la vengeance, chez les princes, à Vérone, chez les Malaspina de Lunigiana, puis à Ravenne où il meurt en 1321. La Divine Comédie, commencée en 1304, chant de partisan, est toute imprégnée de la passion vengeresse qui animait les clans et les partis et de sa peine : « c’est l’eau de l’Arno qui m’a désaltéré dans ma tendre enfance, et j’aime Florence d’un si grand amour qu’à cause de cet amour même, je souffre d’un injuste exil » (De Vulgari Eloquentia). Les nobles, chefs de guerre déjà dans leur cité, n’ont survécu que par le métier des armes, ou condottieri ou pirates de haut bord. Les Gibelins de Gênes, en 1267, prirent la fuite à la tête d’une flotte armée en hâte, firent pendant des mois le blocus de la cité puis allèrent faire la course jusqu’en mer Noire. Les vainqueurs tenaient scrupuleusement registre des bannis et les assignaient à résidence, pour un temps déterminé, dans telle ou telle ville, où des sbires appointés donnaient régulièrement de leurs nouvelles. Dans la seule année 1382, à Florence, ce livre fait état de vingt-cinq lieux d’exil, à travers toute l’Italie, de Naples et Barletta à Gênes et Trévise.
Les palais échappés aux pillages et aux incendies furent systématiquement mis à bas pour effacer jusqu’au souvenir même de la faction dite rebelle et ces destructions prirent d’effarantes ampleurs. Revenus vainqueurs en 1267, les Guelfes de Florence firent estimer la valeur de leurs biens mobiliers perdus : au total, cent trois palais, cinq cent quatre-vingt maisons, quatre-vingt-cinq tours. À Bologne, en 1280, ce furent deux cent quatre-vingt maisons des Lambertazzi qui, encore debout au soir des batailles, sont rasées jusqu’au sol, avec interdiction d’y reconstruire quoi que ce soit. Les comptes de la Commune de Sienne, en 1322, enregistrent une somme de plus de trois cents livres payées aux « maîtres et ouvriers qui ont détruit les biens des traîtres, rasé les maisons et les palais, taillé les pieds de vigne ».
Ruinés et humiliés : les vaincus, « ennemis de la Commune, du peuple et de Dieu », étaient voués à la vindicte publique et le souvenir de leurs méfaits ne devait jamais s’effacer. Magistrats et conseillers firent de larges emplois aux figures et scènes infamantes, peintes sur les façades ou sur les murs des salles des palais publics, scènes dont le Mauvais gouvernement de Sienne offre l’un des plus beaux exemples. Ce fut, dans toute l’Italie, une véritable industrie ; une trentaine de cités en faisaient usage de façon toute ordinaire. À Bologne, l’on peut compter, entre 1274 et 1303, très exactement cent douze figures d’« ennemis du peuple » appliquées, légendes ignominieuses à l’appui, sur les murs des édifices de la Commune.
Ils se dressent à plus de 300, 400, voire 500 m sur l’île de Manhattan. Ces gratte-ciel pour milliardaires redessinent la skyline. Et plongent Central Park dans l’obscurité.
M le magazine du Monde
300, 400 et même plus de 500 mètres… La folie des hauteurs sévit plus que jamais chez les milliardaires. Dans le quartier de Midtown, à Manhattan, sept nouveaux gratte-ciel sont en construction. Prouesses technologiques, ils promettent une vue imprenable sur Central Park. Quitte à lui faire de l’ombre.
Il est là, petit bonhomme aux cheveux gris, dans ses bureaux d’un blanc immaculé, presque aveuglant ; heureux, pressé, survolté. Entre le savon qu’il passe à son assistante (il est furieux de ne pas retrouver l’itinéraire de son voyage, le départ est prévu dans l’heure) et la pile de documents qu’il signe à toute berzingue, Harry Macklowe trouve le temps de faire quelques petits pas de danse en chantant Kansas City, de la comédie musicale Oklahoma !.
Le choix est à l’image de l’interprète du jour, aussi décalé et surprenant qu’idoine : le couplet qu’il fredonne fait l’apologie des gratte-ciel comme symboles du progrès. Quelques heures plus tôt, le patron de Macklowe Properties a grimpé au sommet de la tour 432, « sa » tour, celle dont il rêvait depuis plus de dix ans, dont le dernier étage vient tout juste d’être achevé.
UN PANORAMA À 360 DEGRÉS SUR NEW YORK
Située au numéro 432 de la très huppée Park Avenue, entre la 56e Rue et la 57e Rue, c’est désormais le plus haut gratte-ciel résidentiel des Etats-Unis, aussi fin qu’une aiguille : il tutoie les étoiles à 425 mètres. Offrant un panorama à 360 degrés sur New York, de l’Hudson à l’East River, du Bronx à Brooklyn et de Central Park à l’océan Atlantique. Une vue à 95 millions de dollars (près de 75 millions d’euros) ! C’est le prix de l’appartement de 760 mètres carrés perché au 96e et dernier étage, vendu l’an dernier. A un acheteur inconnu. A ce tarif, on partage peu son palier. Les étages sont occupés par deux propriétaires au maximum.
Du haut de ses 77 ans, Harry Macklowe contemple Manhattan, fier de l’empreinte qu’il laissera sur la ville. Ironie, de la fenêtre de son bureau, logé au 21e étage de la tour General Motors, au coin de Central Park et de la 5e Avenue, il ne peut apercevoir sa nouvelle œuvre, située de l’autre côté de l’immeuble. En revanche, il a le nez sur la tour One57 (57e Rue), celle de son concurrent, Gary Barnett, à la tête d’Extell Development. Plus petite (300 mètres), signée de l’architecte français Christian de Portzamparc, elle est le premier de ces nouveaux gratte-ciel longilignes pour ultrariches à ouvrir ses portes. Les propriétaires commencent à emménager. La « 432 » la dépasse, mais pas pour longtemps.
Non loin de là, la tour Steinway prend déjà de la hauteur : elle culminera à 426 mètres. Et elle sera vite détrônée par la suivante, à quelques encablures : momentanément baptisée « Nordstrom » (du nom du grand magasin qui s’installera au pied de l’immeuble), cet autre projet d’Extell atteindra 520 mètres de haut. Soit la tour d’habitations la plus élevée au monde, devant la tour World One de Mumbai, et juste derrière le gratte-ciel de bureaux le plus haut des Etats-Unis, la Tour One du World Trade Center.
Sur la très huppée Park Avenue, la tour 432, le plus haut gratte-ciel résidentiel des Etas-Unis, tutoie les étoiles à 425 mètres. Et offre une vue à 95 millions de dollars.
Depuis quelque temps, le quartier de Midtown à Manhattan est le théâtre d’une nouvelle extravagance : pas moins de sept gratte-ciel résidentiels sont en construction, la plupart sur la 57e Rue, désormais surnommée « la rue des milliardaires ». C’est à qui construira le plus haut, le plus mince, le plus luxueux.
Dans les couloirs de Macklowe Properties, des emblèmes de voitures en argent, Pontiac, Ford ou encore Mercury, trônent sur des petits piliers blancs le long d’une galerie de photos « d’icônes » telles que The Babe (George Herman Ruth, joueur de base-ball), Truman Capote, King Kong et le Chrysler building. « Les mascottes d’automobiles incarnent la fierté de la possession, explique Richard Wallgren, vice-président en charge des ventes et du marketing de Macklowe Properties. Quant aux clichés, ce sont ceux des hommes, des femmes et des lieux qui ont fait New York, et l’Amérique. » Voilà qui situe les ambitions du patron.
L’architecte uruguayen Rafael Viñoly, qui a signé l’immeuble du « 432 Park », compare avec humour la dernière folie des promoteurs immobiliers de la ville à « un business du pénis ». »Il y a de cela, sourit-il. Mais c’est aussi un choix économique et marketing très rationnel. La force de New York, et son objet, est de changer et d’évoluer en permanence. La différence entre elle et les autres villes du monde, c’est que l’on n’a rien eu à demander à personne. » C’est là que le bât blesse.
L’UNE DES VUE LES PLUS CONVOITÉES AU MONDE
Si la 57e Rue est si prisée, c’est qu’elle offre une vue unique sur Central Park. « L’une des plus convoitées au monde, se félicite Michael Stern, directeur associé de JDS Development Group, à l’origine du projet de la nouvelle tour Steinway (60 appartements répartis sur 77 étages, NDLR). Central Park, c’est le centre de l’univers. » Quitte à lui faire de l’ombre.
Personne, à New York, n’avait réalisé que sept nouveaux gratte-ciel allaient changer l’horizon de Manhattan et, du même coup, la vie des riverains. Jusqu’à cet après-midi d’octobre 2013.
L’auteur et journaliste Warren St. John est au parc avec sa fille de 3 ans, lorsque, tout à coup, le soleil disparaît. Il lève les yeux à la recherche du nuage fautif, avant de réaliser qu’il s’agit de la tour One57 en construction. Contrarié, il épluche les pages « immobilier » des journaux, et découvre, ébahi, qu’elle ne sera pas la seule à voiler la partie sud du parc. Sans attendre, il écrit un éditorial dans le New York Times, qui met le feu aux poudres. Les associations s’en emparent et les riverains se fâchent. Lors de la réunion d’information organisée en février 2014 à la bibliothèque publique, 500 personnes se bousculent pour faire part de leurs inquiétudes. Trop tard.
Les promoteurs n’ont jamais eu à consulter ni à demander la permission à qui que ce soit : dans cette partie de Midtown, il n’existe aucune restriction de hauteur. Ils peuvent construire aussi haut qu’ils le souhaitent, à condition toutefois d’acquérir les « droits aériens » des immeubles adjacents.
A chaque parcelle est attribué un nombre maximal de mètres carrés constructibles, par conséquent, si l’on veut construire plus grand, et donc plus haut, il faut racheter les parts non utilisées des voisins.
« Cela faisait plus de dix ans que, très discrètement, Gary Barnett amassait les mètres carrés en rachetant les droits aériens des parcelles limitrophes aux siennes », a fini par découvrir Margaret Newman, directrice exécutive du Municipal Art Society de New York. Cet organisme à but non lucratif, qui se bat pour préserver la « vitalité » de la ville, notamment par l’urbanisme, a produit une étude sur l’impact de ces gratte-ciel sur Central Park.
Les promoteurs n’ont jamais eu à consulter ni à demander la permission à qui que ce soit : dans cette partie de Midtown, il n’existe aucune restriction de hauteur.
« Lorsque la Ville décidera de s’en soucier, il n’y aura déjà plus de soleil sur Central Park, redoute Warren St. John. Avant d’ajouter : Si personne ne s’est préoccupé de changer les lois concernant l’aménagement du territoire, c’est aussi parce que personne n’avait imaginé que des tours aussi hautes pourraient être bâties sur des terrains aussi petits. » Et pour cause. « Il y a dix ans, c’était impossible », explique l’architecte Rafael Viñoly.
Testée à maintes reprises dans un laboratoire du Canada (simulation des vents, d’un tremblement de terre, de tornades…), la Tour 432 est une véritable prouesse technique. Tous les 12 étages, il y a une rupture de deux étages vides, sans fenêtres, afin de laisser circuler l’air. Une nécessité. Sans cela, elle se casserait. « Même si les gens n’aiment pas en entendre parler, la vérité c’est que la tour bouge, et beaucoup », raconte Richard Wallgren, de Macklowe Properties. Quant à la tour Steinway, elle sera dotée, sur son toit, d’une boule d’acier de 800 tonnes afin de faire contrepoids.
Les promoteurs ne donnent pas seulement dans la surenchère de silhouettes élancées, mais aussi de luxe. Piscine, restaurant et salle de cinéma privés, chef étoilé à disposition, terrasses haut perchées, spas pour chiens (!), salle de fitness suréquipée, espace de jeux pour les enfants, chambres aux étages inférieurs (sans la vue donc) pour loger le petit personnel… Ils redoublent d’imagination pour appâter leur richissime clientèle. Certains vont même jusqu’à installer des systèmes de trottoirs chauffants devant l’entrée afin qu’en hiver ces dames en talons aiguilles ne soient pas incommodées par la neige.
Dans un petit film promotionnel kitschissime, Macklowe Properties met en scène « la vie de château dans les nuages » : de jolies femmes en décolleté sirotent leur champagne à 400 mètres de haut aux côtés de messieurs très chics, une danseuse de ballet fait ses pointes devant une baie vitrée dominant Manhattan, une femme est alanguie dans un bain de diamants, une sculpture de Giacometti profite sereinement de la vue… « Ce n’est pas une vidéo typique, convient le vice-président Richard Wallgren. C’est un pitch de vente plus subtil, qui parle d’art de vivre et d’esthétique de l’immeuble. »
Si Harry Macklowe est particulièrement content du design de « sa » tour, il n’en est pas moins fier de son intérieur. C’est d’ailleurs par là que tout a commencé, lorsque, il y a plus de dix ans, il s’est mis en tête de dessiner les plans de « l’appartement parfait ».
RUSSES, CHINOIS, BRÉSILIENS, EN QUÊTE D’UNE RÉSIDENCE SECONDAIRE
Un salon et des fenêtres XXL, des salles de bains en marbre blanc, une hauteur sous plafond de 4 mètres… 70 % des appartements du 432 Park Avenue sont déjà vendus, alors même que la tour ne sera entièrement achevée que dans un an. « Et le reste sera vendu d’ici deux mois », Harry Macklowe n’en doute pas. « La demande pour ce type de logement est énorme. Tout le monde veut en faire un investissement. » Les très riches uniquement. Et beaucoup sont russes, chinois, brésiliens, en quête d’une résidence secondaire (qui sera vide la majeure partie de l’année) et, surtout, d’un bon placement.
« Je ne suis pas contre l’érection de tours, et personne ne l’est à New York, insiste Warren St. John. Mais est-ce que quelques coffres-forts dans le ciel pour oligarques valent la peine de priver 42 millions de personnes [fréquentation annuelle de Central Park, ndlr] de soleil ? »
Certains parlent de ces appartements comme des nouveaux comptes en banque suisses. « Sauf que ça paie mieux qu’une banque suisse et c’est plus discret, se félicite Michael Stern, de JDS. Il n’existe pas d’endroit plus sûr où placer son argent. » Et pas seulement pour les riches étrangers.
Je ne suis pas contre l’érection de tours. Mais est-ce que quelques coffres-forts dans le ciel pour oligarques valent la peine de priver 42 millions de personnes de soleil? Warren St. John, Journaliste, opposant aux nouvelles tours
« Deux tiers des acheteurs sont américains », affirme Richard Wallgren, de Macklowe Properties. Côté One57, « 50 % des acheteurs sont américains », assure Jeannie Woodbray, la responsable commerciale, exemples à l’appui : un patron de mode, un vendeur de vitamines de l’Idaho, un concessionnaire automobile du Minnesota, un propriétaire d’une ferme de cochons dans le Midwest… Harvey Sandler, à la tête d’un fonds d’investissement, vient de racheter un appartement du 58e étage à 34 millions de dollars à Enterprise SSO, qui l’avait acquis en mai dernier pour 30,55 millions de dollars. Soit une culbute de plus de 3 millions de dollars en quelques mois.
Selon Noble Black, de l’agence immobilière Corcoran, intermédiaire de cette juteuse transaction, « le marché du résidentiel superluxe est devenu tellement dingue, que certains attendent déjà les prochaines tours, plus neuves, plus hautes… ». Et les avantages fiscaux qui vont avec. Consentis aux promoteurs (en principe contre l’obligation de construire des logements à prix modérés) comme aux acquéreurs, ces faveurs n’ont pas été remises en cause par Bill de Blasio, le nouveau maire démocrate de New York, élu en novembre 2013. Pendant sa campagne pourtant, en partie financée par des promoteurs immobiliers comme Gary Barnett ou Michael Stern, il avait fait de la réduction des inégalités son cheval de bataille.
Aujourd’hui, la frénésie est telle que même Lower Manhattan s’y met. Livrée en 2011 et s’élevant à 270 mètres, la « 8 Spruce Street », ou « tour Gehry », comme l’appellent les New-Yorkais, avait amorcé la tendance en devenant à l’époque la tour résidentielle la plus haute de New York. Bientôt, la cascade de demeures individuelles de la « Lego Tower » de TriBeCa, sur Leonard Street, atteindra 250 mètres. Quant à JDS Developpement, elle a déjà les plans d’une tour à Brooklyn. « New York est une ville de gratte-ciel, résume Harry Macklowe. Il n’y a aucune raison qu’ils ne soient pas là. »
Too Rich, Too Thin, Too Tall?
Ever taller, ever thinner, the new condo towers racing skyward in Midtown Manhattan are breaking records for everything, including price. Sold for $95 million, the 96th floor of 432 Park Avenue will be the highest residence in the Western world. As shadows creep across Central Park, Paul Goldberger looks at the construction, architecture, and marketing of these super-luxury aeries, gauging their effect on the city’s future.
April 9, 2014
These days, it is not just a woman who can never be too rich or too thin. You can say almost exactly the same thing about skyscrapers, or at least about the latest residential ones now going up in New York City, which are much taller, much thinner, and much, much more expensive than their predecessors. And almost every one of them seems built to be taller, thinner, and pricier than the one that came before. Few people are inclined to mourn the end of the age of the luxury apartment building as a boxy slab. But what is replacing it, which you might call the latest way of housing the rich, is an entirely new kind of tower, pencil-thin and super-tall—so tall, in fact, that one of the new buildings now rising in Manhattan, the 96-story concrete tower at the corner of 56th Street and Park Avenue, 432 Park Avenue, will be 150 feet higher than the Empire State Building when it is finished, and taller than the highest occupied floor of the new 1 World Trade Center. And construction on an even taller super-luxury building, 225 West 57th Street, is scheduled to begin next year, so 432 Park’s reign as the city’s tallest residence and second-tallest skyscraper will be short-lived.
