NYC Impressions – What Makes a Skyscraper?

While I was in New York, I could not stop comparing it to London. These two cities are so similar in many ways, and yet also so different. And of course one of the main differences is in the height of its buildings.

New York is the third city in the world with the highest number of skyscrapers (Hong Kong being the first and Shenzhen, in China, the second), and London occupies a very humble 56th position. Contrary to NYC, in London, there are limits imposed that do not allow buildings higher than 309m to be constructed. Plus, there are additional impediments that take into consideration the area, historical value, etc. According to the article by Bloomberg How to Game the Zoning Codes to Build Supertall Skyscrapers, NYC has instead a zoning system: “it controls bulk and density by what’s called the floor area ratio (FAR). This means that a residential developer can build nine times the square feet of the lot area in an R-9 district.” Yet, rich people have money to hire the best lawyers able to game the system.

But when did it started?

Well, with the Empire State Building of course. Built in 1930-31, it is probably the most famous building in the world and, for about forty years, it held the title of the world’s tallest building. This Art Deco skyscraper rises majestically to the skies in its total of 443 meters of height, containing 102 floors. When the World Trade Center was constructed in 1970, the Empire State Building lost its status, which was sadly regained when the Twin Towers collapsed in the awful events of 9/11, in 2001. But things changed rapidly in the past 20 years and, at the time of writing, this Art Deco marvel is only the 7th tallest building in NYC, the 9th in the whole USA and only the 54th tallest in the world. Isn’t this insane?

It’s almost as if there is a competition going on between architects and magnates to see who builds the tallest of them all and which country is the proud owner of it. So while I was exploring NYC, constantly looking up to observe these tall buildings in their glory, I kept wondering – what is indeed a skyscraper? Does the definition change over time? What does a building need to be to qualify as a skyscraper?

A quick online search delivers a very unsatisfying definition – a skyscraper is a very tall building of many storeys. But the question still remains – how many is many?

According to Google’s Books N-Gram Viewer, the word was first used around 1900, achieving its peak precisely when the Empire State Building was constructed. To find an answer to my question, I went to Britannia, and there it was.

The term skyscraper was originally applied to buildings of 10 to 20 stories, but by the late 20th century the term was used to describe high-rise buildings of unusual height, generally greater than 40 or 50 stories.

At the time of writing, the position of the tallest building in the whole world belongs to Burj Khalifa in Dubai, since 2008. This building is 828m tall. Let’s imagine two Empire State Buildings, one on top of the other, and we get an idea! So, in light of this, can we still consider the Empire State Building a skyscraper? Or even the One World Trade Centre, currently the tallest in NYC, with a height of 541 meters? Or does the Burj Khalifa gain a new status and we need to invent a new word for it besides skyscrapers? It seems some people call it Megatall, but that doesn’t seem as poetic.

As far as my research could tell, there isn’t really a different name – however, there is more to a skyscraper than its height. To be honoured with such a name, it should have not only a minimum height of 150m (which is not very impressive these days), be completely self-supporting, and contain at least 50% of habitable floor space. So I could not simply assume I was surrounded by skyscrapers when in NYC. I could only say I was surrounded by very tall buildings, as there was no way I can verify these two last criteria. I also don’t know what “habitable” really means – as far as I know, no one legally lives in the Empire State Building. Yet, this is listed as a skyscraper.

I am personally a fan of architecture, how it reflects the different times but, I think most importantly, it reflects how certain cities or countries what to be perceived. Buildings dress the cities and reflect the fashion of certain ages. And, in my opinion, skyscrapers are the streetwear equivalent of fashion – they project modernity, practicability and most of all new money, new power. The skyscraper is the epitome of human vs nature. We keep daring to set up new challenges, making the impossible, possible, controlling the uncontrollable.

Sky – Scraper – the latter literally means a tool or device used for scraping, especially for removing dirt, paint, or other unwanted matter from a surface.

So, then, I can’t stop myself from asking…who do we think we are to assume there should be something removed from the beautiful, ever-changing skies, by inserting so many interruptions to the landscape? Scrapping the skies. That is literally what we are doing. As if it was not enough that we got ourselves the ability to fly, the human had to find a more permanent place. Literally working in the sky, living in the tallest building of them all. Perhaps trying to be closer to an ideal of heaven; perhaps simply wanted to be taller than anyone and anything else, looking below, enjoying the view from a position of power – who doesn’t enjoy a nice observation deck?

The truth is, the skyscrapers are only beautiful from a distance. They take away the attention from the most beautiful historical buildings and make them even look out of place, even though they were there first. Plus, it makes the city feel claustrophobic, hides the sun away and brings other problems. In the same article I mentioned above, James S. Russel calls it the Second Gilded Age, when magnates are looking to put their billions in Manhattan real estate, developers stop at little to deliver the high-status goods, which these days are calculated in height and views. He also writes

Just as new research underlines the mental health benefits of access to daylight and greenery, very tall buildings are going up that cut off sunlight access for hundreds of dwellings in their immediate vicinity.

Community gardens, among the most powerful means to unite and strengthen low-income communities, increasingly find themselves pitted against developers pitching shade-throwing buildings.

I cannot stop thinking about cities with skyscrapers becoming like an ocean above the ground. The tendency would be for those with low income to live in the depths of these new over-the-surface oceans, where sunlight won’t be able to reach anymore. Developing diseases and being debilitating, making it impossible to ever reach the new surface – up there, above the 20th floor, that’s where the rich and privileged lives. Bathing in sunlight, with access to everything. Have you ever watched the animated movie Shark Tale? I was a child when it came out, but after my trip to NYC I can see the connection.

When one of the main characters gets famous and is able to reach the top of the Reef

Could skyscrapers be stopped? Or will this childish pursuit for power continue? Unfortunately, the world shows again and again the latter seems to be the way to go. And I am not going to deny it – skyscrapers make great views – from above and from the distance. But at what cost?



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