In the essay below, Stephen Rustow, an architect and urban planner, ruminates on skyscrapers — one of the most visible icons of cityscapes — as more than monuments to behold from a distance. They are also buildings that have historically created public access, for the price of admission, to a particular way of beholding the city. But as Rustow eloquently describes in this opinion piece, that access to the city viewed from on high has been fully privatized in many of the newest additions to the skyline. Rustow’s critique is far more than the standard alarm in response to the latest frenzy of supertall residential towers; it’s a theoretically informed reflection on the relationship between individual pieces of architecture and our collective perception of the urban landscape. As such, it’s a fitting way to introduce Rustow as one of UO’s official columnists, a group of respected professionals of design, policy, history, and advocacy who provide a range of unique and pointed perspectives on issues that face the New York metropolitan region today. Stay tuned as we announce additional columnists in the new year and build upon our commitment to sharing new ideas that enrich the culture of citymaking. –C.S.
“It’s almost like the Mona Lisa,” Harry B. Macklowe, the developer building the $1.3 billion tower, said at a topping-out ceremony [for 432 Park Avenue] on Friday. … “Except instead of looking at you, you’re looking at it wherever you are. You can’t escape it.”
Mr. Macklowe may not have been consciously channeling Roland Barthes, but in his essay on the Eiffel Tower, Barthes decoded the idea of public height in similar terms. The tower was the center of the optical system of Paris, he wrote, and had a new power over the imagination because it was both an “object when we look at it, and a lookout … when we visit it”:
The Tower (and this is one of its mythic powers) transgresses the separation, this habitual divorce of seeing and being seen; it achieves a sovereign circulation between the two functions; it is a complete object which has, if one may say so, both sexes of sight. This radiant position in the order of perception gives it a prodigious propensity to meaning.
Barthes also relates that the writer Henry de Montherlant lunched at the restaurant of the Tower every day because it was the only place in Paris where he didn’t have to look at it. Some of the same opprobrium heaped on the Eiffel Tower in 1889 has greeted Macklowe’s residential skyscraper on 57th Street, but New Yorkers won’t be as lucky as de Montherlant in avoiding the object of their disdain: unless they make a lunch date with friends who’ve shelled out the $95 million for a top-floor unit, only one sex of sight will be available to them. Because there is no restaurant. No viewing platform or observation deck. Not even a broadcast needle. Only private condo islands in the sky.
When Nadar got into a hot air balloon in 1858 and brought back the first aerial photographs of Paris, there was general amazement at what was, quite literally, a completely new view of reality, previously only imagined in literature. Four decades later, Eiffel put that view in reach of everyone and ushered in a century of public fascination with height, and especially the urban prospect from tall buildings. This was a gritty populist complement to the infatuation with sublime panoramas in nature celebrated by early 19th century romantic landscape painters and theorized by Edmund Burke; it created a sense of immensities at the heart of the city, available for the cost of an elevator ride.
For Barthes, the view from the Eiffel Tower reflected the dialectical nature of all panoramic vision in that it combined a kind of perceptual euphoria with a need to be deciphered or read. Moreover, he thought that experiencing this tension gave us access to a new kind of intelligence. From above, we could look at Paris as “a new nature, that of human space,” and in it we could discern “concrete abstraction”; for Barthes this went to the very meaning of the word structure: “a corpus of intelligent forms.” Under the Tower’s gaze, Paris became an intelligible object without losing anything of its materiality, and the Tower, as outlook, gave everyone access to this structuralist view. As did all the other urban towers that were quickly erected around the world to surpass it. Because these aeries lived in our midst and had been built by our hands, they quickly became emblems of their cities, contributing to a kind of urban boosterism and the race to build ever taller buildings.
The public appropriation of height in New York City has a long history, as does the carefully fostered civic pride in the modern monuments that tower over it. Monuments in large part because they were modern: they embodied the latest advances in building technology and a certain daring and arrogance that spoke to the collective ambitions of a world city on the make. There was a romance to height in which its double-sexed promiscuity played an important part because the tops of these new monuments were in some real sense collective spaces, in imagination but also in fact.
