An Hour of Skyscrapers

In his 1932 essay, The Frozen Fountain, Claude Bragdon wrote, “A building, however lofty, must end somehow, and the designer’s ability is here put to the severest test, and will be measured by the success with which this termination is affected – by the beauty with which his building dies on the white counterpane of the sky”.  The durability, if not the morbid imagery, of this view came through last month when City Planning Chair, Amanda Burden, said of Jean Nouvel’s proposed MoMA Tower, “How this building meets the sky is not only in the tradition of great New York City architecture, but it’s absolutely essential that it culminate in a very sophisticated and distinguished apex.”

Bryant Park may be the world’s best place to conduct a quick survey of skyscrapers and their tops, from Bragdon’s day to Burden’s, as demonstrated by an hour’s photos.


“What makes a great New York Skyscraper?  The greatest of them tug at our heartstrings.”  So wrote Nicolai Ouroussoff in his review of the new Times tower, which he found “unlikely to inspire that kind of affection.”  William Van Alen’s 1930  Chrysler Building sets the bar for heartstrings.  As Bragdon wrote in The Frozen Fountain, “The needle-pointed fleche of the Chrysler Tower catches the sunlight like a fountain’s highest expiring jet.”  Bragdon’s analogy exactly captures the imagery and emotional appeal of jazz age skysrapers:  ”upward gushing fountains, most powerful and therefore highest at the center,” with surrounding “cascades descending in successive stages from the summits to which they have been upthrust.” 

Copy of chrysler

Hugh Ferriss rendered the Chrysler Building nearing completion.  The image prefigures the strategy of dissolving into light, today’s counterpart to the prewar frozen fountain.





The American Radiator Building of 1924, designed by Raymond Hood, is a frozen fountain with gilt froth.  Its black brick is meant to conceal dark windows and emphasize the building’s larger sculptural effect, a strategy overruled by the white window treatments of the current owner, the Bryant Park Hotel.  Hood and his former partner, John Mead Howells, had won the Chicago Tribune Tower competition a few years earlier with a Gothic design, but the second-prize winner by Eliel Saarinen was more stylistically advanced and influential, proving to be the greatest skyscraper never built.  As Paul Goldberger wrote in his book, The Skyscraper, “The Radiator Building merges Saarinen’s Tribune Tower massing with Hood’s own Gothic leanings; it is, in a sense, the first- and second-prize winners of the Tribune competition joined in a single building.”  Howells picked up on Saarinen in another small masterpiece, the Panhellenic (now Beekman) Tower of 1928, a sort of sister building to the Radiator that takes a step further into the future with punchier massing and less detail.  Hood continued to simplify his designs through the Daily News Building and Rockefeller Center, ushering in a new age of skyscraper design and producing New York’s most modern prewar towers.


The Empire State Building is another descendent fountain of Saarinen’s Chicago entry.  Designed by William F. Lamb of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, and completed in 1931, it remains a yardstick for skyscraper magic; City Planning Chair, Amanda Burden, said of the currently proposed MoMA Tower, “I don’t have a problem with the height.  But let’s see it, and see where it falls with the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building and if it deserves it.”  (Echoing Bragdon, Nouvel has said his tower “has to disappear into the sky”.)  This icon’s reprise as New York’s tallest building was the only thing that felt right after 9/11.


383 Madison Avenue, completed in 2001, was designed by David Childs of SOM.  His geometrically simplistic 1 World Trade Center (formerly Freedom Tower), which will overtake the Empire State Building by 550 feet, doesn’t appear much more promising than this dull pencil.  383 Madison’s translucent top, at least, is an early example of today’s preferred way to die into the sky.

Copy of times2

The New York Times tower was designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop and completed in 2007.  The Times’ own architecture critic wrote, ”The tower’s crown is also disappointing.  To hide the rooftop’s mechanical equipment and create the impression that the tower is dissolving into the sky, Mr. Piano extended the screens a full six stories past the top of the building’s frame.  Yet the effect is ragged and unfinished.  Rather than gathering momentum as it rises, the tower seems to fizzle.”


Now the second tallest building in New York, Cook+Fox Architects’ new Bank of America tower extends its translucent curtain wall above the level of rooftop equipment in an increasingly common technique for engaging the sky and attempting to dematerialize.  Its light-penetrated top, great height and asymmetrical crystal form make this highly sustainable building the white-hatted counterpart to Jean Nouvel’s darker MoMA skyscraper proposal, the “Tower Verre“.

One Response to “An Hour of Skyscrapers”

  1. Galfromdownunder Says:

    You didn’t mention it here, but I love the MetLife Tower, especially at night:
    It’s a beacon I find myself looking for when out and about – the golden top instantly transports me to Europe – I imagine if I point my bicycle towards it I will come upon the sweeping piazza at the base of it, with flower sellers and tolling bells. Of course, I can’t recall ever passing by the foot of it – like Mt Fuji or a full moon, it’s like a constant that’s just “over there.” Art deco ornamentation like the Radiator building, while having a very practical reason for its existence (not blocking out too much sky) simply harks back to a time when people just had, well, more time, and time was more important than money.

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