These buildings are transforming the streetscape of Midtown and Lower Manhattan, and they are transforming the skyline even more. Two new luxury apartment towers in the super-tall category are going up in Tribeca, at least so far. But the biggest impact has been in Midtown, in the blocks between 53rd and 60th Streets, where seven of the new condominiums are either under construction or planned. Four of them are on 57th Street alone, which day by day is becoming less of a boulevard defined by elegant shopping and more like a canyon lined by high walls. (And that’s just the buildings that have been announced. There are others rumored to be in the planning stages, including one that would replace the venerable Rizzoli bookstore, also on West 57th Street.)
If there is any saving grace to this tsunami of towers, it is in their very slenderness. From a distance they read as needles more than as boxes; what they take away from the street they give back to a skyline that has been robbed of much of its classic romantic form by the bulky, flat-topped office towers that have filled so much of Midtown and Lower Manhattan. These new buildings will not exactly turn Manhattan into a sleek glass version of San Gimignano—“the city of beautiful towers”—but thin buildings at least make for a striking skyline, and they cast thinner shadows as well.
Those shadows are no casual matter, since all of the new buildings are relatively close to Central Park, and they are arranged in an arc that extends from the southeast to the southwest corner of the park, not so different from the arc of the daily path of the sun. The impact will vary from season to season, but there is little doubt that the southern portion of the park will be in more shadow than it is today. Given the slenderness of the new towers, it might be more accurate to say that the southern end of the park is someday going to look striped.
The even more troubling shadow these buildings cast, however, is a social and economic one. If you seek a symbol of income inequality, look no farther than 57th Street. These new buildings are so expensive, even by New York standards, because they are built mainly for the global super-rich, people who live in the Middle East or China or Latin America and travel between London and Shanghai and São Paulo and Moscow as if they were going from Brooklyn to Manhattan. There have always been some people like that, at least since the dawn of the jet age, but it’s only in the last decade that developers have put up buildings specifically with these buyers in mind. The Time Warner Center, at Columbus Circle, finished in 2004, was New York’s trial run, so to speak, at targeting this new market for condominiums with spectacular views at exceptionally high prices. But it’s a global phenomenon, with buildings such as One Hyde Park, in London, and the Cullinan and the Opus, in Hong Kong. The new 57th Street may be New York’s way of playing with the big boys as far as global cities are concerned, but it comes at the price of making Midtown feel ever more like Shanghai or Hong Kong: a place not for its full-time residents but for the top 1 percent of the 1 percent to touch down in when the mood strikes.
And yet, in other ways, these buildings are absolutely characteristic of New York, which has a long and honorable tradition of skinny towers: the Flatiron Building (completed in 1902), the now demolished Singer Building (1908), the Metropolitan Life tower (1909), and the Woolworth Building (1913). In those days, skyscrapers couldn’t be too bulky, because you couldn’t be that far from a window. Then fluorescent lighting, air-conditioning, sealed windows, and a preference for big, horizontal office floors took over.
Until now, that is. Today, there is more money to be made from housing people in the sky than ever before in New York City. In part, this is because a building full of apartments requires far fewer elevators than an office building with its armies of workers. Add to that the facts that people are willing to pay dearly for views, particularly of Central Park, and that they will pay an even greater premium for an apartment that occupies an entire floor—well, if you pile a lot of full-floor or half-floor apartments on top of one another and try to give all of them a park view, you pretty much end up with a very thin, very tall tower within a couple of blocks of Central Park.
“The super-tall, super-slender towers are a new form of skyscraper,” Carol Willis, the founder and director of the Skyscraper Museum, in Lower Manhattan, told me. At 432 Park Avenue, which was designed by the architect Rafael Viñoly for the developers Harry Macklowe and the CIM Group, each of the 104 apartments will occupy either a full floor or a half-floor, and the loftiest of them, a full-floor unit on the 96th floor, will be the highest residence in the Western Hemisphere, at least until the building at 225 West 57th Street goes ahead. Viñoly’s penthouse has already sold for $95 million to an unidentified buyer, which is close to $11,500 a square foot; the average asking price in the building was close to $7,000 a square foot, almost three times the average for Manhattan luxury condominiums last year. In exchange for parting with this kind of cash, the residents at 432 Park will be able to look down on the Chrysler Building and just about everything else in Midtown, including their neighbors at One57, the 90-story blue glass tower at 157 West 57th Street, which will be completed later this year (although a number of units are already occupied). One57 was the first of this new generation of super-tall, super-thin, super-expensive buildings, and it is astonishing to think that its height of 1,004 feet, just 42 feet shorter than the Chrysler Building, will make it the tallest residential building in the city for a few months only, until 432 Park is finished, probably next year.
One57 attracted a lot of attention for the sale of one of its two largest apartments for the then unheard-of price of more than $90 million (to an investor group headed by the financier Bill Ackman)—and a lot more attention for the fact that its crane assembly broke loose and dangled ominously over the street during Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, requiring the evacuation of seven square blocks around the building. Its developer, Gary Barnett, of Extell, spent about 10 years assembling the site, and in 2005 asked the French architect Christian de Portzamparc to come up with a design. Even before the new wave of super-tall buildings, the condominium market in New York had become much more design-sensitive, and putting the names of well-known architects like Richard Meier, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, or Robert A. M. Stern on buildings has become a marketing advantage. In fact, at these prices it’s now gotten to be something of a necessity, the same way some women will only spend $3,000 or $4,000 on a dress if it has a famous designer’s name on it.
Unfortunately, sometimes the result seems more like the architectural equivalent of a fancy label sewn into an ordinary garment. De Portzamparc—whose first building in New York, the sculpted glass LVMH tower, on East 57th Street, was widely acclaimed—first envisioned One57 as a slender glass structure with a few setbacks marked by curving roofs; he hoped that the overall effect of the design would resemble a cascading waterfall. Once he had been through the meat grinder of the New York City development process, not much of a sense of cascading water remained, and the final version of the building turned out to be a flattened composition in various shades of blue and silver glass, striped on some sides and speckled on others. If the tower’s slender height made it appropriate to New York, its garish glass made it look more like a tall refugee from Las Vegas.
Inside, however, the feeling is more luxurious, perhaps because, as Frank Lloyd Wright allegedly said about the Gothic-style Harkness Tower at Yale, the building’s interior is the one place from which you can’t see it. What you do see is Central Park and the city, spread out before you. Barnett, the developer, took me to the topmost penthouse on an exceptionally cold, clear day early this year, and the view of the park was nothing like what I was used to from windows 30 or 40 floors up in other buildings. From the 90th floor, you feel as connected to the sky as to the ground. The city is laid out like a map, and the enormous windows are less like frames for the view than wide-open portals to it. And inside, the high ceilings and large rooms make the place feel even less like a conventional apartment. The layout leaves an open vista through the apartment, so you can see north to the Tappan Zee Bridge and south to the new 1 World Trade Center tower.
De Portzamparc had completed the initial versions of his plans when the recession of 2008 began and real-estate development in New York ground to a halt. Barnett, a former diamond dealer whose quiet, understated manner masks a gambler’s instinct, was certain that the market would come back, and that when it did, most other developers would be caught with nothing to sell. If he could manage to start his building when things still looked bleak, Barnett thought, he would be ahead of the curve, the only developer ready with brand-new, super-luxury apartments when the next wave began. “We had a hole in the ground—what else could we do?” Barnett said to me as a way of justifying his decision to move forward. Still, his reasoning was counter-intuitive, since real estate usually lags economic recoveries rather than leads them. At a time when the best apartments in the city were going begging, the notion of adding a slew of new ones at higher prices than the apartments going unsold seemed nothing short of madness.
But Barnett knew he wasn’t building for conventional buyers who were subject to normal economic cycles. Like Nick and Christian Candy, the brothers in London who built the absurdly expensive One Hyde Park Tower, or Arthur and William Lie Zeckendorf, another pair of siblings in the development business, who finished 15 Central Park West just before the last downturn, Barnett had no illusion that he was building homes for people to actually live in. He knew that most of the apartments at One57 would be commodities for investment, sold to limited-liability companies that had been created to shield the identities of their rich owners, people from around the world who would spend, at most, a few weeks a year there. From time to time, Barnett figured, he would sell an apartment to a couple or a family who actually cared about what the place would feel like to wake up in every morning and to commute to work and take their children to school from, but these people, the ones for whom One57 would be a primary residence, were relatively few.
Until recently, high-end residential real estate in New York meant venerable old cooperative apartment buildings on Fifth and Park Avenues and Central Park West. How could a new building without the history and solid, dignified aura of, say, 1040 Fifth Avenue sell for prices that were even higher? But co-op buildings are strange animals, since you aren’t technically buying an apartment in them but rather shares of stock in a tenant-controlled corporation that owns the building, and every buyer is required to submit to a complex process of interviews, financial disclosures, and board approvals. In a co-op, you can’t hide your identity by buying your apartment in the name of a limited-liability corporation, but L.L.C.’s are an everyday occurrence in the New York City condominium market. Everything about the city’s co-op buildings, on the other hand, is structured to make it impossible to treat them as commodities.
That, however, is precisely what the new condominiums are: tradable commodities, perfect for the speculatively inclined. They are places in which to park your cash as well as yourself and maintain your privacy in the bargain. Fueling the market still more is the fact that New York real estate has been seen for a while as both safer and more reasonably priced than real estate in much of the rest of the world. However irrational the prices of the new wave of super-luxury condominiums look to New Yorkers, these properties are cheaper than their counterparts in Hong Kong and London, which have sold for as much as $221 million. Not for nothing did Jonathan J. Miller of the real-estate appraisal firm Miller Samuel call the new condominiums “the equivalent of bank safe deposit boxes in the sky that buyers can put all their valuables in and rarely visit.”
Barnett’s financing partners accepted his rationale that, since the apartments in his building were going to be bought by people who were largely insulated from the effects of the recession, there was no reason to wait until the economy had fully revived to get the project started. Mere confidence that the world was not going to collapse altogether was enough. He started foundation work on One57 in 2010, when the rest of the real-estate industry, which was putting up buildings not as commodities but as places for people to live or work, was still in the dumps. De Portzamparc, in an unhappy concession to tighter economic circumstances, simplified his design, making the building’s façades flatter. The design compromises were not matched by price concessions, however. One57’s initial prices averaged $5,889 per square foot, and sales moved at such a fast clip that Extell raised the prices several times as the building was going up.
Barnett famously refused to negotiate with interested parties, and they were not permitted into the building as it was going up. They could see nothing except plans and full-scale mock-ups of kitchens, bathrooms, and views in a sales center that Extell constructed in an office building two blocks away, its rooms lined with the same marble that was being used in the actual building. The center was intended to set a tone of such elegance that haggling over price would feel unseemly. A visit began with a 45-second film of flowing water that gradually took the shape of the building, an allusion to de Portzamparc’s idea of cascading water. From there a potential buyer would move into a room with a six-foot-high model of the building at its center, and then, if inclined to get serious, go through another series of doors into the mock-ups of kitchens and bathrooms. The notion was to capture the imagination and to move, step by step, from mood setting to reality.
It was enough to bring in a number of early buyers, including a Chinese mother who bought a modest ($6.5 million) unit for her two-year-old daughter; two investors, one from Hong Kong and one from Montreal, who are behind the financial success of the Michael Kors and Tommy Hilfiger labels and who each spent around $50 million on a full-floor unit; and Ackman, who put together a consortium of investors to buy an enormous six-bedroom duplex with a glass-enclosed “winter garden” at one of the building’s highest setbacks, on the 75th and 76th floors. They are presumably counting on the possibility that in a few years the apartment will be worth several times the $90 million they paid for it.
Barnett’s success with One57 left other developers to play catch-up. He himself has been so emboldened by One57 that he decided to try to do it again only a block away, in a building at 225 West 57th Street that will have a Nordstrom department store at its base. (One57 will have a Park Hyatt hotel on its lower floors.) The Nordstrom tower, which is being designed by the Chicago architects Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill, will also be of glass, but more angular in shape than One57. And Steven Roth, of Vornado, another of the city’s most active developers, has hired Robert A. M. Stern, the apostle of traditional architecture who designed 15 Central Park West, to do a super-tall tower at 220 Central Park South, just north of Barnett’s Nordstrom tower. The early renderings for the Vornado tower show a thinner, more elongated version of his Central Park West building, mimicking the style of the past but recasting it into a shape that is very much of the present.
The Vornado project and the new Extell project almost prevented each other from happening. In a sequence of events that makes clear how much New York real estate is part blood sport, part chess game, and part absurdist farce, Barnett had begun assembling the site for his building in 2005, the same year that Roth purchased an old rental apartment building at 220 Central Park South as a future development site. Barnett realized that if Roth put up a tall building on his Central Park South site it would block the all-important park views from his own site immediately to the south. So Barnett managed, without Roth’s knowledge, to purchase the lease for the Vornado building’s parking garage along with a small parcel in the middle of the larger development site. For more than seven years he refused to give them up, preventing Roth from redeveloping the site even after he had bought out the apartment tenants and cleared the building to prepare for its demolition. Roth sued Barnett to try to evict him from the garage, to no avail.
The deadlock lasted until last fall, when, unwilling to sacrifice the vast profits that each was preventing the other from realizing, the men made a deal under which Vornado paid Extell $194 million for its parcel and some additional development rights and agreed to shift the site of the Stern-designed tower to the western edge of the Central Park South site. In exchange, Barnett agreed to push his tower slightly to the east, giving it a more or less open view to the park. One catch: the shift meant that the Extell tower would now be cantilevered over one of the city’s most distinguished landmarks, the Art Students League. The Art Students League, which was designed in 1892 by Henry J. Hardenbergh, the architect of the Dakota and the Plaza hotel, is a city landmark, which means that the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission had the right to pass judgment on the design. The commission decided that having a 1,400-foot structure looming over the League building would not negatively impact the landmark. Michael Kimmelman, the architecture critic of The New York Times, likened the relationship between the two buildings to “a giant with one foot raised, poised to squash a poodle.”
Keeping Up Appearances
Because One57 is the first super-tall, super-thin building, it has become a lightning rod for criticism, and Barnett, who until now has been one of the city’s more publicity-averse developers, has assumed the role of lead public defender of the new super-tall towers. He was the only developer who appeared on the panel at a public forum about the new buildings last February, where he walked into a lion’s den of 425 people, most of whom seemed to view the towers with feelings ranging from dismay to outrage. He followed up his appearance with a piece in The New York Observer in which he claimed that One57 “will generate more than $1 billion in real estate, sales, hotel occupancy and other taxes” over the next two decades.
It is easy to think of the super-tall, ultra-luxury towers as a story more about money than about design, and to a certain degree it is. But if the first two buildings, One57 and 432 Park Avenue, are any indication, the interiors, at least, are designed to an exacting standard, with extremely high ceilings and expansive rooms to go with the awesome views, as if the developers realized that at prices upwards of $8,000 a square foot they couldn’t get away with the mean little rooms and cheap finishes that they might peddle elsewhere. As Barnett said to me, “They’re getting something for their $40 or $50 million.” (Well, yes, you’d hope.) He added, “These people don’t want to get squeezed into a small box.” Both buildings have elegant bathrooms that are more in line with what you would expect to find in a custom, one-of-a-kind interior than a developer-supplied one. And both buildings have spectacular kitchens, which will in all likelihood prove once again the maxim that in New York the better equipped an apartment kitchen is, the less cooking goes on within it.
Despite the garishness of One57’s exterior, I’m not ready to write off the entire super-thin, super-tall building type as incompatible with serious architecture. Viñoly’s 432 Park, on the outside, is as sophisticated as One57 is glitzy. Its façade is a flat, minimalist grid of smoothly finished concrete. As one looks at the building it’s hard not to think of Tadao Ando, the Japanese architect who is famous for making concrete feel more sensual and luxurious than marble. To some people, concrete is still concrete, no matter how refined its finish, so you have to give Macklowe some credit for not pandering to the lowest common denominator of moneyed taste. Macklowe’s own apartment, in the Plaza, was designed by the late Charles Gwathmey, who did a great deal to shape the developer’s taste and gave him an obsession for detail that is more characteristic of an architect than a profit-driven builder. In the case of 432 Park, Macklowe seems not to have cut any corners; his philosophy has been to spend as much as it takes and figure he’ll get it back by charging sky-high prices, like the $74.5 million he is asking for the full-floor apartment on the 87th floor, or the $30.75 million he wants for a three-bedroom apartment down on the 64th floor.
The tower is an essay in pure geometric form: it is a perfect square in plan, and rises straight up, without a single setback; all four façades are identical, made up of a grid of windows, every one of which is roughly 10 feet square. No windows are bigger, and no windows are smaller. If the windows didn’t have glass in them, the whole building would look like one of Sol LeWitt’s tower sculptures from the 1980s.
Macklowe is trying to sell restraint and opulence at the same time, which is not an easy task. To do it, he revved up a marketing campaign that is even more elaborate than the One57 effort, with a huge sales office in the General Motors Building that, like the one for One57, replicates finishes, kitchens, and bathrooms of the apartments, which were designed by Deborah Berke, not Viñoly. There is also a hardcover book, a special magazine, and a Web site (with text in English, Russian, Portuguese, Chinese, French, and Italian) that allows you to see virtual images of finished apartments and photographs of the actual views from five selected heights. The climactic moment in the sales center comes when you see the mood-setting film, produced by the design agency dBox, that shows images of luxury—think British country houses, private jets—that morph into images of 432 Park, all to the background music of Mama Cass singing “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” Never has austerity seemed so alluringly posh, not to say decadent.
