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New York's Pencil Towers: A New Breed of Skyscraper

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New York's new, thin skyscrapers are loved by some and resented by others.

New York's new, thin skyscrapers are loved by some and resented by others.

NYC Pencil Towers

New York is known for its skyscrapers. Since the construction of the earliest high-rises at the end of the 19th century, tall and remarkable skyscrapers have stood in New York and other parts of the United States.

When the Petronas Towers in Malaysia snatched the title of the world's tallest building from Chicago's Sears Tower in 1998, the shift was indicative of a wider trend in the construction of skyscrapers away from America and toward Asia. Most skyscrapers nowadays are built in the Middle and Far East, with China alone having built more skyscrapers in the past 30 years than America did throughout the entire 20th century.

Despite this shift, New York has always set the agenda for tall building design, and the Big Apple is again leading the world in the construction of a peculiar new type of skyscraper: the super-slender. Defined as a structure with a width-to-height ratio of over 1 to 7, these super-tall and super-skinny high-rises are a new breed of ultra-luxury residential skyscraper that has emerged around Central Park's southern border, a zone also known as "Billionaire's Row."

Innovative design and advances in construction techniques have made it possible to meet the demand for luxury residences in this geographically restricted area. This has resulted in the construction of structures of unparalleled heights from ever-smaller ground sites.

To build that high, New York's peculiar zoning laws require developers to acquire air rights from neighbouring sites. This preserves the unique view the affluent buyers get from their residences, while also generating capital for those selling these rights.

5 of New York's New Super-Slenders (Pencil Towers)

  1. One57
  2. 432 Park Avenue
  3. 53W53 (MoMA Expansion Tower)
  4. 111W57 (Steinway Tower)
  5. Central Park Tower


1. One57

Located in the Midtown neighbourhood of Manhattan and completed in 2014, this 75-storey 1,005 ft (306 m) high-rise designed by French architect Christian de Portzamparc was the first of a series of ultra-luxury, super-slender residential towers along 57th Street. Prior to construction, the developers had spent some 15 years acquiring property and air rights.

The structure consists of 92 condominium units on top of the exclusive Park Hyatt Hotel, with the most prestigious condo reportedly selling for over 100M US$. The exterior, composed of dark and light glass creating vertical stripes, gives the building a wavy blue facade that has received mixed reviews.

432 Park Avenue

432 Park Avenue

2. 432 Park Avenue

This super-slender designed by architect Rafael Vinoly was inspired by a Josef Hoffman wastepaper bin. The grid-like pattern is replicated by the tower's facade featuring perfectly regular 10-foot-square (3 m) apertures. At the time of completion in late 2015, the 1,397 ft (426 m) tower was the tallest residential building in the world, even surpassing the rooftop height of One World Trade Center.

With a width-to-height ratio of 1:15, extraordinary engineering was required to assure the tower's stability. Double-floor windowless cut-outs are interspaced between the seven (12-storey) segments of the structure to reduce wind loads. To further mitigate swaying, two tuned mass dampers are installed at the top of the tower. Even medium condos in this ultra-luxury tower are selling for tens of millions of dollars.

53W53 (MoMA Expansion Tower)

53W53 (MoMA Expansion Tower)

3. 53W53 (MoMA Expansion Tower)

53 West 53 is a mixed-use tower adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art. Selling the lot and air rights generated funds to re-develop the museum. Initial plans were for a much higher building (Tower Verre) but ran into opposition by preservationists. The City Planning Commission authorized construction only after 200 ft (61 m) were clipped off its top. Works finally started in 2015 and were completed in 2019, with 53 West 53 reaching a height of 1,050 ft (320 m).

The link to the museum has been maintained in the artistic design by Jean Nouvel. Residents enjoy a series of amenities, including free admission to the museum and its exhibitions.

111W57 (Steinway Tower)

111W57 (Steinway Tower)

4. 111W57 (Steinway Tower)

At 111 West 57th Street stands what is easily the world's slimmest skyscraper: just 59 ft (18 m) wide, the structure rises to the astonishing height of 1,428 ft (436 m). The tower is a mix of modern and classical architecture, integrating the historic Steinway Hall of 1925 into its design. The east and west sides are terracotta and bronze cladded, while a bronze-framed glass curtain wall covers the larger north and south facades.

No residence for the faint-hearted, the Steinway Tower sets a new benchmark in ultra-luxury amenities and opens up a grandiose view over Central Park and NYC. An 800-ton mass dumper ensures stability and minimizes vibrations.

Central Park Tower

Central Park Tower

5. Central Park Tower

Near the intersection of Broadway and 57th Street stands the tallest structure on Billionaire's Row: Central Park Tower. With a height of 1,550 ft (472 m), it is the tallest primarily residential building in the world and the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere by roof height (One World Trade Center stands higher only thanks to its antenna).

The building is also called the Nordstrom Tower due to the luxury goods chain's large store on the lowest floors. Designed by Adrian Smith, the tower's facade is mostly made of glass, with a cantilever on the eastern side of the tower extending 23 ft (7 m) to maximize views of Central Park. The building topped out in September 2019 and is expected to be completed by late 2020.

 One57432 Park Avenue53W53111W57Central Park Tower







Height (ft)






Height (m)






Width-to-height ratio







75 + 2

85 + 3

77 + 2

84 + 1

98 + 3

Floor space (sq ft)






Floor space (sq m)






Billionaire's Row—the view is better from the top

Billionaire's Row—the view is better from the top

For Better or Worse

The super-slenders have changed New York City's skyline at a rate not seen in decades. Yet, unlike cherished skyscrapers like the Woolworth, Chrysler, or Empire State Building, the pencil towers are not universally welcomed by New Yorkers.

An eyesore to some, they even have been criticized for throwing shadows on Central Park. But first and foremost, the super-slenders have become a symbol of rising urban inequality, as condos in the slim ultra-luxury towers on Billionaire's Row are strictly for the super-rich.

Yet, as in other areas of luxury, the wealth of the super-rich has allowed for technological advances. Cramped inner cities and high property prices have pushed developers to find new construction techniques and set new architectural trends. There is no doubt fancy lean towers will soon pop up in other crowded cities around the world.


  • Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH)
  • Wikipedia

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Marco Pompili


Cristina Vanthul from Florida on November 10, 2020:

That's really interesting. I'm not sure I'd feel safe in one of those, though intellectually I know the technology is there to keep us safe. It would be really neat to see what some of those residences look like on the inside.

Liz Westwood from UK on November 08, 2020:

This is a very interesting and well-illustrated article. I have never been to New York, but I hope one day to see these on the skyline.