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New York has always stood above the rest. Now it’s reaching even higher — with economic, architectural and social consequences that will once again redefine the most famous skyline in the world
The Old Testament declared every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill shall be made low, in keeping with classical beliefs about proportion and balance. By the 18th century, awe, terror and exultation, previously reserved for God, passed over to geological phenomena like mountains and experiences like conquering peaks. Kant called it “the terrifying sublime.” In the 19th, with new technology and the growth of cities, nature was rivaled by the man-made. The sublime became reachable by climbing to the top of a tall building.
In this spirit, Richard Morris Hunt designed New York’s Tribune Building, built in 1875, with its clock tower at 260 feet, competing with the spire of Trinity Church to be the tallest structure in the city. A quarter-century later, Daniel Burnham’s Flatiron Building, at 285 feet, established a new ideal of tall and skinny, soon dwarfed by the 700-foot-tall Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower, just across Madison Square Park, which was itself outdone, in 1913, by Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building, at 792 feet.
The New York skyline found its Platonic ideal less than two decades later with the Chrysler and Empire State buildings. The Empire State’s 204-foot mooring mast for passenger dirigibles, which never actually docked there, represented the mercantile equivalent of Trinity’s steeple. As E.B. White wrote, the city skyline was “to the nation what the white church spire is to the village — the visible symbol of aspiration and faith, the white plume saying that the way is up.”
With its dips and peaks, New York’s skyline became a civic signature, the postcard picture and classic movie image of the American century, its contours a reflection of what was happening below. White’s notion depended on a vital street life, on how the towers met the sidewalk and the curb. In recent decades, aspirant cities have built buildings taller than New York’s without ever quite supplanting Manhattan, in part because skylines are just stage sets of urbanism if they don’t arise from real, bustling neighborhoods. […]