If the size of the 432 Park Avenue tower, which replaces the old Drake Hotel, seems out of scale with its surroundings—which it is—it’s worth noting that it’s not the first residential building in the neighborhood to have that problem. Diagonally across the street is the building that might be considered the true first super-tall, super-thin residential tower, the Ritz Tower. It was built in 1925 to the designs of Emery Roth and Carrere & Hastings, and it rose 41 stories to 541 feet, a height that seemed every bit as outrageous in the 1920s as 1,396 feet does now. Ayn Rand was almost surely referring to the ornate Ritz Tower in The Fountainhead when she wrote disdainfully of “a Renaissance palace made of rubber and stretched to the height of forty stories.”
Two other new towers in the 57th Street area have to be considered as architectural efforts at least as serious as 432 Park. The first, 53 West 53rd Street, the tapered tower beside the Museum of Modern Art, was designed by Jean Nouvel several years ago for the Hines development firm but has been delayed since 2009. The tallest tower that is not on a wide street or avenue, it has gained some notoriety because of MoMA’s plans to expand into its lower floors and in the process demolish a small architectural gem, the former American Folk Art Museum, built in 2001.
On the Up-and-Up
And then there is 111 West 57th Street, designed by the architectural firm SHoP, which will be the thinnest tower of all, and quite possibly the most elegant: 1,397 feet, balanced on a base only 60 feet wide. The builders of 111 West 57th are Kevin Maloney of Property Markets Group and Michael Stern, the head of JDS Development Group. Stern broke into the Manhattan luxury market just recently by converting an old Art Deco telephone-exchange building on West 18th Street into the exceptionally sophisticated—and exceptionally successful—Walker Tower. Stern is a passionate enthusiast of New York architectural history (he named the 18th Street building for its original architect, Ralph Walker), and he seems genuinely eager to add to that history.
His tower, which will be sheathed mostly in glass on its north and south sides and will have supporting walls covered in bronze and terra-cotta on the east and west, will be slipped beside, and rise above, another landmark, the handsome, limestone-clad office building that houses Steinway Hall, the ornate piano showroom, at its base. SHoP’s design partners, Gregg Pasquarelli and Vishaan Chakrabarti, said that what they wanted most of all was to design a building that would feel as if it belonged in New York and no other place—that “has the DNA of New York, so you will know it wasn’t plucked off the skyline of Shanghai or Hong Kong,” as Pasquarelli said to me. The building will rise straight up on its northern side, facing the park, but on the south it will gently set back in a series of steps so that the north-south dimension of the tower gradually gets thinner and thinner until it has no depth at all at the top and becomes just a glass wall at the building’s crown. It is a subtle and graceful re-interpretation in modern form of the stepped-back, “wedding cake” towers of New York’s past, seasoned by a sprinkling of a classic New York material, terra-cotta, all put together in a way that makes deft use of today’s technology. Of all the new towers, it is the only one that gets ever more delicate as it rises, ending not with a climactic crown but by almost disappearing into the sky.
These buildings have already given the 21st-century skyline the same kind of shock that the Ritz Tower gave it in the 1920s, when living 40 stories into the sky seemed brazen. Whatever impact all of this has on the cityscape, it will also have an effect on the handful of people who will live in these buildings, many of whom probably see these aeries as a chance to distract themselves from the ordinary woes that mere mortals suffer on the ground.
Can height buy happiness? A few years after the Ritz Tower opened, the Waldorf Towers climbed even higher. Cole Porter maintained an apartment there for years. Could that be why he wrote a song that ended with the words “down in the depths of the ninetieth floor”?
The exhibit “SKY HIGH & the logic of luxury,” which examines the rise of Manhattan’s super-slim and ultra-modern towers, is open at the Skyscraper Museum through April 2014.
Some people say inequality doesn’t matter. They are wrong. All we have to do to see its effects is to realize that all across America millions of people of ordinary means can’t afford decent housing.
As wealthy investors and buyers drive up real estate values, the middle class is being squeezed further and the working poor are being shoved deeper into squalor — in places as disparate as Silicon Valley and New York City.
This week Bill points to the changing skyline of Manhattan as the physical embodiment of how money and power impact the lives and neighborhoods of every day people. Soaring towers being built at the south end of Central Park, climbing higher than ever with apartments selling from $30 million to $90 million, are beginning to block the light on the park below. Many of the apartments are being sold at those sky high prices to the international super rich, many of whom will only live in Manhattan part-time – if at all — and often pay little or no city income or property taxes, thanks to the political clout of real estate developers.
“The real estate industry here in New York City is like the oil industry in Texas,” affordable housing advocate Jaron Benjamin says, “They outspend everybody… They often have a much better relationship with elected officials than everyday New Yorkers do.” Meanwhile, fewer and fewer middle and working class people can afford to live in New York City. As Benjamin puts it, “Forget about the Statue of Liberty. Forget about Ellis Island. Forget about the idea of everybody being welcome here in New York City. This will be a city only for rich people.”
At the end of the show Bill says: “Tell us if you’ve seen some of these forces eroding the common ground where you live. Perhaps, like some of the people in our story, you’re making your own voice heard. Share these experiences at our website, BillMoyers.com.” Please use the comments section below to do so.
Barry Paddock Rich Schapiro
New York Daily News
February 18, 2015
« It’s outrageous that working people pay for this,” said Leandra Requena, 60, of the nonprofit Make The Road New York.
“Instead of the benefit coming to us, they spend on rich people. They subsidize their properties. That’s an injustice that makes me angry. The people in my neighborhood, in all five boroughs, need affordable housing.”
The feds are probing how One57 scored its tax break. The ritzy residential tower was thrust back into the spotlight Tuesday after it was featured in the Daily News as a symbol of the city’s growing divide between rich and poor.
Deputy Manhattan Borough President Aldrin Bonilla called One57 an “egregious example of our taxpayer money being squandered.”
“We’re not getting bang for our buck in terms of affordable housing,” added Bonilla.
“There’s no transparency. This program is misguided. Any developer who says without the program they can’t build, they can take luxury housing to Newark, N.J.”
Voir de plus:
Spring 2015: Public/Private (Volume 18 no. 1)
Shadows cast by tall buildings aren’t physical; sometimes they aren’t even visible. But they can still constitute a private intrusion onto public space. This idea animated more than 800 protesters in New York City on a brilliant October day in 1987. Brandishing black umbrellas, they opposed the redevelopment plan for what was then the New York Coliseum, claiming the proposed towers would cast shadows across Central Park. On cue, the protesters opened their black umbrellas, mimicking the towers’ encroachment.
The demonstration, organized by New York’s Municipal Arts Society, was peppered with boldfaced names, including Paul Newman, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Henry Kissinger, and journalist Bill Moyers. Central Park, said Moyers, “is the people’s park, the last great preserve of democracy in the city. It does not belong to the highest bidder.” Developer Mort Zuckerman tried to renegotiate. But the Municipal Arts Society sued, and won, over improperly granted zoning rights, and the project stalled until 2000. Today it is the substantially redesigned Time Warner Center.
Advocates in the umbrella brigade had won a reprieve, but there is a sad coda to the tale. Today at least seven glitzy new towers are planned for the edge of Central Park, some of them predicted to rise 1,400 feet. Tall and thin, they will cast a series of long, straight shadows, rather like prison bars, across the people’s park.
Voir de même:
‘Supertall’ buildings are sprouting like beanstalks in central New York, costing its citizens precious sunshine and air, and turning the city’s skyline into a jumble
Fred A Bernstein in New York
16 January 2015
On his terrace overlooking Central Park, a friend who is a wealthy tutoring entrepreneur is pointing. “The Nordstrom Tower – we think that’s going to be the one,” he says, indicating the site at 225 West 57th Street, where a condo tower is rising to a height of 1770 feet. He means the one that will finally block his view of the Empire State Building, the most famous skyscraper in the world.
It’s hard to feel sorry for a millionaire losing a bauble in a jewelled necklace of lights. But all New Yorkers are losing familiar vistas, and some are losing light and air, as supertall buildings sprout like beanstalks in midtown Manhattan. There are a dozen such “supertalls” – buildings of 1,000 feet or higher – in the construction or planning stages. And the buildings are not, as in Dubai or Shanghai’s Pudong district, being constructed where nothing else had stood. They are, instead, crowding into already dense neighbourhoods where light and air are at a premium, and quality-of-life issues are on the minds of everyone except, perhaps, the billionaires buying the cloud-hung condos as investment properties.
The construction of towers surrounding the Empire State Building is just one part of the problem. For 85 years, the Empire State has been a symbol of the city – New York’s incomparable logo – and a wayfinding device par excellence. Lost in Manhattan? Swivel until you see that famous mast, the one that King Kong clung to, and you have your bearings. Without the tallest point in a hierarchical skyline, the city will be disorienting, to residents and visitors alike.
And more of the city will be in shadow. In 2013, Warren St John, a writer who lives near Central Park, began campaigning for a moratorium on new skyscrapers immediately south of the park; his concern was that playgrounds and ballfields would increasingly be in shadow. The city’s outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire, wasn’t about to block construction of condos for his plutocratic peers; more surprisingly, the city’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, a populist, hasn’t addressed the issue either. By all accounts, he needs developers on his side if they are going to build the subsidised housing he hopes to make a part of his legacy. Whatever the reason, De Blasio “has signalled no interest in curtailing development in any way”, says a disappointed St John.
If so, the mayor is turning his back on a history of reining in development for the sake of the many. More than 100 years ago, New York pioneered zoning codes designed to bring light and air (if not Central Park views) to even its most disadvantaged residents. In 1879, the city introduced a “tenement law” that required small apartment buildings for the lower-classes to include airshafts; in 1901, the law was revised to call for large-scale courtyards.
Around the same time, titans of industry were building skyscrapers in midtown and the Financial District. (In those days, large commercial enterprises were confined to a few neighbourhoods, a kind of segregation that no longer exists.) Some of the structures, particularly the Equitable Building at 120 Broadway, completed in 1915, with more than one million square-feet of space on a one-acre site, were so overpowering that, in 1916, the city began requiring setbacks at various heights, to make sure light and air reached the street.
The setback requirements, generally ensuring large reductions in floor area above the 10th storey, and further reductions higher up, led to one of the most distinctive building types of the 20th century: the wedding-cake tower, with the striations required by law inspiring jazz-age architects to greatness. (The Empire State and Chrysler Buildings are elongated examples of the form; the setback laws allowed for towers of any height so long as they were less than a quarter of the area of the building lot below.)
But in 1961 the city revised the zoning laws again, making the wedding-cake towers period pieces. Instead, entranced by Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building on Park Avenue, a masterpiece of bronze metal set back in a handsome plaza, officials switched to a zoning code that encourages standalone towers. In exchange for ceding open space to the public, developers could build straight up (the permissible height was governed by a calculation called “floor area ratio”, or FAR). The problem: not every architect is as good as Mies, or every client as generous as Seagram. The city was overtaken by banal, sheer towers set in plazas that offered very little to the public and, given the height of the new buildings, were often in shadow.
But that was a time of a rising middle class, when affordable housing was being built all over the city, and residents commuted to jobs in blocky office buildings (increasingly, commercial tenants wanted large floor plates). Only the World Trade Center, 1,368 feet high, overtook the Empire State Building in height. But the 110-storey Twin Towers, anchoring their own downtown skyline and set in a giant plaza (called a “superblock”), were a special case. Otherwise, buildings of 40-60 storeys were the norm.
No one, it seems, was anticipating the current wave of pencil-thin, supertall towers. The technology they depend on has been around for decades — “mass dampers”, which prevent thin towers from swaying uncomfortably, are nothing new. So has the structural know-how that allows them to rise safely even from tiny bases. One of the buildings, 432 Park Avenue, has recently topped out at 1,396 feet, from a site of just 90 feet square.
The real generator of form now is the winner-take-all economy — and with it, the demand for sky-high condos at sky-high prices. Virtually all of the new buildings are condominiums with just one unit to a floor, which means they can get by with very few elevators. And that, in turns, mean they can be built even on very narrow lots. In other words, the demand for $20m to $100m condos, with views in all directions and no next-door neighbours, has given rise to a new building type – making the revised skyline the physical manifestation of New York’s income disparities.
Site for the Nordstrom Tower, next to the Art Students League on West 57th Street. Photograph: Richard Levine/Demotix/Corbis
Amazingly, none of the towers required city permission (although they did require clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration, given Manhattan’s proximity to three airports). The city doesn’t limit height, just floor area ratio, and developers, can buy “air rights” from adjacent buildings, letting them go supertall “as of right”. The developer of the Nordstrom Tower, named for the department store at its base, bought air rights from the neighbouring Art Students League, paying the venerable school (which had no plans to enlarge its handsome, 1892 building) some $30m.
Things are very different in the City of London, where the size and shape of every building is negotiated with planning officials – nothing is built “as of right”. Yet neither system is perfect: Rafael Vinoly, the architect who created 432 Park Avenue – which has become the focus of New Yorkers’ enmity – also designed London’s Walkie-Talkie. Officially named 20 Fenchurch Street, the Walkie-Talkie is reviled, but at least it was intended to provide public amenities.
The same can’t be said for 432 Park Avenue, or the other condo buildings going up around it. Not only are these new towers casting long shadows on Central Park; they are turning the New York skyline, for most of the 20th century a kind of ziggurat with the Empire State Building as its peak, into a jumble.
As for life below? The buildings are making the city less pleasant for anyone who cannot afford one of the condos in the sky. Think of it as the new Upstairs, Downstairs, but on an urban scale.
Heard on All Things Considered
Skyscrapers are a hallmark of large cities. Modern engineering makes it possible to erect something as tall as the Empire State Building on a very small footprint. Although developers love these buildings, in New York — the city of skyscrapers — residents have been upset at the shadows they cast over public spaces like Central Park.Journalist Warren St. John first noticed the shadows when he took his daughter to a playground near Central Park’s southern border on sunny, blue-skied fall day. All of a sudden, though, it became chilly. He remembers the parents zipped up their kids’ jackets and hurried off. He looked up, « and that’s when I realized the sun was behind this new building I’d never paid much attention to, » St. John says. « But what really got me was that about six months later, I was at a playground a mile north of here and the exact same thing happened. I looked up, and it was the same building. »
On a recent afternoon, St. John again gets caught in the chill in the shadow of another tall, thin building still under construction. It’s One57, the tallest building south of the park. And, he says, « it will soon be dwarfed by another building, 30 percent taller. » As the sun goes behind the tower, St. John notes, « it’s a little chillier. »
At a community meeting held to address the rise of supertowers and the reach of their shadows into the park, City Councilman Corey Johnson said that most of these apartments « are being sold to foreign investors, who have tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, who are not making this their primary home. »
Extell Development, the developer of One57, braved the hostile audience at the community meeting.
« The shadows cast by tall, slender buildings, which is what most of the buildings going up are, are very brief — maybe they’re 10 minutes in any one place — and cause no negative effect on the flora or fauna of the park, » said Gary Barnett, president of Extell Development. What’s more, Barnett says, the buildings are creating many permanent jobs in retail, hospitality and construction. « And these are not minimum-wage jobs, » Barnett says. « Many of the union construction jobs compensate between $100,000 and $200,000 a year. Upon salaries like this our fellow New Yorkers can build a better life. »
St. John responds that each of these buildings might have 100 apartments, but 40 million people use the park. To wit, in the shadow of One57, he points to a row of empty benches in the shade. « Nobody is sitting on these benches, but over there where the sun is, people are sitting, » he says. « They’re having a snack. »
Moving on to another area of Central Park, older buildings throw shorter shadows right next an open area filled with constant sunlight. He points to buds on the trees in the sunlit area, « but if you look just to the trees beyond them, there are no buds on those trees because that is where the shadows begin to fall from these buildings. »
If it was just that one building, St. John says, you could kind of shrug it off. But he ticks off six or seven buildings that are going up right in this area. Central Park is landmarked and protected from development, but there is nothing to protect it from shadows cast by buildings outside the park.
Landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh designed the tiny teardrop park near the World Trade Center. Surrounded by tall buildings, he wondered, would there be enough sunlight for a lawn? « Sunlight is the joy of what a park is, » he says.
Experts analyzed how much sunlight would be necessary, and one of the architects actually lowered part of a building under construction « so enough sunlight came in, » Van Valkenburgh says. « But everything was within inches of not working. »
As to whether the shadows will stress trees and plants, he says, they will probably die slowly — over five years. » ‘Oh, why are the trees dying?’ » he predicts people will say. » ‘It must be related to global warming.’ »
Van Valkenburgh believes there should be rules in New York about the right to sunlight in public spaces as there are in the zoning laws of some other communities.
As for St. John, he’s peeved that there was never any public debate about the supertowers. They just happened. « Maybe at the end of that public debate the public consensus might have been the economic activity generated by these buildings makes it worth it, but we just never had the debate, » St. John says.
And at least for these buildings it’s probably too late.
Jake Silverstein is editor in chief of the magazine.
Alysia Mattson, who works near the top of 1 World Trade, likens the experience above 800 feet to “being in a giant snow globe. Everything is calm.” We were standing at the window, looking down at a ferry inching across the Hudson. “You focus on things like boat traffic,” she said. “You don’t feel you are really in the city.” At that height, the earth-binding sounds of city life evaporate, along with close-up details. Perspective flattens. Cars and people on the street appear to crawl.
“Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?” Harry Lime asked on the Ferris wheel in “The Third Man.”
Jimmy Park, whose office is also on the 85th floor and who is a mountain climber in his spare time, put it another way: “You’re looking down on something you’re not in, and you feel you’re a long way from where you need to be if you need to be safe. At the same time, there’s something therapeutic about seeing great distances. It happens on planes, on mountains, on beaches. I’ll have a meeting with a new client, and we’ll gaze out the window and have this comfortable silence.
“It’s analogous,” he went on, “to the ‘overview effect’ that astronauts feel, which created the whole environmental movement. You realize how small you are and how big the world is.”
