Sennett refers to the difference between Billionaires’ Row and the Rockefeller Center, a place of constant public and civic activity. In Rem Koolhaas’s 1978 book Delirious New York, written as the city was mired in bankruptcy but while its cultural scene was, arguably, at its apex, the Dutch architect argued that the skyscraper contained all the potential of a self-contained city. A “social condenser” is what he called it: “A machine to generate and intensify desirable forms of human intercourse.”
The slender profile of 111 W 57th represents the proud nail in the coffin of that potential. It transforms an archetype which was, since its birth at the end of the 19th century, a container built to accommodate the complex needs of the contemporary metropolis.
The skyscrapers of the golden era, the 1920s and 1930s, aspired to the condition of the vertical city, connecting the street to the sky via a labyrinth of corridors and arcades, shops, hotels, restaurants, subways, studios, theatres and, of course, offices with their own set of stratifications from secretaries to executives. This skinny tower aspires to something very different, the exclusion of the 99.99 per cent.
Ultimately, this is a skyscraper that has been built because it was possible, physically, economically and politically, to build it. Finance and engineering collide in the refinement of a new, very contemporary type of tower. It is, in its way, just as emblematic of its time as the buildings of the 1920s were of theirs. The economies of global cities are built on real estate, that is how they maintain growth. These towers may look insubstantial, but this is not a glitch. It is the new reality in which unimaginable wealth towers over the city uncontained, not by accident but by design.