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Why The World’s Tallest Apartment Buildings Are On The Same Street

Today architect Nick Potts joins AD in New York City for an in-depth walking tour of Billionaires’ Row in Midtown Manhattan. West 57th Street has been attracting Manhattan’s wealthiest residents for centuries–a former amalgamation of brownstone and gothic mansions in the 1800s, the street has evolved into a hotspot for supertall luxury skyscrapers boasting the three tallest residential buildings in the world. Join Nick as he deep-dives into the area’s rich history and explains why Billionaires’ Row could only be built on 57th Street.

Released on 07/25/2023


Three of the tallest buildings in New York

are right behind me on West 57th Street.

Why are they all on one street?

It's partially building technology

that's emerged very recently,

but also reasons going all the way back to 1811

in the original layout of the city grid

in the Commissioner's plan.

I'm Nick Potts, I'm an architect,

and today we're gonna be doing a walking tour

of Billionaires' Row in midtown Manhattan.

[ambient music]

When the commissioner's plan laid out these streets in 1811,

essentially you set up a hierarchy of east west streets

between wide streets and narrow streets.

The zoning bonuses of

simply because you're on a wide street,

you get that much more height

and that much more ability to build tall

as opposed to a narrower street such as 58th Street.

And if you think about the grid plan of Manhattan,

and 57th Street is the last wide street

before you get to Central Park.

So it's really the only one of the wide streets

that has access to Central Park.

So why is West 57th Street the only place in the city

that could have become Billionaires' Row?

It's partially because of the original plan

of the city in 1811.

It's partially because of the proximity to Central Park

and the commodification of views,

and it's partially because of the building technology

and how, over the past 20 years,

the advancements in materials and systems

have enabled people to build so tall and so thin.

[ambient music]

Over my shoulder is the first super tall building

that was built on West 57th Street.

And really the seed of what would essentially become

Billionaires' Row of these super tall residential towers.

So what is a super tall?

It's a tower over a thousand feet.

One57 is 1,004 feet tall, going all the way back to 1811.

These sorts of buildings were not on anyone's radar.

You know, this idea of buildings super tall

just didn't exist.

And this building type,

the residential skyscraper also didn't exist.

So it's 2014 and you can see in One57

a little bit of trying to figure out

what to actually do with a residential super tall.

There wasn't a precedent

for what a residential super tall building would be.

So the architect, Christian de Portzamparc,

really relied on metaphor.

And the idea of the building was a waterfall.

And as you see with these towers,

anytime there's a new building type,

similarly to the Woolworth building or a department store,

there's always a struggle to find the right language.

And this is probably one of those first experiments

about do we embrace the tallness?

Do we try to hide it behind a metaphor?

Besides the metaphor, it's a fairly straightforward

what you would think of as a commercial building

that is actually a residential tower.

When this building was proposed, it was almost like a shock.

The only thing that was this tall in this area

was the Time Warner Center,

which is on the park and was controversial in its own right,

but One57 freaked people out

and the imagery was almost terrifying.

There were these overhead views and it looked so tall.

And now that you look at it

among the buildings that have grown up around it,

it actually looks quite short.

And just in the short amount of time between 2014

and where we are in 2023,

you can see how much this area has changed

and how much the building typology has matured.

[ambient music]

The tall building behind my shoulder is 432 Park Avenue.

This is 2015.

The building is 1,397 feet tall, and about 90 feet square.

And the big innovation that happened with this building

and why it's so tall and skinny, unlike One57

is that this building is all residential.

You think about a typical office building

is 300 feet long and 100 feet deep, it's a fragment of that.

And that's because everything that's in, this is apartment.

So you don't have restaurants,

you don't have office buildings

that have peak loads of people coming and going.

The discovery or the innovation with this building

is realizing that with a residential tower,

unlike an office tower

where you need essentially one elevator

for every 50,000 square feet.

For a residential building,

you need far fewer because you think about it,

there'll be maybe three or four people on a floor

at any given amount of time.

Remember this is one apartment per floor.

So as in any luxury residential building, address matters.

And Park Avenue,

particularly north of 60th street or the park is,

has incredible amount of cachet.

And so what the developers did here

in assembling the lot assembly

is they actually found a certain slice of a lot

that fronted on Park Avenue

and gave it a Park Avenue address

to give it the cachet Park Avenue.

Though the bulk of the building

is between 56th and 57th Street.

So all of the 57th Street super talls have,

because they're a new building type,

there's a huge amount of experimentation

even in the style of the building.

And this building really is a sea change.

And thinking of a tall building as not being glass,

and you think about it in particular against One57,

which was the building on 57th Street

that immediately preceded this,

which is all glass and kind of tethered to a metaphor.