The Old Testament declared every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill shall be made low, in keeping with classical beliefs about proportion and balance. By the 18th century, awe, terror and exultation, previously reserved for God, passed over to geological phenomena like mountains and experiences like conquering peaks. Kant called it “the terrifying sublime.” In the 19th, with new technology and the growth of cities, nature was rivaled by the man-made. The sublime became reachable by climbing to the top of a tall building.
In this spirit, Richard Morris Hunt designed New York’s Tribune Building, built in 1875, with its clock tower at 260 feet, competing with the spire of Trinity Church to be the tallest structure in the city. A quarter-century later, Daniel Burnham’s Flatiron Building, at 285 feet, established a new ideal of tall and skinny, soon dwarfed by the 700-foot-tall Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower, just across Madison Square Park, which was itself outdone, in 1913, by Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building, at 792 feet.
The New York skyline found its Platonic ideal less than two decades later with the Chrysler and Empire State buildings. The Empire State’s 204-foot mooring mast for passenger dirigibles, which never actually docked there, represented the mercantile equivalent of Trinity’s steeple. As E.B. White wrote, the city skyline was “to the nation what the white church spire is to the village — the visible symbol of aspiration and faith, the white plume saying that the way is up.”
With its dips and peaks, New York’s skyline became a civic signature, the postcard picture and classic movie image of the American century, its contours a reflection of what was happening below. White’s notion depended on a vital street life, on how the towers met the sidewalk and the curb. In recent decades, aspirant cities have built buildings taller than New York’s without ever quite supplanting Manhattan, in part because skylines are just stage sets of urbanism if they don’t arise from real, bustling neighborhoods.
It was exclusivity of neighborhood, more than sheer height, that connoted status in Manhattan half a century ago: a 20th-floor penthouse on Park Avenue still signified the pinnacle of the social pyramid. Back then, real nosebleed altitudes, like 800 feet, belonged primarily to commercial, not residential, buildings. Skyscrapers advertised companies. Apartments alone couldn’t cover the extraordinary cost of construction at such heights.
Half a century ago, a 20th-floor penthouse on Park Avenue still signified the pinnacle of the social pyramid in Manhattan.
That changed only during the last decade or so, once apartments in luxury buildings like 15 Central Park West fetched $3,000 a square foot and more. Suddenly, a very tall, very slender project on 57th Street, with a floor plate just big enough for one apartment, or maybe two, and needing far fewer space-hogging elevators than a commercial tower, seemed profitable to aggressive developers. Big-name architects were enlisted. As Carol Willis, the founding director of the Skyscraper Museum in Lower Manhattan, likes to put it, form follows finance.
Height suddenly substituted for neighborhood as a signifier of status, partly because zoning regulations steered sky-high construction toward less restricted, mixed-use parts of the city, like 57th Street, which also offered money shots of Central Park, and partly because a target clientele of South Asian copper-mining industrialists and Russian oligarchs had little intention of living in their apartments. In any case, they didn’t actually want neighbors. They wanted views. Developers promoted these buildings as de facto country estates, where the chances of encountering someone who isn’t a paid employee of the building are vanishingly slim, and in-house restaurants serve only tenants, so that even eating out won’t require actually going out.
Many New Yorkers, infuriated by tax breaks given to these skyscraping potentates, picture themselves toiling in the long, skinny shadows the new towers will cast. But shadows aside, that’s not entirely fair to the supertalls. Some people may not like their scale, but a handful of apartments in mostly nonresidential blocks of Midtown or near Wall Street are hardly the cause of gentrification and displacement. And there may be just a little xenophobia in the anti-supertall phenomenon. It’s a good bet that more than a few wealthy Chinese, Indians and Arabs, like Jews before them, facing an impossible vetting process from co-op boards on the Upper East Side, elected instead to look down on them.
In any case, 57th Street is now dubbed Billionaire’s Row, and wealth has reached new altitudes. Advances in skyscraper technology have much to do with this. William F. Baker, who helped engineer the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, at 2,717 feet the world’s tallest tower, recently explained the engineering behind life above 800 feet. Engineers, he said, who long ago figured out how to make sure skyscrapers won’t topple over, are focused more and more these days on the trickier problem of making people inside feel secure. It’s a challenge because very tall, very slim buildings are designed, like airplane wings, to bend not break. An average person starts worrying about movement in a high-rise long before there’s anything approaching a threat to safety. Mild jostling that you take for granted in a car or train can provoke panic at 100 stories, even if you’re still safer in the building than in the car.
Incredible efforts now go into mitigating those effects. Today’s superslender towers are outfitted with sophisticated counterweights, or dampers, and other movement-tempering devices, as they are also outfitted with elevators that speed tenants to their aeries but not so swiftly that you will perceive any troubling G-forces. Something around 30 feet per second seems to be an ideal velocity, suggesting there may be an ultimate height for luxury towers — not because we can’t engineer a mile-high building but because rich tenants won’t abide elevators that take several minutes to reach apartments for which they paid the annual expenditures of the Republic of Palau.
Exceptional engineering requirements are said to account for a hefty portion of the cost of apartments in the supertalls, like 432 Park Avenue, presently the tallest apartment tower in Midtown Manhattan, and one of the costliest. Its exterior is a grid of concrete and glass, like an extruded Sol LeWitt, or a distended Josef Hoffmann vase (or a middle finger stuck up at the city, depending on your perspective). Giant twin dampers near the roof, the size of locomotive engines — with their own spectacular double-height views over the city — act like shock absorbers, providing ballast and discouraging chandeliers from tinkling and Champagne glasses from toppling over.
If the twin towers and the Empire State Building used to define south and north in Manhattan, the poles of the city skyline, now the compass points include 1 World Trade, 432 Park and, just a few blocks west, One57. The last, with its clunky curves and pox of tinted windows, steers Midtown Manhattan more toward Vegas or Shanghai. A mile or so away, the vast tabula rasa development called Hudson Yards threatens to become a mini-Singapore on the West Side.
But taste is tricky to legislate. Critics greeted the Chrysler Building with horror when it was finished, then held it up as a model of what skyscrapers should look like when a modern generation of glass and steel towers reshaped the postwar skyline and provoked fresh outrage. Looking back, we can see that 1950s landmarks like Lever House, by SOM’s Gordon Bunshaft, and the Seagram Building, by Mies van der Rohe, are as beautiful and refined as any architecture in America, although in the following decades they spawned a million mediocre imitations, cluttering Manhattan and obscuring the originals’ genius. This was the era of white flight and suburban sprawl, when Roland Barthes described New York as a vertical metropolis “from which man is absent by his accumulation,” and America’s so-called towers in the park — those often unjustly maligned housing projects of clustered high-rises in poor neighborhoods, many on the margins of the city — were left to ruin. The ugliest skyscraper in town, long known as the Verizon Building, at 375 Pearl Street, a seemingly windowless behemoth, still looms over the Brooklyn Bridge. It went up in 1976, just after the twin towers, by Minoru Yamasaki, which New Yorkers loved to hate — until many came to regard them differently, and not just because of what happened on Sept. 11. At dawn and dusk, the sculpted corners of the towers captured sunlight, making orange and silver ribbons float in the ether. Now, 1 World Trade has risen from their ashes. The classic modernist skyscraper is fashionable again. Taste, like the New York skyline, remains an endless work in progress.
Of the new buildings, I like 432, designed by Rafael Viñoly, and the studied jumble of 56 Leonard, downtown (Herzog & de Meuron are the architects). They’re designed with finesse, punctuating the skyline. Other buildings going up, like Jean Nouvel’s 53 West 53rd, beside the Museum of Modern Art, and 111 57th Street, by SHoP Architects, promise to help tip the scales back toward an older ideal of the sophisticated, attenuated tower, crowded out by those decades of plug-and-play boxes.
There are still those who fret about scores of tycoon palaces overrunning the city. They may take solace in the fact that the supertall-apartment phenomenon has always been a game of fiscal musical chairs. New federal rules devised to thwart shell companies and money laundering now require that cash buyers of luxury residences disclose the true names of their owners. Roughly half of real estate purchases in Manhattan, it turns out, are made in cash, with overseas buyers accounting for a third of all new Midtown condo acquisitions. Combined with sagging oil prices and a fluctuating yuan, the new rules seem to be having an effect. For the moment, the market for apartments above 800 feet continues to soften. Some supertall apartment towers on the drawing board may be postponed.
And corporate chieftains are no longer clamoring for glitzy new company towers. They’re more in tune with millennials, who prefer repurposed buildings, street life and live-work neighborhoods. The architect Bjarke Ingels has recently envisioned a couple of New York towers that feature enormous, sky-high terraces, to bring something of the pleasures of being on the street into the ether.
If the twin towers and the Empire State Building used to define the poles of the city skyline, now the compass points include 1 World Trade, 432 Park and One57.
“The tendency has been to create a hermetic experience, with floor-to-ceiling windows, so you’re incarcerated in a box,” Ingels said. “Outdoor space used to be considered a nuisance, which didn’t contribute to the building’s value, but I believe that’s changing. I am starting to hear leasing people say they want outdoor space. That’s true in residential as well as commercial properties. I think the future at 800 feet is more likely to be engaged with the outside and less an escape from it.”
Maybe. In New York, it can get pretty windy and cold up there. For ages, my aunt has rented a studio apartment, a bit lower down, on the 16th floor of a building in Greenwich Village, with a terrace looking toward Washington Square Park and Lower Manhattan, although mostly the view consists of a jumble of low-rise buildings, black-tar rooftops and fire escapes. The terrace has a sun-bleached, green-and-white canvas awning that can be rolled out for shade. Voices and car horns waft up from the street. Rain splatters on the terra-cotta floor. Spring blows in on breezes from the river. I feel like the luckiest man in New York when I’m there, above the city and in the middle of it.
Everyone’s sweet spot is different. I stood with Jimmy Park at his window in 1 World Trade, 1,000 feet up. He was extolling the view of Brooklyn and Queens. The roof of 7 World Trade, a neighboring 743-foot glass office tower, cleverly conceived by David Childs, was several hundred feet directly below us. We could just make out the mechanicals. Someone standing up there would have been one of Harry Lime’s dots.
I asked Park how tall he thought it was. He scrunched his forehead. He hadn’t really thought about it, he said. ♦
Michael Kimmelman is the architecture critic for The New York Times. He last wrote for the magazine about Manhattan’s secret pools and gardens.
Matthew Pillsbury is a photographer. His work will be shown at the Benrubi Gallery in New York in 2017.
Not in America. But there are plenty of laws in other countries that protect homeowners’ right to natural light—most of them stemming from around the time of the labor rights movement at the turn of the century, when dark, dingy tenements across Northern Europe and the US were replaced by neat, orderly public housing.
In Denmark, for example, there’s a law that determines exactly how much direct sunlight an apartment must receive—it’s even changed the way that many windows are designed. In England, a law called « ancient lights, » or « right to light, » protects any building that has received natural light for more than 20 years from future developments.
But, in the U.S., things are a bit more shady. A number of court cases here have attempted to block developments based on light, going as far back as 1959, when two Florida hotels duked it out over a bit of blocked sunshine. That case set the precedent for many others: The judge held that there is « no legal right to air and sunlight. »
In New York City, we have air rights—a concept that dates back to a law from Roman times: For whoever owns the soil, it is theirs up to Heaven and down to Hell. Modern air rights were spurred by the birth of air travel in the early 20th century, when New York City was the booming skyscraper capital of the world.
Clarification: A previous version of this post poorly explained modern air rights in NYC. The Skyscraper Museum offers up a better description in its 2013 exhibition, SKY HIGH & The Logic of Luxury, in which it explains that modern air rights in NYC emerged in the early 1960s with new zoning laws that regulated building with something called floor area ratio, or FAR—defined as square footage multiplied by a number determined by the zone to which the building belongs—that limits how much structure can be built on a particular lot and encourages developers to create public spaces on the street level. They also allow developers to buy the air rights from nearby buildings and apply them to their own lots, the Museum’s director and curator Carol Willis explains in the exhibition’s online home:
The formula for FAR and the ability to purchase and pile up additional air rights has created an invisible Monopoly game in Manhattan real estate in which developers often work for years to acquire adjacent properties that could be collected into an « as or right » tall tower.
It’s crucial to note, at the Skyscraper Museum does, that the buildings whose FAR has been purchased by a nearby tall building can never be developed higher. Still, the spate of new construction projects along Central Park (what Gothamist calls « Billionaire’s Row ») has some people arguing for a law that protects the average New Yorker’s right to light further. In an op-ed in the New York Times this week, Warren St. John sounds the alarm about the danger of letting towers rise along the park:
New Yorkers who want to protect Central Park will have to do it on their own… And they need to hurry, before the sun sets permanently on a space the park designer Frederick Law Olmsted envisioned as “a democratic development of the highest significance.”
After all, as St. John points out, people who are willing to fight for public spaces are disappearing quickly, while organizations that have traditionally critiqued developers are now run by them.But will shadows be enough to spur rage amongst New Yorkers? Or will we distract ourselves with pumpkin-flavored treats and complaining about Banksy until, one day, we wake up and realize that the single window in our terrible railroad apartment is blocked by the servant’s entrance to a $100 million palace? And besides: Isn’t it NYC’s prerogative to build higher, faster, and stronger? We’ve never been a city to turn down new development—we’re not Paris.
But I think there’s something else that irks me about these new towers. After all, New Yorkers willingly suffer for their city on a daily basis—in fact, it’s a source of civic pride. As Justin Davidson pointed out in arecent review of one massive West 57th street tower: These buildings aren’t awe-inspiring in the way the Empire State Building or Chrysler Building—or even Renzo Piano’s New York Times building—are.
And it’s important that they’re not office towers like the rest of the city’s supertalls. These new buildings will become the tallest residential architecture in the country, populated by roughly a few hundred astronomically wealthy people. Non-billionaires will be relegated to the streets below, as oligarchs shuttle to-and-fro in helicopters and armored cars. Most of these condos will probably be empty, most of the time.
So maybe it’s not that these shadows are ruining New Yorkers’ sunbathing. It’s that they’re escaping the fundamental reality of Manhattan—that regardless of income, all of us suffer the same basic indignities: The trash, the traffic, the pollution, the small kitchens.
But, like the rich in Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, the owners in these super-tall, super-luxury towers will be citizens of a literal super-city, one located above us all, hovering in a part of the atmosphere inaccessible to mere earthlings, only detectable through the shadows it casts. [Studio-X NYC]
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The 800 club
“This is the skyline people talk about.” It was a Wednesday evening in late May, and Warren Estis, a real estate litigator, was showing me the views from his penthouse apartment at Trump World Tower, at 47th Street and First Avenue. We were on the 86th floor, which, according to the building’s management, meant we were 810 feet above the ground. “You can see water planes landing on the East River,” he said. “I love the seaplanes when they come zooming in.”He led me north into the home theater, from which you could see all the way up and across town to the George Washington Bridge and where the deep leather chairs reclined into divans at the touch of a button. Then he led me south, through a lavish open-plan living room, where his partner, Tatyana Enkin, was preparing tea. The two are collectors of glass art, and the living room was dense with it: crystal swans and obelisks and lilac-and-purple baubles of various abstract shapes. LED strip lighting in the ceiling made the room glow blue, then red. “Look at the World Trade Center,” Estis said, pointing downtown. Finally, he led me west.Trump World Tower is a sleek black slab of a building that looms over the far eastern edge of Midtown Manhattan, and the view back across the island is truly remarkable. “Here you’re sitting in a chair, and you turn and you see everything,” he said. “All the iconic buildings in the city. And it’s different at night. Everything’s lit.”But as he looked out the window his eyes flickered, a little irritated, at two new supertall condo buildings that tower above his, slightly blighting his west-facing view. To the right in the middle distance was One57, a blandly luxurious gray-blue monolith that rises to 1,004 feet and casts a significant shadow over the south side of Central Park; just to the right of that stood the even loftier 432 Park Avenue, pencil-thin and still unfinished. The design of 432 Park is more attractive than One57’s — it resembles a neat stack of pale Rubik’s Cubes — and its rapid rise has made it perhaps Manhattan’s most noticeable skyscraper. When Estis moved into Trump World Tower in 2002, his year-old home was the world’s tallest residential building. Now 432 Park dwarfs it.Tatyana Enkin in the 86th-floor Trump World Tower apartment she shares with her partner, Warren Estis. Christopher Anderson/Magnum, for The New York Times
Estis shot its penthouse — which is, at 1,396 feet, currently the highest condominium in the world — a derisive glance. “At a certain point, you’re too high,” he said. “You don’t want to be higher than this,” he added, meaning his own apartment. “Up there you lose the effect. You have to walk to the window to look down.”“It’s like when you go to an art gallery,” Enkin said. “The painting has to be on eye level.”“What’s the good of being above it all?” Estis said. “You’re missing out on the beauty of the city and the various structures. Here you have the flavor.”Estis is, much like the man who built Trump World Tower, thickset, restless, plain speaking and motivated by a desire to win. He grew up in Little Neck, Queens, his mother a legal secretary and his father a lawyer for the Veteran’s Administration. At school, they asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. “Rich,” Estis replied. He was 6. While in college, he rented an ice-cream truck and drove it around on an aggressive schedule — eight months out of the year. Soon after he graduated from law school he had enough money saved to buy his first piece of property: a two-family home in Bay Terrace, Queens. Now 57, he owns approximately 65 apartments and houses throughout Manhattan and Queens, and heads a 79-lawyer law firm.‘At a certain point, you’re too high. You don’t want to be higher than this.’Enkin, like Trump’s first and third wives, is an ex-model who grew up in the Eastern bloc. She was raised in Soviet Ukraine and worked as a hydrologist in the Siberian gulags before moving to the United States to become a model for the Elite agency and Marc Jacobs. Now 40, she works as an artist’s agent.