The tradition in New York goes back to Manhattan’s church steeples, symbols par excellence of a collective faith. One didn’t literally climb to their tops, but the all-seeing eye of the divinity was always at the apex. Trinity Church had the tallest spire in the city on its completion in 1846, even if it didn’t quite compete with those of Europe’s cathedrals. Its primacy was briefly surpassed by the Latting Observatory, a wood and iron tower that stood next to New York’s Crystal Palace on a site opposite what is today Bryant Park, built as part of the 1853 Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations.[foonote number=4] Latting’s tower rose 315 feet high and offered viewing platforms at three levels equipped with telescopes that allowed the public to see fifty miles or more in every direction. The Times reporter covering the opening said he “was not prepared for the wonderful panorama,” which surpassed anything available in London or Paris (including the view from Notre Dame, as it was higher), as well as the view from the summit of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The Observatory was originally planned to incorporate a steam elevator but, as built, apparently provided only stairs to bring up to 1,500 visitors at a time to its sheltered lookouts. The same Times reporter described the ascent as “fatiguing but aiding digestion” (anticipating de Montherlant by a generation). In a fate that recalls Babel, the heathen tower burned and collapsed in 1856, leaving Trinity’s spire once again master of the local heavens.
When New York got serious about building pagan towers at the end of the 19th century, it was the newspaper publishers along Park Row and insurance company offices that filled the tallest buildings, enterprises founded on mass communications and commercial products specifically intended for the broad urban populace. This first wave of skyscraper construction culminated in Cass Gilbert’s magisterial building for Woolworth’s, which remained the world’s tallest building for nearly three decades. Dubbed “the cathedral of commerce”, it was a spire literally built with the nickels and dimes of the city and the nation’s growing pre-war wealth, and it incorporated a public viewing platform on the 57th floor.
The viewing platform tradition continued with the iconic towers of the 1930s: Bank of Manhattan, the Chrysler, and finally the Empire State, all incorporating public space at their highest levels, the latter becoming the mythic first destination of every tourist visit to the city. Although these were private office buildings, they had a truly public dimension, and what assured their place as monuments was the figurative and literal public appropriation of their height: objects when we looked at them, lookouts when we visited them.
Even as the observation deck on the urban tower gradually became a kind of cliché, with one after another closing to the public in the ’40s and ’50s, still higher vantage points took their place. The “publicness” of urban height was never lost and the two sexes of sight remained part of the collective imagination in which the real New York lived and grew. Rockefeller Center’s Rainbow Room, with its unrivalled view from the very heart of the island, was the Mad Men-era destination for dinner, drinks, and seduction. A generation later, another Rockefeller development, the World Trade Center, provided a pair of populist viewing decks and snack bars on the 107th and 110th floors and the wonderfully named Windows on the World at a higher price point; one may not have lunched at these places every day, or even more than once, but these were everyone’s windows; they were part of the public realm of the city, and urban life was richer for it.
The private commodification of the tops of buildings for residential purposes may have started just after the twin towers were completed, with the four-story, 16,000-square-foot penthouse and organic garden built in 1974 for Stewart Mott, the left-wing philanthropist and heir to the General Motors fortune. Mott’s home in the sky was erected on top of the Galleria, perhaps the first luxury condominium tower on 57th Street, a block east from Macklowe’s 432 Park. Set far back on the roof, the spindly structure that Mott reportedly designed himself was invisible from the sidewalk but it created a striking impression when seen from a distance, say, for example, from the observation deck of the Empire State. Little more than an architectural oddity, it nevertheless aroused a curious kind of resentment, less for what it looked like than for what it was — a private banner unfurled across the city’s sky, an individual appropriation of something that arguably belonged to all.
At a 1935 conference, Le Corbusier famously announced — to an audience that included Nelson Rockefeller, then supervising the construction of the midtown skyscraper complex that bears the family name — that Manhattan’s towers were too small; oversized trinkets, he called them, that betrayed the timidity of their builders. Even Corbu might have been impressed with 432 Park: at just shy of 100 stories, the view from its penthouses will scarcely register Mott’s folly while looking down on the observation deck of the Empire State from fully 150 feet above it. 57th Street is well on its way to becoming a canyon framed by such blind beacons, with two other super-tall residential towers already under construction. And there’s no reason to imagine that the towering condo boom will stop there: the Bloomberg administration’s planning revisions give us every reason to imagine residential buildings of 110 stories or more, as soon as some intrepid developer can convince enough foreign oligarchs or home-grown venture capitalists to buy a higher piece of the sky. Prospect, the second sex of sight, has been entirely commodified and privatized.
