New so-called “supertall” skyscrapers are springing up around the world, redefining the skylines of major cities and challenging the limits of engineering.
These colossal skyscrapers are often seen as symbols of economic growth and development, and they can also provide a number of benefits, such as expanded housing and office space, and increased tourism. However, they also come with a number of challenges, such as high construction costs, environmental impact, and the potential for social and economic disruption. Residential units in most of these sleek new towers can only be afforded by the ultra-wealthy.
The rise of supertall skyscrapers is a complex phenomenon with a variety of implications. It will be interesting to see how these buildings continue to evolve in the years to come.
“Sky-High: A Critique of NYC's Supertall Towers from Top to Bottom,” just out from Princeton Architectural Press, documents the new crop of 1,000+-ft. towers now skewering New York City’s beloved skyline. In it, architectural writer and urban built environment researcher Eric P. Nash kicks off his reviews of a dozen new supertalls with a history of skyscrapers in New York, a city that has had a penchant for building ever skyward since the 19th century.
Nash’s incisive, fact-packed commentary is an irresistible read, especially for urban design geeks. Nearly every sentence he writes reveals something new or utterly fascinating about the city’s buildings, builders, and inhabitants.
Photographer Bruce Katz’s breathtaking images showcase each of the supertalls reviewed. They are depicted in gorgeous light and crisp compositions that emphasize both their stupendous sizes but also their people-friendly aspects whenever available.
Katz’s work has appeared in Architectural Digest, New York Magazine, Landscape Architecture, and the Washington Post. He is on the faculty of the International Center of Photography, and several of his images were recently acquired by the New-York Historical Society.
We caught up with Katz recently to chat about his photography career and the “Sky-High” project, specifically the seemingly surreal challenge of capturing a five-block-tall building in a single photograph.
When on assignment shooting architectural interiors of homes and public buildings, you have supreme control over the setting with regards to lighting effects, hiding wires, moving objects around for the best effect, etc. You don’t have the same kind of control shooting the exterior of a 1,000-ft. tall building in a crowded city. How do you deal with an assignment like that?
The key to photographing the exterior of these buildings was spending lots of time scouting locations that could provide views that tell the story of the buildings and how they relate to the city and skyline. In some cases, it was necessary to cross the river and shoot from New Jersey, or even the Staten Island Ferry. In other cases, it was necessary to find vantage points from above -- rooftops or setbacks of other buildings that were nearby. In many cases, my commercial clients were very accommodating in allowing me access to their buildings to photograph the supertalls.
How long did it take you to photograph all 12 supertall skyscrapers in the book?
The project started in 2019 and was released in June of 2023. Of course, everything was pushed back at least a year due to Covid.
How did you manage to get some of the upper story closeups of those buildings?
These were photographed with a telephoto lens from the rooftops or setback vantage points of nearby buildings.
Do you have a fear of heights?
Thankfully no. I quite enjoy looking at the city from above. I had lots of fun spending time at the observation deck of the Edge – the highest outdoor skydeck, 100 stories above Manhattan.
What type of equipment do you use when doing exterior shoots like the ones in the book?
I used digital cameras with tilt/shift wide-angle lenses for the majority of the book, and occasionally telephoto lenses for detail shots.
We are so familiar with and fond of the beautiful Art Deco design stylings of the classic New York skyscrapers like the Chrysler Building or the Empire State Building. Supertall buildings obviously embody a much different aesthetic, but did you discover any, shall we say fanciful, design details in these new buildings that particularly impressed you?
Not really, the majority of the 57th Street “Billionaires' Row” buildings were just being finished when I was shooting for the book. The buildings themselves are glass and steel with relatively unadorned exteriors, and the luxury materials that were used in the lobbies and interiors were not available to us. I’m sure there are some amazing apartments in those buildings, but we were not able to photograph them for this book.
Viewing a supertall skyscraper from Central Park is a lot different than experiencing one from the sidewalk out front, which is how most people would interact with one. How well do these buildings address the human scale at street level?
It varies quite a bit. The residential buildings that we covered in the book tend to have the smallest footprints, and as a rule are fairly well integrated at street level. The commercial buildings are part of larger complexes like the World Trade Center (Plaza and Memorial), and Hudson Yards, and have a much different feel. This is one reason to buy the book as Eric has gone into detail about how each one relates to the city at street level, architecturally and practically.
Do you have a favorite supertall building?
My favorite is 53W53, the Jean Nouvel-designed residential tower next to MoMA. Beautiful modern lines with a “tip of the hat" to the art deco classics of the past. It is also nicely integrated with the neighborhood and at street level.
Did you get to go inside any of the apartments or offices in these buildings? What was that like? Do they really sway in the wind?
I was able to get up to the Edge at Hudson Yards, and the 70th floor deck at 3 World Trade Center, but most of the other buildings were just being finished at the time we completed the project. The observation deck at the Edge was a spectacular way to see NYC. I did not notice any sway there or at 3 WTC. I have spent a lot of time on the upper floors of the Empire State Building, and it does sway and creak in the wind. You get used to that rather quickly.
What’s your next project?
I’m doing an exhibition at the Morris-Jumel Mansion museum that will open on September 23. The show is entitled Past/Present, and it traces the history of the property from its origins in the 1750s to the current neighborhood of Washington Heights in upper Manhattan.
Photos by Bruce Katz