By living above 800 feet, Estis and Enkin are two members of an unexpectedly exclusive group in Manhattan. In my estimation, no more than 40 people currently live above that line, scattered among just three buildings (Trump World Tower, One57 and 8 Spruce Street, a Frank Gehry building downtown). But they’re just the vanguard. The city is in the midst of another building boom, one unlike any that has come before. In the past, Manhattan’s tallest buildings were filled with corporate offices; now, the most imposing skyscrapers are built as homes for some of the wealthiest people on the planet. By 2020 there are expected to be at least 14 residential skyscrapers in New York City. Many of them will block out the light for a great expanse of Central Park. A small city is being built in the sky — but for whom? I was curious to learn about them, so I set out to meet as many as I could.
Stellan Parr in his 453-square-foot studio apartment on the penthouse floor of 8 Spruce Street. Christopher Anderson/Magnum, for The New York Times
Estis and Enkin were the first I got in touch with, and the most hospitable. I lingered around their apartment for hours, until the sun was setting over the Hudson. The spires of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building suddenly illuminated, bathing the apartment in their light.
“When you’re up there,” Estis said, meaning the 432 Park penthouse, “you’re missing this. You’ll see lights. But not at this level. You never want to be level with, or looking down on, rooftops. There’s no advantage.”
“Apparently that penthouse sold for $95 million,” I said. The buyer has been reported to be the Saudi Arabian retail and real estate giant Fawaz Alhokair (432 Park’s representatives declined to comment). He made his $1.37 billion fortune by bringing outlets of Western retail chains — Topshop, Banana Republic, Zara and Gap — to the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Estis shrugged, unimpressed. “They get bragging rights,” he said. Then he affected the smug tone of a 432 Park penthouse purchaser and added: “I paid more money than anyone else in the building. But I may not have the best view.”
The view may not matter in the end. According to Forbes, Alhokair lives primarily in Riyadh, so presumably 432 Park’s penthouse will become just a pied-à-terre for him — or perhaps simply an investment property, destined to remain pristinely and forever empty.
The precise number of people living above 800 feet is impossible to calculate because of the secrecy that now veils so many real estate transactions in New York. This is especially true at One57, where eight of nine condos above the 800-foot-mark have already sold. Buyers protect their identities fastidiously over there, purchasing their condos through shell corporations with impenetrable names that exist solely to mask their identities.
The top floor of 28 Liberty, a 60-story office tower, is home to free Tuesday yoga classes for those who work there. Christopher Anderson/Magnum, for The New York Times
Tracking down the owners was a drawn-out process. I would make a trip to the New York City Registry to fetch the names and addresses of the limited-liability companies that made the purchases and try to contact them that way. For example, the top two floors of One57 make up a single duplex, Apartment 90, which sold for $100.5 million to an L.L.C. named, unhelpfully, P89-90 LLC. (It remains Manhattan’s most expensive single residence.) The lawyer representing the L.L.C., Andrea Riina, emailed me, “Your request was forwarded to the client and declined.”
I had slightly better luck with Apartment 90’s downstairs neighbor, the owner of Apartment 88. In April 2015, it was sold for $47.3 million to Pac Wholly Own L.L.C., which is associated with a Chinese airline, Pacific American. The airline is owned by the HNA Group, which is in turn owned by the billionaire Chen brothers, Feng and Guoqing. After correctly predicting in the early 1990s that Hainan, a balmy island south of Beijing, would become a kind of Chinese Riviera, they started an airline to take passengers there. Soon, they amassed a fortune. According to a 2014 Bloomberg profile, Chen Feng is a “rigorously private” man; apparently his brother is, too. I emailed Guoqing Chen’s assistant several times before she finally responded: “One57 is a company investment program, and Mr. Chen doesn’t live in One57 right now. So, I am afraid Mr. Chen can’t take the interview. Thank you so much for your consideration.” The rebuff knocked out Apartment 86 too. The L.L.C. that purchased it, One57 86 L.L.C., is registered to the same small downtown Manhattan office suite that houses Pacific American airlines.
Apartment 83 is unsold, and the owners of Apartments 85 and 82 — the billionaire retailers and business partners Lawrence Stroll and Silas Chou, respectively — “prefer not to be included in the article,” their assistant wrote. Stroll, who made his money by investing early in Tommy Hilfiger, is Canadian but a resident of Geneva, according to Forbes. Chou — an early investor in Michael Kors — lives in Hong Kong.
I had a good feeling about Apartment 81 (which lies slightly below 800 feet, but I felt I’d earned it). For a start, there was a chance its owner actually lived there. The apartment cost $55.5 million and — according to The Times’s real estate pages from the week of the sale — boasts a “galvanizing 75-foot-long entrance gallery,” a “grand salon,” four bedrooms, a “one-ton bathtub carved from a single marble slab,” “head-on views of the park to the north” and a concierge who can organize everything from “helicopter service to the Hamptons” to use of a quartz stone bed at a spa on a lower floor that has, apparently, certain healing properties. These apartments are marketed in grandiose ways. As Michael Graves, a real estate agent with Douglas Elliman, told The Times in November 2015, “Living on a full floor at One57 is probably the closest thing to being a king in the 21st century.” (To be pedantic, the world’s 15 actual kings are closer to being kings than the residents of One57 are, though there might conceivably be some overlap.)
The purchaser of Apartment 81 turned out to be a Texan named Becky Moores. Unlike her neighbors, she didn’t conceal her identity. She bought it in her own name — well, in the name of the Rebecca Ann Moores Family Trust. She married her childhood sweetheart, John, in 1963. Forty-five years later she filed for divorce, hinting at infidelity. The divorce was messy and public and the payout vast enough to afford her not only Apartment 81 but a $34.3 million apartment on One57’s 54th floor too. The settlement proved less fortuitous for fans of the San Diego Padres. John Moores was the team’s owner, and to pay the settlement he had to sell his majority share. In the process, the payroll plummeted, and the star players Jake Peavy and Adrian Gonzalez were traded off to save money. “Ultimately, the team collapsed,” says Tom Krasovic, a sports reporter at The San Diego Union-Tribune who covered the Padres for years. He seemed confident that Becky Moores would grant me an interview. “I always found her to be a very nice lady,” he told me over the telephone. “She’s very well liked and very approachable with a lot of the media.”
“Bad news,” emailed my contact for Moores. “Rebecca Moores isn’t interested in participating in your story.”
Todd Stone in his artist’s studio on the 67th floor of 4 World Trade Center. Christopher Anderson/Magnum, for The New York Times
Sorting out who lives above 800 feet in Trump World Tower is slightly easier, thanks both to the tabloids and to the fact that it was built before this vogue for secrecy really took hold. Beyoncé and Jay-Z used to live up there. They rented an apartment a few floors above Estis and Enkin for a year, paying a reported $65,000 per month. The former Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter lived there, too. He sold his 5,500-square-foot apartment on the 89th floor, identical in shape and size to Estis and Enkin’s, for $15.5 million in 2012. Nowadays, their neighbors include the widow of a Delta Air Lines pilot who made a fortune in the stock market, a human rights advocate from South Africa who specializes in health care projects for the developing world, the chairman of Assist America (a global medical-emergency service) and a mysterious Asian businessman who purchased the three remaining apartments all at once, paying in cash, according to Enkin. “He’s Japanese,” she said, “but I don’t know exactly what he does.” (According to a resident and city records, his name is Chinh Chu. Chu works in finance and he is, in fact, from Vietnam. He didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
8 Spruce Street stands out among these new buildings because it’s rental-only — none of the units are for sale. Only the top three floors sit above the 800-foot line. The resident of Penthouse South, on the very top floor, agreed to meet me.
Penthouse South is tiny — so tiny it looks as if there has been some mistake. Its 453 square feet are inclusive of literally everything. It’s so incongruous amid the huge penthouses it abuts that it feels almost magical, like the secret railway platform from which the wizards take the train to Hogwarts. It was designed to be a guest or nanny’s room for one of the other penthouses, but building management rented it instead to Stellan Parr — 33, tattooed, soft-spoken and studying to be a physician assistant. He pays rent “in the low thousands.” He is a unique man: perhaps the only person of (somewhat) modest means who lives at such heights in New York. We sat at his kitchen/living room/bedroom table and admired his view, which takes in the Statue of Liberty, the curve of the East River, 1 World Trade Center and the 9/11 Memorial pools. He opened his window a fraction, and we both suddenly experienced debilitating vertigo. He closed it, and the feeling immediately dissipated.
Sometimes, Parr told me, he leaves his room to surprised glances from his neighbors — they have included a basketball player with the Brooklyn Nets and a European who used the $45,000-a-month apartment as a crash pad for the rare occasions he was in town. They have said to Parr, “I didn’t know anyone lived there.”
On a clear day in early May, I was given permission to stand on the 95th floor of 432 Park — which is, at 1,271 feet, the building’s second-highest floor, directly below the $95 million condominium. 432 Park is still partly under construction, and it took much haggling with the building’s owners before they granted me access. The two apartments that make up this floor are currently filled with dust and construction equipment, but once completed they will go on the market at around $40 million each. (This makes them roughly four times the price of, and 25 percent smaller than, Estis and Enkin’s apartment.)
I could see Trump World Tower easily from here, and I recalled Estis’s frequent assertions that his views were better. Now I had the chance to assess his claim. Looking south I could see all the way to the Atlantic. I could see how Manhattan tapered to a point at its southernmost end. Still, from this side of the building, I had to agree with Estis: The 95th floor is too high. There’s too much sky. You do have to walk up to the windows to look down.
But then I walked to a north-facing window and gazed out upon the most expensive view in the world — the view that someone was willing to pay $95 million for. (It really is the view that sells these places. The apartments aren’t that big.) I could see, at once, the whole of Central Park. But I could also see everything happening in it: children playing baseball, picnickers lying on the grass, a sea lion jumping from a rock into the water at the zoo. I could even see the splash. It was overwhelming, awe-inspiring. I felt like Gatsby — removed and superior. And then it was time for me to leave.
Workers at the ‘‘top of the house’’ — the current pinnacle of construction — at 3 World Trade Center. Christopher Anderson/Magnum, for The New York Times
As my elevator descended and my ears popped, it occurred to me that I would almost certainly never take in such a view again. And in fact, maybe nobody will, if these apartments wind up becoming empty investments.
A few weeks later, via email, I received an enormous surprise. For the first time ever, a purchaser of an apartment above 800 feet in one of the mysterious new supertall condo buildings had agreed to speak with a journalist about his purchase. I was to meet him in his Fifth Avenue office on Thursday at 4 p.m.
Howard Lorber is a 67-year-old New Yorker, balding, gregarious, instantly likable. He stood at his 52nd-floor office window, which looks out over — or, I suppose, under — his future home. His apartment will be on the 67th floor, he told me, 850 feet above the ground.
“I point it out to everyone who comes in here,” he said.
I mentioned my calculation that only a few dozen people currently live above 800 feet in the city. Lorber, who works in real estate, did his own calculation and said, “Once 432 Park is filled, there’ll be 40 more.”
On his mantelpiece were photographs of him with Donald, Ivanka and Melania Trump. “I think Donald is fantastic, and he’s going to beat Hillary and be the next president,” he said. There was also a photograph of him with Mitt Romney. “I should take that one down,” he said.
Lorber grew up in the Bronx. His father was an electrical engineer, and Lorber entered the work force by the time he was 13, “flipping pizzas, pumping gas.” He went to college but hated it, so he became a sociology major because someone told him it was the easiest way to graduate. Out in the world, he wasn’t satisfied with the sort of work he could find with a sociology degree, so he went back to college and learned accounting. He became a stockbroker, then moved into insurance. Eventually, he made enough money to buy Nathan’s Famous, the hot-dog company. He’s currently chairman of the real estate firm Douglas Elliman, the very same firm that is now selling the condos at 432 Park — hence, perhaps, his willingness to be interviewed. From time to time during our conversation, he lapsed into a kind of marketing autopilot: “432 Park is an unbelievably striking building, it’s like a masterpiece, it has to be the most talked-about and revered building in New York City. … ” But I didn’t mind the spiel because — given his expertise — he provided insightful answers to my lingering questions about the supertall boom.
“How come Trump World Tower is so much less expensive than 432 Park?” I asked.
A dentist’s office on the 69th floor of the Chrysler Building. Christopher Anderson/Magnum, for The New York Times
“By New York standards it’s already an older building,” he said. “First Avenue in the 40s doesn’t command the same price as Park Avenue in the 50s. It just doesn’t. Everyone wants to live in the middle, as opposed to the ends. I guess Central Park is the equivalent of living on the water in the Hamptons. Then there are the ceiling heights, the amenities. … ” (432 Park will have a restaurant, a fitness center and several floors of studios that the owners of the larger apartments can purchase as offices or for staff accommodation. When I walked into Lorber’s office, he was complaining to one of his associates about the price of these studios. “Seven hundred feet for $3 million, to house your staff?” he was saying. “I don’t think it’s such a good idea.” Still, he has reserved one for himself.)
I recounted to him my lack of success at One57, how I was impeded in part by the impenetrable L.L.C. names. “People do it for privacy,” he said.
“Well,” I said, “it worked.”
“If you’re wealthy,” he said, “with the world as it is, with ISIS saying they want to go after billionaires, there’s really almost no reason not to buy in an L.L.C.”
I asked him about all the emptiness up there. Will those apartments purchased as investments by foreign billionaires really remain forever vacant?
‘Seven hundred feet for $3 million, to house your staff? I don’t think it’s such a good idea.’
“It depends on the people,” he replied. “Some foreigners just want to get their money out of the countries they’re in. They may or may not rent them, but it’s not about making money. It’s more a matter of wanting stability, to be in a safe haven, which they believe New York City is. Look around the world. Look at all the turmoil. Argentina’s bankrupt, Brazil’s in trouble. In China the prices probably went down 20 to 30 percent last year.” But this, he added, was more an issue for One57 than for 432 Park. “One57 is geared more to foreigners; 432 Park is mostly domestic.”
“How come?” I asked.
“It ended up that way,” he said. “One57 has a hotel in it. 432 Park doesn’t. I think the foreigners like the idea of having a hotel. The locals like the privacy and the security of not having a hotel. And also, in fairness, One57 was on the market first. So they had the first shot at those people.”
This last statement made me realize just how tiny a group this is — these foreign billionaires happy to spend tens of millions on New York City apartments they may never visit. It’s a very small community, the superrich. In fact, when Lorber asked me who else I had interviewed for the story, and I mentioned Warren Estis, he broke into a huge smile and said: “I know Warren very well! He’s a client of the company! He’s a fun guy!”
Servcorp, a work space on the 85th floor of 1 World Trade Center. Christopher Anderson/Magnum, for The New York Times
It’s no surprise that Donald Trump seems to loom over life at 800 feet. Years before he coasted to the Republican nomination on a tide of populist anger, he was the first to give the superrich the chance to purchase these aloof Manhattan palaces in the sky, these physical embodiments of how the extremely wealthy operate at a remove from society. And now, in a way, his campaign is exploiting the rage this divergence has caused.
When I was at Estis and Enkin’s apartment we got to talking about Trump and the hostility that follows him around. Trump World Tower was itself constructed amid much acrimony and division — a chaotic and upsetting experience for some neighbors and a bonanza for others. Taking advantage of the city’s idiosyncratic “air rights” process, Trump quietly bought rights from the owners of several low-rise neighboring buildings — a church and a Japanese cultural center among them — until he had enough to build one gigantic tower. He undertook his maneuver with such stealth that none of the other neighbors, not even Walter Cronkite, knew what was unfolding in their backyards. When Trump’s plans were finally revealed, Cronkite made an emotional petition to the city appeals board, calling the design “demeaning” to the United Nations. “How can we allow an institution as important to the world and New York as the U.N. to be forever dwarfed by this outsize and illegal tower?”
A Trump executive, Abraham Wallach, responded by reminding the media that Cronkite himself lived in a 50-story high-rise at U.N. Plaza. “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” he said.
Before setting off for Trump World Tower, I emailed the Rev. Robert J. Robbins, formerly of the Church of the Holy Family, to ask what the church did with its unexpected $10 million air-rights windfall from Trump. He declined my interview request, citing “Mr. Trump’s present high profile” as the reason. One of Estis and Enkin’s neighbors refused to let The Times photograph their apartment because they didn’t want their name associated with Trump’s in the current climate. For that reason, I felt concerned about mentioning his name to Estis and Enkin. But I needn’t have worried. They are huge fans of his and intend to vote for him.
“He’s truly impressive,” said Estis. “He gives off an aura of presence and he usually has very positive things to say to the individual he’s talking to. He makes you feel good about yourself. He’ll praise you.”
“How has he praised you?” I asked.
Looking east from 56 Leonard Street, currently under construction. Christopher Anderson/Magnum, for The New York Times
“One time I ran into him at the U.S. Open, and he was with a well-known name in New York real estate,” Estis said. “We shake hands, and he turns to the builder-developer and says, ‘Warren’s probably one of the best lawyers in New York City.’ ” Estis beamed. “As I said, it makes you feel good.”
Trump does like to say things that make people feel good, though the question of their veracity is often tricky. Trump World Tower’s public-relations agency repeatedly assured The Times that Estis’s apartment lay 810 feet above the ground. But then I called Marshall Gerometta, an expert in skyscraper heights at the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.
“Only the top residential unit is above 800 feet,” he said. That’s the 90th-floor penthouse, four floors above Estis and Enkin. His figure, he told me, came from a 3-D image of the building on Google Earth. When I raised doubts about his methods, he said that he had “checked dozens of buildings this way against the actual blueprints, and it’s usually within a couple of feet of accuracy. I’m kind of the go-to guy on this.” (This is true: The Council on Tall Buildings is a respected source.)
