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How Will the Future Judge Supertalls?

Currently The Skyscraper Museum in New York City is showcasing an exhibition called Supertall! that focuses on the world’s tallest buildings. It starts with with the Empire State Building, which was the world’s tallest in 1931, and covers through the Burj Khalifa, which is the current tallest building in the world at 2,717 feet, as well as all the other, taller buildings across the Middle East, China, Russia and North America. 

One of the most talked about supertalls this year is Central Park Tower, the tallest residential building in the world at 1,550 feet with over 1.2 million square feet of space. It’s located on West 57th Street, New York City’s prestigious Billionaires’ Row, and it boasts a dizzying 131 floors, making even a few of its residents nervous.

Central Park Tower apparently has the fastest elevators in the western world, which travel at 2,000 feet per minute at top speed. It also has the world’s highest private club in a residential building. Fashion icon Iris Apfel recently celebrated her 100th birthday at this club (on the 100th floor, no less) which is located at over 1,000 feet.

According to Joaquin Stearns, the senior vice president of development at Extell Development Company in New York, which built Central Park Tower, the biggest challenge was designing “gracious floor plans” around bankable views of Central Park.

“Incorporating a cantilever 300 feet above the street and stretching approximately 30 feet to the east allowed us the opportunity to expand the living space for our residences,” said Stearns. According to Stearns the cantilever structure took months of careful planning and coordination to execute and contains almost 10 percent of the total structural reinforced steel found in the entire building. “It’s a true engineering feat by all accounts,” he said proudly.

Supertalls are sexy. They allow even the smallest lots to be built more densely and capture views previously thought impossible. And yet, they still have their shortcomings. There have been reports on another supertall on Billionaires row, 432 Park, which had creaks and building mishaps, causing hassles for its ultra-luxury residents that are not accustomed to such discomforts. 

China recently made an announcement that it will ban supertalls. This is a significant proclamation because China is home to half of the tallest buildings in the world (roughly 10 of them). But now, the Chinese government has enforced new rules that prohibit new buildings taller than 1,640 feet. As far back as 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping told architects not to make any “bizarre,” “weird” or “odd-shaped buildings.” It isn’t just for aesthetic reasons, but economic ones, as cranes and construction can be costly, especially for supertalls, which are developed by private developers. After the recent annoncement of some of China’s biggest developers struggling to pay off their debt, the government might have had a notion that these capital intensive projects required more risk than they were willing to allow.

Central Park Tower designed by Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill (Image credit: Extell)

According to Daniel Safarik, the assistant director at the Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), there are both pros and cons of supertalls. “In the right context, which is, ideally, at the intersection of many transportation options in a densely populated area, supertalls can provide a superior framework for an efficient community of living and working spaces for tens of thousands of people,” he said.

To some industry experts, supertalls are more than about ego and publicity. They’re also urban design, at least in the case of the Burj Khalifa, which depended on the nearby hotels, condos, malls and entertainment venues to fit the urban framework to allow it to succeed. In China, the supertalls rely on a similar framework, usually sitting by waterfront developments.

The CTBUH’s research notes that 84 percent of supertalls were built after 9/11. Safarik mentions that supertalls fill up a city skyline, which in turn, adds marketing value to a city. Even in Dubai, where developers accumulate land that can be developed around supertalls, they can sell buildings nearby to pay off the supertall, which would be a greater risk if it was constructed in isolation.

“Supertalls that are constructed without appropriate infrastructure surrounding them tend to fare poorly as investments, or at least take much longer to return on the investment,” said Safarik. “There is no question that running lots of elevators and HVAC systems in a high-rise building is expensive and energy-consuming.” 

One solution is the vertical forest trend, which incorporates greenery into skyscrapers, which aims to promote biodiversity and improve air quality. One example is Stefano Boeri’s Bosco Verticale high-rise, which uses trees on the balconies and rooftops of one tower. Another is Eden, designed by Heatherwick Studio, which fills plants onto balconies of an apartment tower. This approach, while helpful, has been decried by critics who say plants are being used to greenwash developments

But some supertall architects are well aware of their environmental impact, despite reports that supertalls are not environmentally sustainable. Many are creating green walls, natural ventilation and improved air filtration systems, according to Safarik. “Without the market demand and population density to offset those costs, a supertall can be a wasteful enterprise from both an economic and environmental perspective,” he adds.

These criticisms aren’t going to stop supertalls, however. Florida is building its first supertall with New York developer Property Markets Group, a 100-story Waldorf Astoria Hotel and Residences, to be built on Biscayne Boulevard in downtown Miami.

And according to Stearns, who is no stranger to developing supertalls, the need for energy efficiency and sustainability is clear. Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, who designed Central Park Tower, “take in cultural, climate and geographical influences into consideration to achieve ultimate environmental sustainability,” he said.

The building’s exterior was designed with materials that respond to the energy efficiency of the building. “We used highly efficient low-e glass units for the windows, low reflective surfaces such as zinc panels, as well as stainless steel components throughout the vertical aspects of the building,” Stearns said.

Granted, nothing is going to be built along Billionaire’s Row in the short or medium term that offers quite as high quality as Central Park Tower. Buyers are aware of the affordability of nearby alternatives, but as Stearns explains: “there is nothing else like this coming to market anytime soon.”The future of supertalls is yet to be determined, though it signals a shift from how they have been built over the past 10 years towards greater awareness of the street level community, as well as their environmental responsibility. “The trends are pointing to more mixed-use projects and fewer all-office and all-residential projects,” said Safarik. “It’s partially because there is less financial risk involved in having portions of the building subject to different market cycles or conditions,” he explains.

The days of the iconic building might be over. There seem to be fewer projects constructed just for iconic value, and more consideration of urban context. While the tallest buildings in the world might stand out as feats of engineering and science, skyscrapers will eventually be judged by what they did to their surroundings and how well they stand up against the changes happening in the world.

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