In the global race to build tall, it’s no longer all about height. The other number that everyone wants to know is the aspect ratio: the relationship between a building’s height and its width. 111 West 57th is one of a new breed of towers that are pushing that ratio to previously impossible levels.
Return to the Classic Era
111 West 57th is one of a new breed of towers that are pushing that ratio to previously impossible levels. Dana Getman, associate principal at SHoP Architects, the lead designer, argues that far from being a new typology for New York, super-slender is just a return to its classic era of skyscrapers. “That’s what’s interesting about this new generation of towers,” she says. “Pre-war, before air-conditioning, buildings tended to be thinner to get people closer to light and air. In these new buildings, because they’re residential, light and air again becomes an issue and we have an opportunity to look back to historic buildings and what makes those so special.”
With this in mind, SHoP has approached 111 West 57th Street with the ambition of creating a classic Manhattan skyscraper. In fact, while the building’s super-slender form may look startlingly new, it is itself a heritage project. As well as the construction of the tower, the scheme involves the complete restoration of the 1923 Steinway building, an Art Deco landmark for the city. The tower has been carefully located in deference to its historic neighbour. “We could have built a tower directly adjacent to the Steinway building without city approval, but it wasn’t what was right for the landmark and it wasn’t right for the tower,” explains Getman. “So we worked with the Landmarks Preservation Commission to relocate the tower further back on the site. It’s really set back so you don’t really perceive it from the street, and instead we’re creating a very open atrium that frees the landmark building to be read in its historic context.” This lower section of the scheme will offer shared recreation spaces, a lobby and high-end retail. Above, there will be 77 floors of luxurious apartments.
Shadow, Depth and Solidity
When SHoP looked around at the city’s best-loved buildings, a common theme was “their shadow, their depth, their solidity”, says Getman. This is what they have tried to recreate with the material palette of 111 West 57th Street. “These amazing shear walls gave us some solidity to play with, so we had the opportunity to do another style that wasn’t just glass,” she explains.
The building is very finely tapered – Getman describes is as “feathered” rather than stepped back – which gives it a human scale despite its giant size. Each of these small steps is marked by a solid terracotta pilaster, with a curving bronze filigree stretching between the pilasters to climb the building. The pilasters are made from 23 unique shapes repeating across the façade in an undulating pattern, which will create a pattern of shadows from a distance. The filigree adds a level of detail that only will be revealed as you get closer, as a homage to the rich façades of New York’s classic Art Deco buildings. “We’ve been working hard to find that balance between the ‘handedness’ that you find in the old buildings – so the terracotta has five different glazes to give it a bit more texture – but at the same time, it’s developed using state of-the- art technology to track the pattern across the façade,” says Getman. The bronze has also been left unfinished so that it will age gracefully with the building.
Engineering to Ensure Comfort
Enormous care has been taken over the appearance of 111 West 57th Street, and the whole design team has a role to play in ensuring the integrity of these finishes over the life of the building. “The structure itself will be able to flex, but other elements are not as flexible unless we coordinate their design and engineering,” says Cynthia Liu, senior vice president at WSP in New York and project manager for 111 West 57th Street. “We don’t want to see cracks on plaster, or glass, or leaky windows because the building is moving too much.”
The ultimate success for engineers is when their art goes unnoticed: the goal is for building occupants to live in total comfort, unperturbed by any movement. But as people are living greater distances above the ground, there is an increasing awareness of the systems and the strategies that make high- rise living possible. Simon Koster from JDS Development Group says that while office occupiers rarely concern themselves about the structural systems of their workplaces, these are exactly the sorts of thing that prospective residents want to know. “Future homeowners ask questions about where they’re going to live,” says Koster. “We’re having conversations about the structural damper, shear walls, the overall stiffness of the building, movement, sway, slenderness … All these things are just starting to become part of the residential buyer’s lexicon in New York.”
A skinny building such as 111 West 57th Street needs to have a stiff and strong structure to endure wind and seismic forces. WSP has achieved the necessary strength with two shear walls running the height of the east and west elevations of the building. This leaves the others completely clear, so that residents can enjoy unimpeded vistas of Central Park to the north and Midtown and downtown Manhattan to the south. There is also a tuned mass damper at the top of the building, concealed by the lightweight steel structure that completes its delicate tapering form.