“Is Trump known for exaggerating his buildings’ heights?” I asked.
Gerometta replied that he didn’t know about that, but he did know this: Trump was probably one of the first builders to skip floor numbers in order to inflate the total count. “What he markets as the 90th floor is often actually the 72nd floor, just to make it sound more impressive.”
“The Donald,” Gerometta said, laughing, “likes to exaggerate.” (Trump World Tower continues to dispute Gerometta’s figures but has not produced blueprints or other evidence to the contrary.)
For Estis and Enkin, the precise altitude of their apartment is ultimately immaterial. At sunset we sat at a west-facing window. The evening light filled the room, and Enkin had opened a bottle of Champagne. I suddenly remembered recent demonstrations at various Trump-owned skyscrapers across New York City.
“Was there an anti-Trump protest outside this building a couple of weeks ago?” I asked them.
Enkin smiled. Then she shrugged and said, “You only see the top of their heads.” ♦
Jon Ronson is the author, most recently, of “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.” He last wrote for the magazine about social-media public shaming.
Christopher Anderson is a Magnum photographer and a recipient of a Robert Capa Gold Medal Award.
Insects travel above us in extraordinary numbers. In Britain, the research scientist Jason Chapman uses radar systems aimed into the atmosphere to study their high-altitude movements. Over seven and a half billion can pass over a square mile of English farmland in a single month — about 5,500 pounds of biomass. Chapman thinks the number passing over New York City may be even higher, because this is a gateway to a continent, not a small island surrounded by cold seas, and summers here are generally hotter. Once you get above 650 feet, he says, you’re lofted into a realm where the distinction between city and countryside has little or no meaning at all.
During the day, chimney swifts feast on these vast drifts of life; during the night, so do the city’s resident and migrating bats, and nighthawks with white-flagged wings. On days with northwest winds in late summer and early fall, birds, bats and migrant dragonflies all feed on rich concentrations of insects caused by powerful downdrafts and eddies around the city’s high-rise buildings, just as fish swarm to feed where currents congregate plankton in the ocean.
It’s not just insects up there. The tallest buildings, like the Empire State, 1 World Trade Center and other new supertowers, project into airspace that birds have used for millenniums. The city lies on the Atlantic flyway, the route used by hundreds of millions of birds to fly north every spring to their breeding grounds and back again in the fall. Most small songbirds tend to travel between 3,000 and 4,000 feet from the ground, but they vary their altitude depending on the weather. Larger birds fly higher, and some, like shorebirds, may well pass over the city at 10,000 to 12,000 feet. Up here we’ll be able to see only a fraction of what is moving past us: Even the tallest buildings dip into only the shallows of the sky.
Though you can see migrating raptors soaring at altitudes well over 800 feet over the city during the day, most species of diurnal birds migrate after nightfall. It’s safer. Temperatures are cooler, and there are fewer predators around. Fewer, not none. Just before I arrived, Farnsworth saw a peregrine falcon drifting ominously around the building. Peregrines frequently hunt at night here. From high-rise lookout perches, they launch flights out into the darkness to grab birds and bats. In more natural habitats, falcons cache the bodies of birds they’ve killed among crevices in cliffs. The ones here tuck their kills into ledges on high-rises, including the Empire State. For a falcon, a skyscraper is simply a cliff: It brings the same prospects, the same high winds, the same opportunities to stash a takeout meal.
We stare out into the dark, willing life into view. Minutes pass. Farnsworth points. “There!” he says. High above us is a suspicion of movement, right at the edge of vision where the sky dissolves into dusty chaos. I swing my binoculars up to my eyes. Three pale pairs of beating wings, flying north-northeast in close formation. Black-crowned night herons. I’ve seen them only ever hunched on branches or crouched low by lakes and ponds, and it’s astounding to see them wrenched so far from their familiar context. I wonder how high they are. “Those are pretty large,” Farnsworth says. “When you look up into the light, everything looks bigger than it is, and closer than it is.” He estimates that the herons are about 300 feet above us: nearly 1,500 feet in the air. We watch them vanish into darkness.
I feel less like a naturalist and more like an amateur astronomer waiting for a meteor shower, squinting expectantly into the darkness. I try a new tactic: focusing my binoculars on infinity and pointing them straight up. Through the lenses, birds invisible to the naked eye swim into view, and there are birds above them, and birds higher still. It strikes me that we are seeing a lot of birds. An awful lot of birds.
Even the tallest buildings dip into only the shallows of the sky.
For every larger bird I see, 30 or more songbirds pass over. They are very small. Watching their passage is almost too moving to bear. They resemble stars, embers, slow tracer fire. Even through binoculars those at higher altitudes are tiny, ghostly points of light. I know that they have loose-clenched toes tucked to their chests, bright eyes, thin bones and a will to fly north that pulls them onward night after night. Most of them spent yesterday in central or southern New Jersey before ascending into darkness. Larger birds keep flying until dawn. The warblers tend to come earlier to earth, dropping like stones into patches of habitat farther north to rest and feed over the following day. Some, like yellow-rumped warblers, began their long journeys in the southeastern states. Others, like rose-breasted grosbeaks, have made their way up from Central America.
Something tugs at my heart. I’ll never see any of these birds again. If I weren’t this high, and the birds weren’t briefly illuminated by this column of light cast by a building thrown up through the Depression years to celebrate earthly power and capital confidence, I’d never have seen them at all.
Farnsworth pulls out a smartphone. Unlike everyone else holding screens up here, he’s looking at radar images from Fort Dix, in New Jersey, part of a National Weather Service radar network that provides near-continuous coverage of airspace over the continental U.S.A. “It’s definitely a heavy migration night tonight,” he says. “When you see those kinds of patterns on radar, in particular, those greens,” he explains, “you’re talking about 1,000 to 2,000 birds per cubic mile potentially, which is almost as dense as it gets. So it’s a big night.” After days of bad weather for birds wanting to fly north, with low cloud and winds in the wrong direction, a bottleneck of migrants built up, and now the sky is full of them. I watch the pixellation blossom on the animated radar map, a blue-and-green dendritic flower billowing out over the whole East Coast. “This is biological stuff that’s up in the atmosphere,” Farnsworth says, pointing one finger to the screen. “It’s all biology.”
Meteorologists have long known that you can detect animal life by radar. Just after World War II, British radar scientists and Royal Air Force technicians puzzled over mysterious plots and patterns that appeared on their screens. They knew they weren’t aircraft and christened them “angels” before finally concluding that they were flocks of moving birds. “That was their contamination, right?” Farnsworth says of radar meteorologists. “They wanted to filter all that stuff out. Now the biologists want to do the reverse.” Farnsworth is one pioneer of a new multidisciplinary science, fit for an era in which weather radar has become so sensitive it can detect a single bumblebee over 30 miles away. It’s called aeroecology, and it uses sophisticated remote-sensing technologies like radar, acoustics and tracking devices to study ecological patterns and relationships in the skies. “The whole notion of the aerosphere and airspace as habitat is not something that has come into the collective psyche until recently,” Farnsworth says. And this new science is helping us understand how climate change, skyscrapers, wind turbines, light pollution and aviation affect the creatures that live and move above us.
At 10 o’clock, cirrus clouds slide overhead like oil poured on water. Ten minutes later, the sky is clear again, and the birds are still flying. We move to the east side of the observation deck. A saxophonist begins to play, and in concert with this unlikely soundtrack we begin to see birds far closer than before. One in particular. Though it is overexposed in the light, we detect a smear of black at its chest and a distinctive pattern on its tail: a male yellow-rumped warbler. It flickers past and disappears around the corner of the building. A little while later, we see another flying the same way. Then another. It dawns on us that it this is the same bird, circling. Another one joins it, both now drawn helplessly toward and around the light, reeling about the spire as if caught on invisible strings. Watching them dampens our exuberant mood. The spire is lit with pulsing rivulets of climbing color like a candle tonight to mark the building’s 85th anniversary. And these birds have been attracted to it, pulled off course, their exquisite navigational machinery overwhelmed by light, leaving them confused and in considerable danger. After being mesmerized in this way, some birds drag themselves free and continue their journey. Others don’t.
New York is among the brightest cities in the world after Las Vegas, only one node in a flood of artificial illumination that runs from Boston down to Washington. We cherish our cities for their appearance at night, but it takes a terrible toll on migrating songbirds: You can find them dead or exhausted at the foot of high-rise buildings all over America. Disoriented by light and reflections on glass, they crash into obstacles, fly into windows, spiral down to the ground. More than 100,000 die each year in New York City alone. Thomas King, of the New York pest-control company M&M Environmental, has had calls from residents of high-rise buildings asking him to deal with the birds colliding with their windows during migration season. He tells them that there’s no solution, but they can talk to their building manager about turning the lights off. It helps. Programs like the New York City Audubon’s Lights Out New York have encouraged many high-rise owners to do the same, saving both energy and avian lives.
We cherish our cities for their appearance at night, but it takes a terrible toll on migrating songbirds.
Every year the “Tribute in Light” shines twin blue beams into the Manhattan night as a memorial to the lives lost on Sept. 11. They rise four miles into the air and are visible 60 miles from the city. On peak migration nights songbirds spiral down toward them, calling, pulled from the sky, so many circling in the light they look like glittering, whirling specks of paper caught in the wind. On one night last year, so many were caught in the beams that the few pixels representing the “Tribute” site glowed superbright on the radar maps. Farnsworth was there with the Audubon team that got the lights shut off intermittently to prevent casualties. They switched off the “Tribute” eight times that night for about 20 minutes at a time, releasing the trapped birds to return to their journey. Each time the lights went back on, a new sweep of birds was drawn in — the twin towers made ghosts of light visited over and over by winged travelers intermittently freed into darkness before a crowd rushed in to take their place. Farnsworth is a lead scientist in BirdCast, a project that combines a variety of methods — weather data, flight calls, radar, observers on the ground — to predict the movements of migrating birds throughout the continental United States and forecast big nights like this that might require emergency lights-out action.
The flow of birds over the observation deck continues, but it’s getting late. I make my farewell, take the elevator back down the building and wander uphill to my apartment. Though it’s long past midnight, I’m wide-awake. Part of what high-rise buildings are designed to do is change the way we see. To bring us different views of the world, views intimately linked with prospect and power — to make the invisible visible. The birds I saw were mostly unidentifiable streaks of light, like thin retinal scratches or splashes of luminous paint on a dark ground. As I look up from street level, the blank sky above seems a very different place, deep and coursing with life.
Two days later, I decide to walk in Central Park, and find it full of newer migrants that arrived here at night and stayed to rest and feed. A black-and-white warbler tacking along a slanted tree trunk deep in the Ramble, a yellow-rumped warbler sallying forth into the bright spring air to grab flies, a black-throated blue warbler so neat and spry he looks like a folded pocket handkerchief. These songbirds are familiar creatures with familiar meanings. It’s hard to reconcile them with the remote lights I witnessed in the sky.
Living in a high-rise building bars you from certain ways of interacting with the natural world. You can’t put out feeders to watch robins and chickadees in your garden. But you are set in another part of their habitual world, a nocturne of ice crystals and cloud and wind and darkness. High-rise buildings, symbols of mastery over nature, can work as bridges toward a more complete understanding of the natural world — stitching the sky to the ground, nature to the city.
For days afterward, my dreams are full of songbirds, the familiar ones from woods and back lots, but also points of moving light, little astronauts, travelers using the stars to navigate, having fallen to earth for a little while before picking themselves up and moving on. ♦
Helen Macdonald is the author of “H Is for Hawk” and a contributing writer for the magazine.
Brian Rea is an illustrator and artist based in Los Angeles.
A winter gale enjoys an easy approach to Manhattan from the north-northeast. As the wind moves over the Hudson River, the waves put up a weak fight against the air at altitude. Coming off the water, though, the wind hits the trees and buildings of Hudson Heights, and the mounting obstacles create huge vortices of air that join the increasingly turbulent flow. At West 110th Street, the wind tumbles into Central Park and then, skimming over oak and beech trees, it picks up speed while some of the great gyres it conveys spin down and vanish. Yet when the wind leaves the park at West 59th Street, it still contains tumultuous traces of its history, of the trees, the buildings and water it has traversed. The wind, it can be said, has memory.At last, the wind happens upon one of the supertall towers south of the park and reveals a far more wicked talent. It strikes the building’s face and rushes for the edges, whipping off the corners and spiraling tightly, creating a columnar vortex that sucks at the tower’s side and goes careering downwind. If air is moving quickly, these vortices form to a beat, pulling first one way, then the other. The gale is coming out of the north, but this force acts on the perpendicular, along the east-west axis, rocking the structure. Specialists call this the crosswind effect, and in certain circumstances, the rocking hits a building’s “natural frequency.” Imagine, says Derek Kelly, an engineer, that the hand of God were to reach down and gently pluck one of the skyline’s spires: The skyscraper would vibrate back and forth, like a guitar string. That is a building’s natural frequency. If it matches the crosswind tugs, the two are in resonance; the oscillations grow, like a child kicking on a swing. East then west, east then west. When a gale rolls in, a supertall will lean back, but it’s nothing compared with the potential power of the crosswind effect.Today’s engineers have conquered gravity: With enough structural steel and high-performance concrete, a tower will soar. The more dogged foe is wind. While gravity pulls down, wind can come from any compass point. It can apply pressure or suction, or alternate between the two. The wind, unlike gravity, changes from city to city, from season to season. Most harrowing of all is the wind’s dynamism. It is changed by everything it touches, and the wind even shapes itself, with every current pulling on all its neighbors. Gravity is plodding and obvious, but give wind a chance, and it will gather itself together and riot.When Citicorp Center, with its slanted top, was completed in 1977, it didn’t look as if it should be able to stand. At 915 feet, the structure was supported entirely by four nine-story columns, leaving an impressive hollow at its base. The structural engineer William LeMessurier was hailed, but the next year an engineering student pointed out that the building (now called 601 Lexington) might indeed fall — in a strong-enough wind. Welders rushed to make emergency reinforcements and, with Hurricane Ella threatening, the city contemplated evacuating the area. Ella turned out to sea, though, and Midtown was spared.In the world of tall buildings, a novel kind of specialist has come to prominence: the wind engineer. As towers grow taller, they climb into more powerful winds, and lighter construction techniques can leave them more vulnerable. Developers have begun putting up very slender skyscrapers, like 432 Park Avenue in New York, and these are particularly sensitive to the aerial environment. When a wind engineer like Kelly looks at such a building, he understands that it is airborne, with one end pinned to underlying bedrock, the rest riding the winds of Manhattan.Kelly is a principal at RWDI, one of North America’s top wind consultants. The company’s client list includes 432 Park Avenue and 111 West 57th Street, a 1,428-foot skyscraper set to be among the slimmest in the world. (Imagine a one-foot ruler, stood on end and stretched to roughly twice its height.) When testing shows too much sway in an initial design, a near certainty with slender supertalls, RWDI offers a “shaping workshop.” The architect, developer and engineer make the trek from their home metropolis to the company’s headquarters in Guelph, Ontario, with dibs for the day on a wind-test tunnel and a cadre of model makers so that ideas can be tried in the tunnel and improved upon. The goal is to find ways that the building might, as these specialists say, “confuse the wind.” Designers of airplane wings want a smooth rush of air, to generate lift; designers of buildings want to divide the wind and leave it in disarray.
Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, at 2,717 feet the planet’s tallest man-made structure, is asymmetrical, winding down from the top in a series of steps, like an expanding spiral staircase. The crosswind effect depends on a building’s width, and so at each level on the Burj, the wind beats at a different frequency: confused and frustrated, like a toddler kicking wildly on a swing that won’t get going. Another favorite weapon of wind confusion, seen on many skyscrapers, is cut corners, which disrupt suction forces along the side. Pinnacles and antennas are subjected to the kind of scrutiny given America’s Cup yachts. In the case of 432 Park Avenue, the design team used five gap layers, each two floors in height, where the facade opens to allow air to pass through, sapping vortices. These horizontal bands give the tower a visual rhythm, but they are there because of the wind. In the natural world, wind sculpts sand dunes and cuts the snow, carving rings where it has whipped around a tree. It leaves its marks on buildings too.
In February 2014, the white-haired Uruguayan architect Rafael Viñoly delivered a lecture, sponsored by the Skyscraper Museum, on 432 Park Avenue. A tall building can be made eminently safe, capable of withstanding hurricanes and earthquakes, but no amount of beefing up its steel and concrete skeleton can force it to hold still. Which raises the question: For a penthouse in the $100 million range, how much sway is too much? Viñoly described a project-team trip, arranged by RWDI, to a facility in St. John’s, Newfoundland, that houses a marine simulator, a covered platform on six hydraulic jacks mocked up as a ship’s bridge. Now they would simulate a penthouse: Out with the ship’s controls, in with chairs, a sofa and a coffee table. Through the windows, rolling North Sea waves were replaced with a 360-degree vantage of the city from a suitably astonishing height. As Viñoly described the feel of the building behaving badly, before final engineering, he rocked the lectern. “If you’re standing here, your cup of tea moves,” he said. “And if you are tacky enough to have a chandelier, your chandelier also moves.”
If shaping and structural tweaks reach their limit, engineers can reduce motion further by installing “tuned mass dampers” near the apex. One version consists of an enormous mass on a suspension system with pistons that resist the mass’s movement. The damper acts as a pendulum, but set just off the building’s natural frequency, meaning that whenever the tower lurches, the mass drags, out of sync, steadying it. The 1,667-foot Taipei 101 is damped with a 728-ton ball that does double duty as a tourist attraction. From the observation deck, the ball appears to swing in heavy winds, though actually the tourists are also in motion.