But in an age when two clicks on Google Earth can set you afloat over any point on the globe, has prospect become somehow unsexed, neutered as an idea? Is the special intelligence of the viewing platform celebrated by Barthes simply a kind of nostalgia? And has anything replaced the view from tall buildings in the collective imaginary? Maybe the voyeuristic thrill of glancing into rear windows from the orchestrated promiscuity of the High Line affords a mediated equivalent. Or perhaps the longer, lateral views of the city, reclaimed at the water’s edge in the promenades along both sides of the East River, mark some shift in the semiotics of urban spectacle; here, arguably, is a renewed public realm that affords a different public understanding of the city, a horizontal gaze with some of the potency and intelligence that the vertical has lost.
Barthes wrote that Parisians originally sensed something obscurely scandalous about the “uselessness” of the Eiffel Tower, and Eiffel responded to this perceived critique with elaborate lists of potential scientific uses for the structure, none of which however remotely rivaled its sheer mythic presence. Barthes adds: “The naïve utilitarianism of the enterprise is not separate from the oneiric, infinitely powerful function which, actually, inspires its creation: use never does anything but shelter meaning.” The ill-fated Latting Observatory notwithstanding, New York has always insisted on uses for its towers and a practical justification for excesses of height. But in abandoning public access in the utilitarian equation, it is ultimately the role of dreams — that “oneiric, infinitely powerful function” — that is diminished: we are left with the irony of ever higher towers, that mean less and less.
Matt A.V. Chaban, “New Park Ave. Tower Is Now the Tallest, if Not the Fairest, of Them All,” The New York Times, October 14, 2014
Roland Barthes (translation by R. Howard), The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, New York: Hill and Wang, 1979, pp. 4-5.
Ibid, p. 9.
Michael Pollack, “FYI: Over the Bounding Pond,” The New York Times, August 28, 2005.
“Additional City News; Amusements this Evening,” The New York Times, July 1, 1853.
The history of the early tall buildings of 20th century New York is beautifully laid out in several features on the Skyscraper Museum’s website.
Thus named in an eponymous booklet published by the Reverend S. Parkes Cadman in 1916.
Norval White & Elliot Willensky, AIA Guide to New York City (4th ed.), New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000, p. 67.
Many of these lookouts were gradually commercialized, starting with coin-operated binoculars on a three-minute timer and working up to $29 tickets for the elevator ride itself. While paying for the view may have diminished the appeal of the experience, it nevertheless remained an accessible public good.
Michel de Certeau begins his essay “A Walker in the City” at the top of the World Trade Center with a reflection that neatly echoes Barthes: “To what erotics of knowledge does the ecstasy of reading such a cosmos belong? Having taken a voluptuous pleasure in it, I wonder what is the source of this pleasure of ‘seeing the whole’, of looking down on, totalizing the most immoderate of human texts.”
Being lifted to such a height changes the viewer: “his elevation transfigures him into a voyeur. … It transforms the bewitching world by which one was ‘possessed’ into a text that lies before one’s eyes.”
He adds: “The desire to see the city preceded the means of satisfying it. … The totalizing eye imagined by the painters of earlier times lives on in our achievements … by materializing today the utopia that yesterday was only painted. The 1370-foot-high tower that serves as a prow for Manhattan continues to construct the fiction that creates readers, making the complexity of the city readable and immobilizes its opaque mobility in a transparent text.”
Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Every Day Life, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
Carter Horsley has a review of the condominium structure which includes an interesting summary of its history and the factoid that Mott never lived in his aerie retreat, which was subsequently sold to the magician David Copperfield.
Le Corbusier (Charles-Edouard Jeanneret), When the Cathedrals Were White, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964. Originally published as Quand les Cathedrals étaient blanches in 1937. The remark was made at a press conference and repeated in a series of talks at MoMA. (pp. 61-62 in the French edition published by Denoel/Gonthier, 1937)
Barthes, 1979, p. 7.