The architect on 432, Rafael Vinoly,

decided to express this in a big exoskeleton grid.

There isn't columns inside the building.

What you see on the outside of the building

is the structure.

The architects and structural engineers

really brought back an older idea.

Most skyscrapers have a curtain wall that does nothing,

and then the columns and structure is all in board.

And with 432, the structure is the exterior.

So there's not lost square footage.

One other noticeable thing about 432 Park

are the wind breaks periodically up the building.

And this is another structural implication

of building any tall building is you have huge wind loads,

you create an open pore space up the building

so the wind can move through.

It drastically reduces the pressure of the building.

[ambient music]

Behind me is 111 West 57th Street.

And from this far away,

one of the most noticeable things about the building

is really its shape.

This is the narrowest skyscraper in the world.

And in order to achieve that sort of slenderness,

there's a huge amount of engineering that goes into it.

Notably the sidewalls, which are solid

because the building essentially acts

like a very vertical I-beam where the end walls are solid.

It's really two townhouses wide.

If you think about the structure of Manhattan blocks

and these 25 foot wide blocks, it's just a little bit wider

than two townhouse blocks and essentially as deep as one.

So just imagine something,

essentially the width of two townhouses

stretched up to 1,425 feet.

And what 111 does

is it takes that sort of setback tower form

that we're familiar with the 1916 zoning code

and essentially multiplies it.

And rather than have them be every 30 feet,

it's actually at a very reasonable residential

seven feet six inches or so.

So to provide a,

essentially something that's scalable

for a terrace for a resident.

So the relationship of the 1916 zoning code

and the 1920s commercial setback towers

really resulted in this feathered setback shape

where many residences and many apartments

could get terraces rather than essentially three,

which is what the sky exposure plane

for a deeper setback would've mandated.

So this is a building that's really all about New York

and trying to respond to both the city

and the historical skyscrapers that existed before it,

which were also experimental in their time,

and also to the building that it's a part of.

111 West 57th Street is technically an addition

to the 1925 Steinway and Sons building

by Warren and Wetmore, who are the same architects

as Grand Central Station.

And the Steinway building is landmark,

which is something that the developer was supportive of.

It actually rests within a courtyard of it.

So it doesn't change the Steinway building,

but it uses the air rights from a landmark building

and transfers them over into the adjacent lot.

All these buildings are very complex,

three-dimensional financial and zoning puzzles.

So the fact that this is added onto the Steinway building

kind of talks a little bit about some of the history

of West 57th Street between its first era

when it was a mansion neighborhood

that cluster around the Vanderbilt House

to its current state as a row of super talls.

In between time,

it was really a corridor that catered towards musicians.

And Carnegie Hall is across the street

and that caused the clustering of people and companies

that catered towards people who used

and worked in Carnegie Hall to settle nearby.

So Steinway and Sons built their headquarters

across from Carnegie Hall essentially to do this.

And at one point, 57th Street was known as Piano Row.

The developer took a huge amount of care

towards making sure that the addition

both responded to and respected the landmark,

and brought its language into the future.

And the materials are really used to bridge

between 1925 West 57th Street

and 2023 West 57th Street.

If you look at the terracotta on the end walls,

it's taking the terracotta language,

which was used a lot in the 1920s

using some motifs from the Steinway building.

If you look at some of the molding profiles

around the front entrances,

essentially translated into the shapes of the terracotta,

and then manipulated to create shadows.

It responds to the sun and to the changes in the day

and makes the building something different to look at

and interesting

through the course of the days, weeks, and years.

And in the interest of full disclosure

and also in case you haven't noticed

how excited I am by this building,

I was actually the project architect for this building

during its design phases with SHoP Architects.

The setback terraces.

111 has several of these, but at the windbreak floors,

it's really one of the only places

that there's a terrace that's not accessible

to building residence.

And we even have a chance to get up

into the top one of those windbreak floors right now.

So right now, we're on the 86th floor

of 111 West 57th Street.

This is a windbreak floor.

So similarly to 432 Park,

these very skinny towers benefit greatly

from having a windbreak or a periodic hole

through the building where wind can travel through

and reduce the wind pressures moving across the building.

So you have these on this floor and two more below us on 111

and 432 Park has some as well

that you can see off in the distance.

So in addition to these windbreak floors,

there are also mechanical floors that exist.

On 432 park, they're actually within the same assembly.

So that donut in the middle

is where the mechanical equipment is

and they're also double height.

So it's a zoning height bonus that they use.

Here on 111,

the floor that we're on is simply a windbreak floor.

The mechanical floors are directly below us,

and the two mass damper, which helps balance the building

from swaying in the wind, is directly above us.

Another interesting thing here is it's also

one of the few places

where we can see the terracotta up close

because the terracotta on 111 is on the sidewalls

and not necessarily accessible to people.

