Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Follow the fluctuations of the city’s skyscraper construction—which mirror the ups and downs of the U.S. economy.
At 612 feet tall and 47 stories high, the Singer Tower was once the tallest building—not only in New York City, but in the world. That was back in 1908. Before the building was demolished in 1968, Harper’s magazine hailed it as “the romance of the future.”
Indeed, over the past century, architects gradually filled the city skyline with skyscrapers, often pushing the limit on just how tall buildings can get. The Singer Tower would have paled in comparison to the city’s current tallest building: The recently completed One World trade Center, which stands almost 1,775 feet high.
Take a look at a new interactive timeline from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), which shows the rollercoaster-like progression of NYC’s skyscraper construction. It also connects some of the most active and inactive years of construction with major social and political events in history. (Here, skyscrapers are defined as any building over 100 meters, or 328 feet, high.)
According to the timeline, which is part of a larger research report on the city’s skyscrapers, one of the most active years for building was 1931. Thirty-two skyscrapers were completed, including the 104-story Empire State Building, which remained the world’s tallest building for more than 40 years. That was “when the final excesses of the Roaring ‘20s were thrown skywards and frozen in concrete and steel,” the researchers write. Before the stock market crashed in 1929, ushering America into the Great Depression, many of these buildings were already under construction. It was a time when the city believed economic growth was “limitless,” as film director Ric Burns describes in his 1999 series, New York: A Documentary Film. “’The sky’s the limit, we’re going to keep on going up forever, we can keep on adding floors to these buildings,’” he says in the film.
From the Great Depression through World War II, New York had only a few skyscrapers—none of which reached above 250 meters, or 820 feet, high. In fact, the researchers write that 1937 to 1947 was the longest period of tall building inactivity, likely due to the shortage of building materials like metal and steel, which were needed to build military vehicles and weaponry.
Construction ramped up again in the ‘70s as multinational corporations grew, even though the city itself was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy before being saved by the teacher’s union. Yet it was during this period that NYC completed the Twin Towers—one reaching 1,361 feet the other 1,368 feet high—which overtook the Empire State Building as the tallest in the world. The progression of skyscrapers continued to fluctuate from the 1980s through today, soaring during the lucrative Wall Street years in the 1980s and plummeting again during the economic recessions of the 1990s and of 2008.
Today, the construction of skyscrapers is once again booming, fueled largely by the rise in luxury residential construction. The clusters of blue dots—representing residential buildings—increases significantly after the 1960s. An accompanying pie chart shows that, of the 826 buildings included in the timeline, almost half are for housing. As CityLab previous reported, there are already many new skyscraper projects in the works, many of which will be “luxury pieds-à-terre for foreign billionaires.”
By 2018, these projects will dramatically change NYC’s skyline. So far, part of the city has been defined by “super-skinny, supertall towers,” many of which stand upward of a thousand feet, feature little square-footage, and hold only a few units throughout.
But the next wave of construction might be different, as my colleague Kriston Capps wrote: “The second wave of the skyscraper boom includes more modestly scaled towers, most of them about 600 feet in height, in places like Williamsburg, Long Island City, and Hudson Yards.”
Altogether, these buildings demonstrate, as the researchers of CTBUH write in their report, “New York’s persistence as a magnet for capital, and its standing as the ultimate skyscraper laboratory over time.”