New York

As you traverse the streets of Midtown Manhattan, the new skyscraper known as 432 Park Avenue pops in and out of view unexpectedly, hidden behind the Waldorf-Astoria at one moment, then looming menacingly over Lever House—a giant watchtower of blindingly white concrete with the proportions of an elongated toothpaste box stood on end. Rising almost 1,400 feet, but with a square footprint of just 93 feet on each side, Rafael Viñoly's condominium tower has an extraordinary "slenderness ratio" of 1 to 15 (the ratio of the width of its base to its height). It is somehow both immense and elegant, and with its severe, gridded, square-windowed module, it seems to exist in a style all its own: Dainty Brutalism. It is being advertised—in seven languages on its lavishly produced website—as "the tallest residential tower in the Western hemisphere." But another apartment building, planned for a site just a few blocks to the west, will be taller and have an even slimmer profile: 111 West 57th Street, designed by SHoP, will rise 80 stories and 1,428 feet, from a 60-foot-wide base that incorporates the landmarked 1925 Steinway piano showroom at grade. That produces a slenderness ratio of 1 to 23, while creating a tapering silhouette that (in an eye-catching rendering in a recent New York Times Magazine advertisement) precisely matched that of a No. 2 pencil.
Hence the emergence of the extra-skinny, supertall, ultra-luxury residential tower, which Carol Willis, the founder and director of New York's Skyscraper Museum, calls "a whole new skyscraper form," evocative of the iconic New York skyscrapers of the last century. While office buildings have become broader, to accommodate the big floor plates demanded by commercial tenants, residential design has adopted the slender tower form.

This is an architectural development that has been driven, of course, by money. Buildings this tall and narrow do present some engineering challenges to deal with swaying in wind forces, and certain improvements in technology of construction since the 1990s help enable nearly doubling the maximum height of residential building. (In the late 1980s, 750 feet was considered tall.) And the legal basis for these acromegalic, as-of-right towers has been in place for decades: developers can transfer the air rights of lower adjacent properties and pile the FAR onto their attenuated towers. But it is a vast influx of wealth, much of it from abroad, pouring into New York that is creating a demand for trophy properties stuffed with amenities, for prices that are edging past the twin landmarks of $100 million and $10,000 a square foot. (The same thing is happening, on a smaller scale, in Miami, where much hand-wringing has been occasioned by apartments' selling for the previously unheard-of price of $1,000 a foot.)

This is not a phenomenon unique to our time, of course. New York has seen a succession of gilded ages, beginning with the one in the 19th century, when millionaires (as billionaires used to be called) distilled the wealth of a continent into showy block-wide mansions lining Fifth Avenue. There was another in the 1980s, when an earlier wave of foreign buyers—often Arabs and Japanese then, versus an influx of Russians and South Asians now—colonized the likes of the Trump Tower and CitySpire, sharing elevators with professional athletes and pop stars. Much of the conceptual groundwork for the current wave of projects was laid then, including the novel idea of marketing the buildings with high-profile architecture—Der Scutt's bronze-glass curtain wall for Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue (1983), Helmut Jahn's domed top for CitySpire (1987) overlooking Central Park. Olympic Tower (1976), arguably the first important Midtown luxury condominium, was a black-glass-walled box designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. But at least since 2002, when Richard Meier designed a pair of striking transparent-glass high-rises floating at the edge of the Hudson River, a name architect has been required for marketing a new building of any pretension at all. Robert A.M. Stern's elegant, sophisticated, but hardly cutting-edge design for 15 Central Park West defines one end of the spectrum of acceptability; at the other, perhaps, is the 90-story One 57, down the block from the future SHoP building, with a rippling glass curtain wall in variegated blues by "Pritzker Prize-winning architect Christian de Portzamparc," as the website announces almost as soon as you enter it. The first of the supertalls to be completed, it set a price record last year when a penthouse apartment sold for just over $100 million. "It's interesting for architects," muses SHoP partner Vishaan Chakrabarti. "For decades we've complained in New York that no one cares about architecture, but just in the last 10 or 15 years, there's been a proven market value associated with design."

When the Astors and the Vanderbilts built their mansions, they also sought name architects—such as Richard Morris Hunt or Stanford White—but they probably didn't have resale value in mind. A dwelling isn't any more comfortable to live in because the outside of the building was designed by someone famous, but the idea that design has intrinsic value is entrenched in New York and extends to Miami, where new residential buildings have been designed by Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas of OMA, and Bjarke Ingels of BIG, among others. The phenomenon is creating new opportunities for architecture and reshaping skylines; the view looking south from Central Park, or toward land from offshore Miami Beach, will be almost unrecognizable in a few years to anyone whose memories date back just to the turn of the century. And although a building like 111 West 57th Street will contain only 60 apartments, its prominence and lavishness give it an outsize presence in the city's image at a time when young families who long ago gave up on living in Manhattan are being priced out of Brooklyn and parts of Queens as well.