Hidden at 432 Park Avenue, some 1,300 tons of combined mass stroke away on two dampers. The building’s engineer, Silvian Marcus, the U.S.A. director of building structures at WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff, visited one of the top floors with a group and asked if anyone felt anything. No, they said. He rested a laser pointer on the floor, aimed it up and stood back. The dot wandered as the tower flexed. “They said, ‘It’s unbelievable; we feel nothing,’ ” Marcus told me. With high-end damping, most people will not sense motion in normal weather. For supertall residential skyscrapers, tuned mass dampers are the rare luxury amenities that go unseen.
Very tall buildings are a recent invention, and the public has not yet developed an intuitive sense for them. “We still have this innate understanding that a building we enter will remain stationary,” says Melissa Burton, the global head of civil structures for BMT Fluid Mechanics. “It scares us when it moves.” You can choose to make a home in the clouds, comfortably isolated from the elements, but you can never escape the wind. The walls, and everything they contain, will always be in motion. Most of the time, this will fall beneath your notice. Yet someday a storm will come, the wind will riot and you will feel its touch. ♦
Gareth Cook is a contributing writer for the magazine and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
Warren St. John
Oct. 28, 2013
TWENTY-SIX years ago this month, a coalition of New Yorkers led by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis won a historic victory for Central Park. At issue was a planned building on Columbus Circle by the developer Mortimer B. Zuckerman with 58- and 68-story towers that would cast long shadows on the park. After a lawsuit by opponents of the plan and a rally in Central Park at which over 800 New Yorkers with umbrellas formed a line to simulate the building’s shadow, Mr. Zuckerman relented and agreed to scale down his design, which eventually became known as the Time Warner Center.
“One would hope that the city would act as protector of sun and light and clean air and space and parkland,” Mrs. Onassis said at the time. “Those elements are essential to combat the stress of urban life.” Today, as the city becomes denser and green space ever more precious, New Yorkers’ access to sunlight and blue skies above Central Park is under assault in ways that make Mr. Zuckerman’s original plans look benign.
Fueled by lax zoning laws, cheap capital and the rise of a global elite with millions to spend on pieds-à-terre, seven towers — two of them nearly as tall as the Empire State Building — have recently been announced or are already under way near the south side of the park. This so-called Billionaires’ Row, with structures rising as high as 1,424 feet, will form a fence of steel and glass that will block significant swaths of the park’s southern exposure, especially in months when the sun stays low in the sky.
At New York’s latitude, explained Michael Kwartler, the president of the Environmental Simulation Center, a New York City nonprofit that creates shadow assessments, buildings cast substantial northerly shadows throughout the day in colder months. At noon on the winter solstice, for example, those shadows reach twice a building’s height and fall due north before stretching to 4.2 times its height in a northeasterly direction, 90 minutes before sunset.
That means the shadows of the larger of these planned buildings would jut half a mile into the park at midday on the solstice and elongate to around a mile in length as they angled across the park toward the Upper East Side, darkening playgrounds and ball fields, as well as paths and green space like Sheep Meadow that are enjoyed by 38 million visitors each year.
“The cumulative effect of these shadows will be to make the park less usable and less pleasant to be in,” Mr. Kwartler said.
Some damage has already been done. In cooler months, when direct sunlight can make all the difference for children playing outside, visitors to the amazing Heckscher Playground on the south end of Central Park can find themselves cut off from the sun in midafternoon by Extell’s One57, where earlier this year a penthouse apartment reportedly sold for $90 million to a group of investors.
Despite the likely impact these buildings would have on the park, there has been remarkably little public discussion, let alone dissent, about the plans. Part of this is because few people seem aware of what’s coming. Many of the buildings are so-called as-of-right developments that do not require the public filing of shadow assessments, which can ignite opposition with their eye-popping renderings of the impact shadows will have on surrounding areas.
But New York City has also lost a kind of rabble-rousing infrastructure that once stood up to overzealous developers.
Opposition to Mr. Zuckerman’s plans, for example, was spearheaded by the Municipal Art Society, a watchdog on issues of urban design that today is a comparatively acquiescent organization — with developers on its board. The Landmarks Preservation Commission, which approved plans for two of the towers this month, has also ignored the issue of shadows on the park in favor of a narrow concern with the aesthetics of the structures themselves. The Central Park Conservancy has also remained silent, contending, when asked, that its focus should remain within the park’s borders — never mind that this is exactly where the shadows in question would fall.
There are few New Yorkers around today with the gravitas and magnetism of Jacqueline Onassis to focus public attention on planning issues the way she did for Grand Central Terminal and Columbus Circle. That means New Yorkers who want to protect Central Park will have to do it on their own, by picking up their umbrellas once again and by contacting community boards, politicians, city agencies and the developers themselves, to demand immediate height restrictions south of the park. And they need to hurry, before the sun sets permanently on a space the park designer Frederick Law Olmsted envisioned as “a democratic development of the highest significance.”
Warren St. John is a former reporter for The New York Times and the author of « Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team and One Woman’s Quest to Make a Difference.”
Book Review: ‘Supreme City’ by Donald L. Miller
Jazz Age Manhattan was an electric vessel into which the hopes and desires of a nation were distilled.
May 9, 2014A.J. Liebling, the great 20th-century chronicler of eccentricity and misfits, once described the challenges of being a native New Yorker: « People I know in New York are incessantly on the point of going back where they came from to write a book, or of staying on and writing a book about back where they came from. . . . It is all pretty hard on me because I have no place to go back to. I was born in an apartment house at Ninety-third Street and Lexington Avenue, about three miles from where I now live. »Liebling represented something of a minority: New York, and particularly its epicenter of Manhattan, was largely invented by people who came from other places. It was where old identities were thrown off and new ones created, where a Canadian farmer’s daughter transformed herself into the cosmetics queen Elizabeth Arden, where the child of a Belarusian shtetl became David Sarnoff, the media titan who pioneered television.
Supreme CityBy Donald L. Miller
Simon & Schuster, 762 pages, $37.50
Donald L. Miller’s sweeping « Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America » is filled with an epic’s worth of such figures: people born elsewhere who transformed the city that had first transformed them. Mr. Miller’s arena is the Midtown Manhattan of the 1920s, which was being torn down and redeveloped at an unprecedented pace. The author identifies the 1913 opening of Grand Central Terminal on 42nd Street as the spur to Midtown’s rise as a business and entertainment district. By the late 1920s, he writes, the « new Midtown » had been transformed into a showcase for the skyscraper, « a characteristically New York creation, an expression of the city’s vaulting ambition, its taste for size and spectacle, and its passion for land grabbing. »Through the course of a long and enjoyable text, we meet such characters as Fred F. French, the real-estate king who pummeled his sales staff with feel-good directives (« stand before your bathroom mirror and practice smiling for ten minutes in the morning and at night »); Joseph Patterson, a one-time socialist who founded the Daily News and became New York’s tabloid king; and Tex Rickard, the fight promoter who built a new Madison Square Garden and drew the ermine-and-pearl crowd into the sanguinary world of boxing.
As these examples suggest, it is Mr. Miller’s emphasis on influential « lesser-knowns » that gives « Supreme City » its particular interest. Harold Ross, the founder of the New Yorker, to which Liebling and so many other talented writers would contribute, is given his due, but so is staff reporter Lois Long, who wrote the night-life column— »Tables for Two » —and became the magazine’s first fashion editor. Her sartorial style (bobbed hair, thin strands of pearls) and adventurous sexual behavior influenced 1920s conceptions of the « New Woman »: well-educated, intrepid and more than capable of holding her own in a journalistic realm dominated by men. Long, who « smoked and drank prodigiously, told racy jokes, and threw all-night parties, » would often stumble to the office « around noon on the day her column was due. » But she « never failed to meet her deadline, » and her efforts to popularize ready-to-wear fashion were instrumental in attracting the retail advertisers that made the New Yorker a success.
Mr. Miller shows how the magazine’s success built upon the popularity of Midtown Manhattan as a stylish place of residence. The « largest concentration of regular subscribers, » he writes, lived in districts such as Park Avenue and Sutton Place, within walking distance of the restaurants, nightclubs and theaters the magazine described with such panache. We are reminded, in these sections, how Manhattan’s unique character during the 20th century was informed by a « work and play » model that combined discrete spheres of home, office and recreation. Manhattan dwellers were no longer just New Yorkers; they were « Metropolitanites. » Mr. Miller quotes the editors of Fortune, who coined the term: « [Metropolitanites] cannot imagine living in any U.S. city except New York. They like its swift tempo because they are hurrying to absorb more than anyone in a lifetime could touch, let alone understand. »
Of course, this dream city did not come into existence by itself. The book’s most gripping section deals with the men who literally built the Midtown skyline. Working « a fifth of a mile above the pavement, without handholds or safety supports of any kind, » these gangs of riveters (composed in part of a « heater » who forged the rivets and partnered a « catcher ») faced the prospect of death on an hourly basis:
Using long tongs, the heater pulled a cherry-red rivet—a small steel cylinder with no threads and one round head—out of the portable oven. He then tossed it underhand, « in a glowing arc, » to the catcher, standing as far as seventy feet away, and sometimes on a floor above. . . . If the catcher missed a blazing rivet, it either hit him or fell below, a malevolent missile capable of driving a steaming hole into a person’s skull.
« In the 1920s, » Mr. Miller writes, « ironworkers suffered one violent death, on average, for every thirty-three hours on the job, with falls accounting for most fatalities and serious injuries. » Such were the costs of the glamorous skyscraper city.
Others took risks in less visibly dramatic ways, working themselves to the point of exhaustion or collapse. The aforementioned Fred French, for whom « hard, persistent labor was the secret to success, » died of a heart attack at age 53. Clifford Holland, the Massachusetts-born designer of the tunnel that bears his name, suffered a nervous breakdown and died in a sanitarium before he could see the opening of his great project, which featured a groundbreaking ventilation system still in use today.
Mr. Miller has done a fine job of piecing together his multiplicity of stories into a unified whole. There are spots where the author seems uncertain of which elements of his narrative he wishes to emphasize: a chapter on Patterson and the Daily News contains a long, gruesome and unnecessary account of the execution of convicted husband-killer Ruth Snyder, while another chapter about showman and movie-palace builder Samuel « Roxy » Rothafel ends inexplicably with a section on the historical development of Times Square as an entertainment center, consigning the denouement of Roxy’s own tale to a footnote. (The creator of the Rockettes found his shows out of date by the mid-1930s and died « heartbroken. ») But such inconsistencies are surely unavoidable in a work that deals with so many diverse facets of New York in one of its most fervid decades. It was a time of rampant enterprise marked by faith in the American system, when few were able to foresee Depression and war just around the corner.
New York is often seen as a rarefied place unreflective of the experiences and aesthetics of the rest of the country— »New York, of course, » Liebling wrote, « just isn’t America. » But in the 1920s, one of the city’s greatest periods of influence, the truth was essentially the opposite. New York was the United States intensified, an electric vessel into which the hopes and desires of a nation were distilled. As Mr. Miller’s vivid and exhaustive chronicle demonstrates, Jazz Age Manhattan was the progenitor of cultural movements—individualized fusions of art and commerce—that came to symbolize the American way of life.
—Mr. Freeland is the author of « Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure. »
‘The Museum of Extraordinary Things’ Is Extra Ordinary
In her latest novel, Alice Hoffman renders the brutal world of Lower East Side immigrants in the romantic hues her readers expect
February 13, 2014
Today, the building at 23 Washington Place in Manhattan, just off Washington Square, is known as the Brown Building, and it is part of NYU’s ever-growing Greenwich Village empire. But in 1911, it was called the Asch Building, and its eighth, ninth, and 10th floors were occupied by a sweatshop called the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where some 500 workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian girls, produced women’s blouses. When fire broke out there on March 25 of that year, nearly 150 workers died, in part because their bosses had locked the exit doors from the outside. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was the deadliest disaster in New York City until the collapse of the World Trade Center 90 years later.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was not the only great conflagration to shake New York City in 1911, however. Just two months later, on May 27, the Coney Island amusement park Dreamland caught fire and burned to the ground, after workmen preparing for the summer opening accidentally knocked over a pail of boiling tar. This blaze, while big enough to incinerate blocks of Coney Island and call out firemen from all over Brooklyn, claimed no human victims, which is why it is so little remembered today. Instead, it killed the dozens of wild animals who were part of Dreamland’s menagerie, including a lion and an elephant. One of the strangest exhibits at the park was a demonstration of incubators for premature babies, then a new invention; happily, all the babies were rescued.
None of the extraordinary things in The Museum of Extraordinary Things, the new novel by Alice Hoffman, beats the true stories of those two fires. Set in New York in the first half of 1911, with flashbacks to the previous decades, Hoffman’s novel is bookended by vivid set-piece descriptions of the disasters. A New Yorker herself, she describes the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire using images that invoke the iconography of Sept. 11. The parallel is doubtful in some ways—Sept. 11 was an attack, not an accident, and the casualties were worse by several orders of magnitude—but the vision of falling bodies is something both disasters had in common:
Girls had begun to leap from the windows of the ninth floor, some embracing so they might spend their last moments on earth in each other’s arms rather than face their fates alone. Some jumped with their eyes closed, others with their hair and clothes already burning. At first, the falling girls had seemed like birds. Bright cardinals, bone-white doves, swooping blackbirds in velvet-collared coats. But when they hit the cement, the terrible truth of the matter was revealed. Their bodies were broken, dashed to their deaths right before those who stood by helpless.
There is an uneasy tension in this passage between the bird image, with its soothing prettiness, and the reality of falling bodies, which Hoffman also captures—pointing out, for instance, how the jumpers broke through the life-nets stretched out for them and crashed through the sidewalk, ending up in the basements underneath. That same tension, between the desire to capture a brutal world and to render it in the hues of romance and make-believe, pervades The Museum of Extraordinary Things. Hoffman is a prolific and popular writer—her best-known novel, Practical Magic, was turned into a movie; another book was an Oprah’s Book Club choice—and she uses the formulas of popular fiction skillfully. But that skill often means giving readers what they want, even at the expense of probability and realism. Even as her story is built around murder, sexual abuse, exploitation, and misery, she fills it with reassuring coincidences and consolations. No matter how many people suffer along the way, we know from the first that the hero and heroine are guaranteed a happy ending.
Before they get there, however, Hoffman offers an impressively disillusioned account of one of the most sentimentalized parts of American Jewish history: the life of immigrants on the Lower East Side around the turn of the 20th century. Her own ancestors, Hoffman writes in an author’s note, were part of that immigrant world—“one began his working life in a pie factory at the age of twelve”—but she does not see it as the beginning of a great American adventure, or as a homey place full of tradition and community.
Instead, we see the Jewish Lower East Side through the eyes of Eddie Cohen, who barely survives a childhood of Dickensian poverty. After losing his mother in a pogrom in the Ukraine, Eddie—originally called Ezekiel—and his father make their way to America, where they are barely better off. The defining episode of Eddie’s young life comes when his father, laid off from a sweatshop, jumps into the Hudson River rather than keep on struggling. He survives, but from that moment Eddie despises him, and the boy decides that success in America requires looking out for number one, whatever it takes.
“After that I avoided people in our neighborhood,” Eddie recalls in one of the first-person chapters interspersed through the book. “I no longer considered myself Orthodox, and I left my hat under the bed whenever I went out alone. … I had become someone else, but who was that someone?” As it turns out, Eddie becomes an assistant to a neighborhood con man named Hochman, and then an apprentice to a kindly photographer, Moses Levy. It is as a news photographer that he is called to the scene of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, becoming the reader’s eyes and ears on the tragedy: “Eddie did his job, but as he photographed the fallen he had the sense that he was standing at the end of creation.”
To be an immigrant in America, Hoffman suggests, especially a Jewish immigrant fleeing persecution, means struggling to create a new identity while leaving behind a piece of one’s soul. Hardened by his experiences, Eddie becomes a kind of Humphrey Bogart hero, sullen but sensitive, clearly in need of redemption by a good woman. When the father of a girl who disappeared in the Triangle fire hires Eddie to find out her fate—did she die in the blaze, or escape, or fall victim to foul play?—the resemblance to Philip Marlowe becomes even closer.
Happily, the other narrator whose voice we hear in The Museum of Extraordinary Things is a good woman waiting for a rescuer. Coralie Sardie lives in the dark shadows of another frequently idealized part of New York, Coney Island in its heyday. She has grown up on the grounds of the titular museum, which is actually a boardwalk freakshow, featuring wolfmen, butterfly girls, and fetuses in jars. Her father, a sinister tyrant known as the Professor, even forces Coralie to perform as a mermaid, inspired by the fact that she was born with webbed fingers. As she gets older, her act in a water tank becomes something more like a sex show—an experience that humiliates Coralie and fits in with Hoffman’s portrait of 1911 New York as a giant theater of female exploitation, from the girls in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to the prostitutes on the street.
Fearing competition from Dreamland, which threatens to put his small-time attraction out of business, the Professor comes up with a new scheme. He forces Coralie to swim around Manhattan dressed as a sea creature, in order to drum up newspaper reports of a local monster. In Hoffman’s telling, these swims reveal Coralie’s spiritual affinity for the water and give her a taste of freedom: “I fell in love with the Hudson; because of the nights I swam there, I no longer was forced to perform, and so I began to think of the river as my savior.”
On one of these trips, she stumbles across the corpse of a young woman, which the Professor quickly confiscates. His plan is to turn the dead body into a half-human, half-fish through horrible surgeries, then display it as the rumored sea-monster. But Coralie, appalled by the idea, begins to rebel against her father’s iron discipline, to the point of invading his workshop and reading his secret diary. There she discovers that everything she knows about her past is a lie, and that the Professor is, if possible, even worse than he appears.