These finials at the end of each of the setback terraces

are really the only three-dimensional expression of it.

And it's similar to the team,

when they're working through this,

was thinking of the similar finials

on the Chrysler Building.

If you look at the eagles,

they're about the same size as these.

So elements that are like this

that are twice as tall as a person

look pretty small from far away.

And it's a bit of the kind of eye trickery

that happens whenever you're dealing with a very tall

or large building.

[ambient music]

Right now we're outside of 35 West 57th Street,

and this is the only survivor of West 57th Street's

first residential phase

when it was anchored by the Vanderbilt Mansion,

just the end of this block at 5th Avenue and 57th Street,

which was the largest house in the city at the time.

And this building,

which was actually built for W.K. Vanderbilt,

his brother's daughter as a wedding gift,

were exactly the kind of people that were living here.

It was people who were related to

or wanted to be near the center of power

and the biggest house in town.

However, this didn't last long.

The house was built in 1891.

By 1898, it had become too hustling and bustling.

This was kind of the dawn of midtown,

which is what it is now.

Anything south of the park was noisy and commercial.

And by 1898 the bride had moved further uptown.

You can see in the ornamentation

this kind of cuissart brownstone carving.

This was a fairly impressive townhouse in its day,

but you can see the scale of it looks almost like a toy

next to the new buildings.

[ambient music]

Behind me is the Osborne, and this is the flip side

to the townhouse residential development

that was happening just a few blocks further to the east

around the Vanderbilt House.

By the 1880s, this was already starting to emerge

as an apartment house district

and the Osborne was really the crown jewel in this.

This was obviously a very high class luxury building.

Osborne, who was the developer of this,

owned a stone cutting business.

So it's very heavy masonry because he could get the material

and was probably profiting on it.

So this was a very tall building of its time.

And if you compare it with the townhouse

further down the street,

you can imagine an 11-story building like this

kind of looming over its neighborhood

almost as a prelude to what would come in the later phases

of what would become Billionaires' Row.

In terms of the height and the technology,

this is really at the maximum of what would've been built

out of a masonry building all the time.

You can think of it as being similar

to the Monadnock building in Chicago,

which is 16 stories and brick and has massive walls.

So the Osborne, it's a stone building,

but it still is similarly hefty and bulky

and really taking advantage of the weight of its material.

And it's a Romanesque style building,

which is perfectly suited to that.

It's heavy, it's about expressing arches,

it's about heavy materials.

It's an interesting juxtaposition

to think about the Osborne, which was the tallest building

of its district of its time back in 1890,

to towering over it,

Central Park Tower at more than 100 stories.

[ambient music]

Above me is the tallest residential tower

in the world, Central Park Tower.

This is 1,550 feet.

And similar to Sign Way or 111 West 57th Street,

it makes a creative use of a zoning bonus.

You can see how it cantilevers out

over another landmark building.

The Art Students League immediately next door to it

both giving them air rights to build over the rights

that could have been built over the Art Students league,

but also crucially letting the building rotate.

So there's more frontage

by going over the Art Students League

to get a little bit more frontage facing the park,

which is just on the other side of the building from us.

Aside from that, this is probably the most conventional

of the super tall buildings on 57th Street

in terms of skyscraper design.

You can see like One57, it's a glass tower.

It's wrapped with glass on all four sides,

which gives views in a 360 degree direction

from the building.

The floor plates are larger than what you see on 111

and on 432 Park because there is enough room

with the Art Students League to project out a little bit

and get a little few more apartments on each floor.

So instead of something like 432

where there's two or one apartments per floor

or 111 where there's simply one,

this has multiple apartments

particularly in the lower floors.

Four or five on the lowest tier,

then three, then two, then one.

So you can kind of see each vertical striation

as a different model

of planning the inside of the building

going from large to small.

This building also crucially makes the use

of the lower parts of the building,

which don't really make economic sense

because they don't have views towards the park

for other uses.

There's a Nordstrom department store

occupying the ground floor real estate space

to activate the ground plane.

And then in between, there's also a hotel.

Even though Central Park Tower

is probably the most conservative

in terms of architectural expression.

it's really the culmination of the lessons learned

on the other super tall towers that have been built

over 111 West 57th Street.

If you think about height at 1,550 feet,

150 feet taller than 432 Park,

which was kind of the first major one of these,

and also the real estate potential.

This has a triplex that just listed for $250 million.

So these buildings are both a competitive race to the top

in terms of height, but also in terms of speculation

and finding unlocked potential to recoup the investment

of buying what ultimately is very extensive real estate.

And this, the ultimate expression of Billionaires' Row

and all we've been talking about

with these super tall towers

really could have only happened here on West 57th Street.

[ambient music]