In New York, another prerequisite for the current real-estate boom was the fairly recent ascendancy of the condominium form of ownership, which greatly reduces the financial risk to developers by enabling them to start booking sales while the building is little more than a rendering and a model apartment. In contrast to the co-op, a condominium can be bought and sold without a board's approval, to pretty much anyone who can come up with the price. (The co-op boards of Manhattan's prime East Side buildings are notoriously stuffy about whom they will admit.) And anonymity is one of the prized perquisites of life on the 80th floor. Earlier this year, The New York Times published an investigation of the high-end luxury Time Warner condominiums, documenting what most New Yorkers already knew: that many of the apartments were being bought by foreigners and corporate entities as investments, a conclusion that struck Chakrabarti as "slightly xenophobic." "People are parking their money in New York and London," says Stern, "because they seem safe in comparison to the instability in the rest of the world." Views, closets, and professional chef's kitchens are a form of stored wealth, like a Matisse. And, as with Impressionist paintings that sell anonymously at auction, the public may never know which oligarch is privately stashing his millions high above the streets of Manhattan.

As a consequence, though, the apartments seem increasingly divorced from any consideration of how people, even billionaires, actually live. According to plans, the triplex penthouse that will sit below the famous Chippendale top of the 1984 Sony (originally AT&T) Building—once Stern converts the offices in the building, designed by his mentor Philip Johnson, to condos—will comprise 21,000 square feet and include eight bedrooms, eight full baths, and 10 powder rooms. An apartment with more toilets than a good-sized museum is obviously aimed at a buyer whose needs go beyond mere convenience, or even ostentation. Most of the new crop of towers will have amenities including clubs with professional kitchens, curated libraries, performance spaces, yoga studios, and facilities for bathing dogs. The apartments tend tvo have high ceilings and full-height windows offering views far up the Hudson River and almost to the Atlantic Ocean. (These are typically photographed, for marketing purposes, from a circling drone.) At the very highest end of the spectrum, interior finishes are almost beside the point, since the assumption is that buyers will rip them all out anyway. "If you have to pay six to eight thousand dollars per [square] foot," Viñoly mused in a lecture, "and you design a unit for someone who has that kind of money . . . you're wasting your time. Who wouldn't want to do whatever they want with that space?"

Even if the floor plates seem relatively small, the apartments are big. The Kohn Pedersen Fox-designed building rising at 45 East 22nd Street will house just 83 apartments on its 65 floors, which is typical of this new generation of towers. (The developer, Bruce Eichner, also built CitySpire, which, when it opened in 1987, had more than 300 apartments on about 50 floors.) Putting just one apartment on a floor promotes a sense of exclusivity, guarantees 360-degree views, and, from the developer's point of view, means no usable floor space is wasted on corridors or elevator landings—all part of what Willis called, in the title of a show last year at the Skyscraper Museum, The Logic of Luxury.

There is a logic to luxury, but it has to work for a broader swath of society than the billionaires famously hailed by former mayor Michael Bloomberg as a "godsend" to New York. "They are the ones who pay a lot of the taxes," he said—except they often don't; a tax abatement for new residential construction, dating from 1971, when New York was desperate to attract new housing, means that the owners of those $100 million condos will be paying far less than their share of taxes for years to come.

Nor will they be contributing much to the city's commerce; many of the apartments will be unoccupied by their wealthy owners much of the year. "You drive past Meier's buildings on West Street, and the windows are dark all the time," says Willis. "There's an argument that we're killing neighborhoods by allowing rich people to buy apartments that are left empty, because the local restaurants and shops don't have enough traffic to support them.' In London, she notes, they call it "zombie urbanism," but it's a bigger problem there, where the very rich tend to buy entire private houses. There will still be plenty of foot traffic on West 57th Street, no matter how many billionaires own apartments there. She adds that most people don't regard it as a crime against society for city-dwellers to own a vacation home they use only a few weeks or months a year. The history of luxury real-estate development, in New York and elsewhere, suggests that the market will eventually weaken; the number of buyers who could spring for the top apartments at 432 Park, as Viñoly himself said, is about "95 people in the world." But if the global elite does pack up and move on to wherever they go next, the buildings, for better or worse, will have changed the skyline and the built environment for the rest of us, far into the future.

Jerry Adler, a New York-based writer, is the author of High Rise: How 1,000 Men and Women Worked Around the Clock and Lost $200 Million Building a Skyscraper.