In time, the novel confirms what the reader has already figured out, that the dead girl Eddie is looking for and the dead girl Coralie finds are one and the same. In this way, their paths finally cross, and each finds in the other the freedom they seek: Coralie’s liberaton from her father and the sordid world of the freakshow, Eddie’s liberation from loneliness and alienation and resentment. But will they be able to overcome the opposition of the ruthless Professor? Will Eddie solve the mystery of the girl’s death, and get revenge on whoever caused it? Will Eddie’s loyal pitbull Mitts survive the Dreamland fire, which is the climax of the novel? The answers will not surprise the reader used to the conventions of popular fiction, or Hollywood movies. But The Museum of Extraordinary Things offers a picturesque journey, and sometimes even a disturbing one, on the way to its foreordained happy ending.
Alice Hoffman’s ‘Museum of Extraordinary Things’
Feb. 28, 2014
Alice Hoffman has always celebrated the marvelousness of what’s real in the world, even as she creates the distinctive atmosphere of uncanniness and magical potential that looms over her fiction. Her devoted readers expect melodramatic stories imbued with the atmosphere of folk tales. Omens and portents are her stock in trade. Feminist themes and generous amounts of Renaissance Faire-style potted history make her storytelling all the more suggestive. Eerie and powerful acts of nature signify undercurrents of mood the way irregular minor chords in the background music tell us how to feel during ominous scenes at the movies. Lost in a dark forest of one kind or another, Hoffman’s characters have a heightened awareness of the hidden meanings that surround them as they struggle toward the light.
“The Museum of Extraordinary Things” will not disappoint readers longing to be swept up by a lavish tale about strange yet sympathetic people, haunted by the past and living in bizarre circumstances. But those who have admired Hoffman’s best and most gracefully literary novels (“At Risk,” “Seventh Heaven,” “Turtle Moon,” “Second Nature,” “Practical Magic,” “The River King”) will be less enchanted, unable to ignore the hackneyed and thinly sketched writing that diminishes many scenes in these pages.
The museum of the novel’s title is a Coney Island boardwalk attraction presided over by Professor Sardie, part mad scientist and part shrewd magician. Adjacent to Luna Park, the Steeplechase and the soon-to-open Dreamland, this showcase of “living wonders” has at various times over the years included the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, the Goat Boy, the Bird Woman, the Bee Woman and the Siamese Twins, along with a menagerie of frogs, vipers, lizards, hummingbirds, a 100-year-old tortoise — and Sardie’s daughter, Coralie, who has, from the age of 10, spent hours suspended in a tank of water playing the Human Mermaid for paying customers. (As she grows older, her sinister father compels her to perform lewd after-hours displays for a select audience of patrons willing to pay a premium.)
Coralie, who narrates parts of the story in an elegiac tone, has a freakish affinity for water. Her father has trained her from girlhood to swim extraordinary distances, even in the icy November Atlantic, most often at night. Before she reaches adolescence, she can swim five miles from Coney Island, and she’s at home in the tidal currents of the Hudson River. Her conditioning regimen is extreme: “My father believed that we took on the attributes of our diet, and he made certain I ate a meal of fish every day so my constitution might echo the abilities of these creatures. We bathed in ice water. . . . My father had a breathing tube constructed so that I could remain soaking underwater in the claw-foot tub, and soon my baths lasted an hour or more. I had only to take a puff of air in order to remain beneath the surface. I felt comfortable in this element, a sort of girlfish, and soon I didn’t feel the cold as others did, becoming more and more accustomed to temperatures that would chill others to the bone.”
Coralie has a secret shame. “My father insisted I wear white cotton gloves in the summer and a creamy kid leather pair when the chill set in.” Her bare hands are displayed only when she is the Human Mermaid, and then they’re dyed blue to match her silk-covered bamboo tail. She was born with webbed fingers.
Coralie seems to accept her oddness, and she’s even seen hopefully searching her own throat for signs of gills, although Hoffman tells us “she despised herself because of this single flaw.” Once she tried to cut through the webbing, but, as Hoffman explains, fairy-tale style, “Beads of blood began to fall onto her lap after she nicked the first bit of skin. Each drop was so brightly crimson, she had startled and quickly dropped the knife.” Accompanying her father on his rounds of whorehouses and morgues in his ceaseless search for living freaks, and for the human and animal body parts he can fashion into grotesque exhibits for his museum, Coralie often carries “the same knife she had used to draw blood when she cut through the webbing on her hands” — only now it’s to protect herself from men who might pay her unwelcome attention.
Professor Sardie’s plan for his museum’s renewal is set in motion at the start of 1911, when there are repeated sightings of a sea monster in the Hudson, a silvery, scaled creature, “a being that was dark and unfathomable, almost human in its countenance, with fleet, watery movements.” This apparition is, of course, the now-18-year-old Coralie, who swims through the night, “keeping pace alongside the striped bass that spawned upriver, certain of herself even in uncertain tides.” The newspapers are filled with stories about the so-called Hudson Mystery. “All she had done was show a glimpse of what might be possible, a waterlogged and furtive river-fiend that had drifted out of nightmares and into the waterways of the city of New York.” If the Museum of Extraordinary Things can display the captured Hudson Mystery, the crowds that have been lost to newer, gaudier entertainments will return and the professor’s faltering business will survive.
As Coralie emerges from the river one evening, she catches a glimpse of a reclusive photographer named Ezekiel Cohen, who likes to take nocturnal walks with his dog in the woods of northern Manhattan. An Orthodox Jewish immigrant who has abandoned his faith and his community, he has changed his name to Eddie. He’s a boy of the streets straight out of a Horatio Alger story, and he’s also a witness to the horror of the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire. The photographs he takes on that terrible day lead him to a mission — solving the mystery of a young woman’s disappearance.
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Hoffman’s depiction of the Triangle fire only vaguely conveys the pathos and urgency of that historic disaster, which took the lives of 146 garment workers in a matter of minutes. Her treatment, later in the novel, of the Dreamland conflagration, which occurred almost exactly two months later, is more authentic and vivid, perhaps because it’s less familiar, allowing Hoffman to be more imaginative as she incorporates it into her plot.
Once Coralie and Eddie discover each other, their profound, mystical attraction and mutual obsession become forces of their own, driving the story forward. Despite the novel’s heavy-handed passages about the rights of children, women and workers, and despite its lapses in historic tone and ambience (Eddie’s habit, for example, of saying things like “no problem”), a big, entertaining tale emerges.
“The Museum of Extraordinary Things” is, in a way, a museum of Alice Hoffman’s bag of plot tricks: girls with unusual talents, love at first sight, mysterious parents, addiction and alcoholism, orphans raised by unsuitable people. Does it rank with the best of her work? In the words of Professor Sardie: “Our creature will be whatever people imagine it to be. For what men believe in, they will pay to see.”
THE MUSEUM OF EXTRAORDINARY THINGS
By Alice Hoffman
368 pp. Scribner. $27.99.
Katharine Weber, the author of five novels and a memoir, is the Richard L. Thomas Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College.
The Museum of Extraordinary Things By Alice Hoffman – book review: ‘A tale of star-crossed lovers, freak shows, murder and mystery’
3 June 2014
With a cast that includes a host of impossible beings and wondrous creatures, set among the surreal wonderment of Dreamland, Coney Island’s now long since destroyed freak show-cum-amusement park, Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things is teetering on the edge of magical realism even before she throws in such fairytale elements as love at first sight, an abusive parent and beads of bright crimson fresh blood.
Coralie Sardie lives in the Museum of Extraordinary Things, a boardwalk freak show in Coney Island in 1911. Her father, the proprietor, Professor Sardie, may well be « a tailor of the marvellous, a creator of dreams, » but he’s also a demanding man who treats his employees mercilessly, including his daughter. Coralie was born with webbed fingers, and with a keen eye for exploitability, the Professor quickly set about transforming the rest of her into something equally aquatic. She can hold her breath underwater for very long stretches, and, wearing a blue silk tail, she spends her days among the museum’s living exhibits as the Human Mermaid – performances that, now she’s matured into a young woman, include mortifying after-hours shows for gentlemen cherry-picked by her father for their deep pockets and lecherous appetites. She’s only at peace during her nightly swims in the Hudson River, years of exercise having left her oblivious to the bone-chilling cold and the currents that would drown most who braved them.
Emerging from the water one night she stumbles across a young photographer, and in the flare of a flash bulb falls in love with him. He goes by the name of Eddie Cohen, a Jewish immigrant from Russia who has rejected the orthodoxy of his upbringing and the father who brought him to New York. After Eddie photographs the horrific, and now infamous, Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire – during which 146 employees, locked in their workrooms died – he finds himself enmeshed in the mystery of a missing girl, the search for whom eventually leads to Professor Sardie’s gruesome laboratory.
The Museum of Extraordinary Things is a tale of star-crossed lovers set against a creepy gothic backdrop of freak shows, murder and mystery. When dealing in these elements, Hoffman excels, but the historical specificity of the period – clumsy explications of the lack of rights for women, workers and children, the rise of unions and ambitions of early feminism – are the weeds in which she becomes entangled. Look closely at this novel and, as with many of Sardie’s « freaks », the artifice becomes all too visible.
The 13th century was arguably the darkest period of Italian history, marked by bloody struggles between rival political factions. The 15th century (the so-called Age of Warlords) was likewise replete with unscrupulous Italian despots who ruled with a refined cruelty, from Giangaleazzo Visconti to Cesare Borgia, but at least it was also a time of great creative achievement — the Renaissance.
In contrast, the 13th century was generally a time of unmitigated violence. Entire families were expunged in escalating blood feuds reminiscent of vendettas among the Mafia families in more recent times. The tragedy of Romeo Montecchi and Juliet Capuleti (made famous by William Shakespeare’s play in 1595) took place in that time.
The game of power made every northern Italian town a theater of civil wars. A family backing a particular political party often controlled a neighborhood adjacent to one controlled by a family belonging to a rival party. The year 1198 saw the beginning of two such political parties–the Guelphs and Ghibellines. (The Montecchis were Ghibellines; the Capuletis were Guelphs.) The names are of German origin. At that time, German emperors also reigned over Italy, through a parallel kingdom built up by the Unrochingi, which by 888 was the first dynasty of the world whose rulers wore crowns considered holy by the Church.
The Guelphs became the upholders of papal supremacy, while the Ghibellines supported the political claims of German emperors and kings of Italy. Later, the Guelphs split into two factions: the Blacks (extreme Guelphs) and the Whites (moderate Guelphs). Ghibellines came to be regarded as the party of noblemen, Black Guelphs the faction of the upper middle class, and White Guelphs the faction of the lower middle class. The truth, however, was that all of those parties and factions steadily degenerated into gangs without any ideology who fought for the hegemonic ambitions of their own bosses to control local businesses and rackets.
In the middle of the 13th century, northern Italy, the so-called kingdom of Italy, was a myriad of independent city-states–more than 60, not counting smaller villages and excluding the independent republic of Venice. Central Italy was made up of the Papal States, from which the popes vied for rule over European Christendom with the Holy Roman Empire.
Southern Italy and the island of Sicily made up the kingdom of Sicily, whose ruling Norman Altavilla dynasty was replaced in 1194 by the Swabian dynasty–officially through a joyful marriage, but also by killing all the upholders of the Altavillas who did not agree with the change. As a child, William III, the last offspring of the Altavillas, was maimed by the Swabian thugs and then disappeared (it seems he died in what is now western Austria). An unusual fiefdom within the Sicilian domain was the town of Lucera, which was an autonomous Islamic republic allied with the Swabians.
In 1258, King Manfredi I ruled over southern Italy and also in northern Italy, where he was regarded as the chief of the Ghibelline Party. In Italy, his allies included Ezzelino da Romano, the powerful tyrant of Venetia, called the ‘Son of the Devil’ because of his violent temperament. Ezzelino, who married into the Swabians, ruled over a large territory and threatened all of his neighbors. Moreover, as a Ghibelline he controlled the strategic road to Germany. Manfredi, who controlled a kingdom that was supposed to have been ruled by his nephew Conradino (Little Conrad), had stolen the crown. He then set his ambitions on becoming ruler over Germany and northern Italy. Manfredi was heavy-handed when it came to domestic politics; in southern Italy, he defended his power by sweeping away all opposition. His foreign politics were just as unscrupulous. Hoping to improve relations with the papacy (the popes hated the Swabians), he supported Pope Alexander IV when the latter decided to eliminate the tyrant Ezzelino, who was Manfredi’s brother-in-law. The Guelphs’ crusade against Ezzelino, who they represented as a tyrant who scorned God and all human beings, was made up of the Papacy, Venice, Milan, Ferrara, Padua, Mantua and Cremona. At the Battle of Cassano d’Adda, fought on September 19, 1259, Ezzelino was wounded, defeated and arrested. He died in the prison of Soncino a few days later. His entire family was subsequently killed.
After Cassano d’Adda, the relationship between the papacy and Manfredi did not permanently improve. The struggles also continued between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, especially in Tuscany, where the hatred between Florence (Guelph) and Siena (Ghibelline) escalated. Both towns wanted hegemony over Tuscany.
The Sienese, who knew that the Florentines wanted to destroy their town, asked Manfredi for help. In December 1259, Manfredi sent a force of 800 German knights and some Muslim noblemen from Lucera, led by his brother, Giordano d’Anglona.
In April 1260, Florence organized a great coalition to smash the Sienese. Jacopino Rangoni, the mayor of Florence, soon had 12 generals and nearly 35,000 soldiers at his disposal. All of the males of Florence aged 15 through 70 took up arms, and they were joined by troops from Genoa, Piacenza, Bologna, Lucca, Pistoia, Prato, Arezzo, Volterra, San Gimignano and the papal towns of Perugia and Orvieto. From smaller towns and from Germany, upholders of Conradino also came to fight. There were even Sienese fighting–exiled Guelphs who wanted to take power in their own town.
On the other side, Siena got additional support from Pisa (a traditional enemy of both Genoa and Florence), Cortona, and the Ghibellines of Florence (the most prominent of whom were Guido Novello and Farinata degli Uberti), who were trying to regain power in the town after 10 years in exile. In sum, the Sienese commander in chief, Aldobrandino di Santa Fiora, had about 20,000 soldiers.
September 4, 1260, a Saturday, would be the bloodiest day of the Italian Middle Ages. The ‘eternal peace’ signed by Florence and Siena on July 31, 1255, was only a memory, and the ongoing duel between those two towns, which had begun in 1140, was about to reach its gory climax. Near Montaperti (the ‘hill of death’), a handful of houses within sight of Siena, civilians prayed in churches for victory.
The Sienese were the first to attack. Both sides concentrated their efforts on conquering the Carroccio of the enemy–the holy wagon that always accompanied medieval Italian armies, where a priest celebrated mass during the battle.
The battle lasted from dawn until sunset. Although the Ghibellines were not as numerous as the Guelphs, they were more aggressive, and Manfredi’s German knights were selected troops. When sunset came and the last attempt of the Guelphs to conquer the Sienese Carroccio failed, some things occurred that finally decided the battle. First, the Count of Arras, a Ghibelline, launched an attack from Monselvoli. Then, a Florentine Ghibelline named Bocca degli Abati betrayed his own army. With his sword, he cut off the hand of the ensign-bearer of the Florentine cavalry, Jacopo dei Pazzi. The Guelphs were taken aback by that betrayal at the critical point of the battle, and while Abati and his allies (hundreds of whom had been waiting for the right moment) were attacking their former comrades-in-arms, the Ghibellines launched their final offensive.
For Florence and her allies, the Battle of Montaperti turned into a disaster. The Guelphs began to flee, and the Ghibellines, made crazy by their success, killed without restraint, including enemies who were ready to surrender. The Arbia Creek became red with Florentine blood. When night fell, 10,000 men lay dead in the field and 4,000 were missing. The Sienese and their allies took 15,000 prisoners and, of course, the Florentine Carroccio.
More than 700 years later, a cippus (monument) at Montaperti reminds passers-by of the tragedy that took place.
The Battle of Montaperti was a short-lived victory. In the short run, Florence became Ghibelline, and Manfredi’s influence over Tuscany grew. But the new pope, Urban IV, called for help from Charles of Anjou, brother of the king of France, a man thirsty for power. Landing in Italy, Charles became chief of the Guelphs and, after his coronation as king of Sicily, he went from Rome to southern Italy to destroy the Swabian dynasty–once and for all.
The big battle took place at Benevento on February 26, 1266. The Anjou cavalry, helped by traitors among the Swabian troops, destroyed Manfredi’s army. The Swabian regime collapsed within a few days of that defeat. The lords of manors who hitherto had always been pro-Swabian, became, as if by magic, pro-Anjou!
Manfredi was killed during the battle, and to this day the location of his tomb is still a mystery. His wife, Queen Elena, was arrested in Trani and died as a prisoner in a castle in Nocera six years later. Her children, separated from their mother, were swallowed up by the Anjou prisons. A new Pope, Clement IV, had called them ‘progeny of snakes.’
Two years later, in 1268, Conradino, the last of the Swabian family, was taken prisoner by the Anjous and was beheaded in Naples, the new capital of southern Italy. Under the Anjou dynasty, southern Italy sank into the darkest feudalism. There was no place for Swabian allies: 34 years after the Battle of Benevento, the Islamic Republic of Lucera was destroyed.
The pitiless end of the Swabian dynasty had other famous consequences. In Florence and in Siena, the Guelphs regained power and started a fierce persecution of the Ghibellines. Also in Florence, the Guelphs split into Whites and Blacks under the Cerchi and the Donati families, respectively. Supported by Pope Boniface VIII, the extreme faction, the Blacks, under Corso Donati, ultimately won out. Among the Whites who felt Donati’s wrath was the writer Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy. Dante, who hated the Blacks, was condemned to death by burning at the stake on March 10, 1302, but he was later able to escape before the sentence was carried out. It is a small consolation, perhaps, that the casualties in Italy’s shameful era of civil strife did not include the ‘father of the modern Italian language.’