Would you be happy living in the shadow of a skyscraper?
That is the question being asked by many local residents on both sides of the Atlantic at present: As a row of glittering new towers begins to rise along the southern exposure of Central Park in Manhattan, a debate is raging over similar plans proposed for a crucial slice of real estate in east London.
The dispute in New York City revolves around the changing conditions of Central Park’s southernmost portion as a flurry of new condominiums begin to cast long shadows over one of the world’s most celebrated public spaces, fingers of a claw that drags its way across the lower extremities of Olmsted's magnum opus on a daily basis. A report by the Municipal Art Society of New York was released back in 2013, identifying a list of offending buildings: they include Christian de Portzamparc’s One57, 111 West 57th Street by SHoP Architects, the Nordstrom Tower by Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, and Rafael Viñoly’s super-skinny 432 Park Avenue.
Visualization showing new developments in red. Via Arch Paper
The argument is a simple one: Beyond preserving physical space for public use within urban centers, campaigners are fighting for more assurances pertaining to the quality of that space. What good is a park if it is shrouded in shadow and too cool to enjoy — the large-scale equivalent of trying to sun bathe at the bottom of a well?
It renders the space substantially less functional and therefore less valuable, both economically and socially, than it should be — a fact of particular concern in Manhattan, where real estate values are amongst some of the most eye-watering on the planet. Diagrams showing the impact of these new high-rises form a classic metaphor: the sky-high abodes of the 1% casting shadows over the backyard of the 99%.
Sun study showing shadows cast at 1:30pm, future (left) and current (right). Via Arch Paper
On the other hand, there are those that believe this complaint is built upon gross exaggeration, contrived by groups known for their noisy NIMBYism. As one commenter on The Guardian’s recent article put it: “This is a concern for a very small, loud minority.” It is pointed out that this issue is only relevant during the winter months, when the sun is low in the sky, and that — given the immense size of the park — only a tiny portion of the space is genuinely affected.
The fight over light in Manhattan will always be a contentious issue, and one suspects that in the end, residents who dwell here must accept that it comes with the territory: New skyscrapers are as much a part of this city’s DNA as Central Park is, and the only question is whether zoning laws are sufficient to allow the two to live side by side in relative harmony. Current regulations place no restriction on height, only floor area ratio (FAR, in the jargon), and developers are capitalizing on this loophole as the demand for luxury residential apartments remains strong.
Meanwhile, the quarrel across The Pond in London is just as vociferous. There has been a long-standing conflict over Bishopsgate Goods Yard, a key site just north of the City’s current cluster of towers — home to Foster’s Gherkin and RSHP’s Cheesegrater, amongst newcomers and as-yet-unknown others — with campaigners lamenting the prospect of shadows being cast across a complex tapestry of historic neighborhoods.
Via Skyscraper City. Originally in Building Design Magazine
Aerial view with proposed buildings highlighted in red. Via John Pierce
The majority of the site has remained vacant since 2004, and is surrounded by 18th- and 19th-century residential properties including the Boundary estate, a treasured example of social housing in the UK. That seven new skyscrapers full of high-end flats might tower over this affordable estate carries added pertinence: As in New York, many commentators regard the current trend of luxury apartment buildings as a physical manifestation of the growing chasm between rich and poor within urban centers.
According to the East End Preservation Society, project consultants have admitted that 43% of surrounding buildings in Shoreditch will suffer a major loss of sunlight should the development go ahead. As the quality of light and air decreases in low-level properties, the newly completed apartments will benefit from expansive views and floor-to-ceiling windows on all sides. Just as with Viñoly’s 432 Park Avenue in Manhattan — where penthouse suites take up an entire floor plate — affluent buyers in London can expect all the sunlight they could ever wish for, and more.
Simulation produced by Slack Alice Films. North is oriented 'down' in the video.
Extrapolating from the trend of contrasting conditions at ground level with those at the summit of these new developments, one cannot help but be reminded of the dystopian urban environment witnessed in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. There is a danger of a physical socioeconomic divide emerging, of the kind we only thought possible in works of science fiction. Whilst we do not need sunlight to survive as we require water and air, there is a sense amongst these protestors that light is nevertheless sacrosanct — it is intrinsically linked to our health and well-being; everyone has a right to it, no matter what their income might be.
While high-rise developments within urban centers are inevitable and by no means detrimental in all cases, they invariably raise serious questions about the effect of these towers on the surrounding city — and the precedent that is set with each completed project.
Would I be happy living in the shadow of a skyscraper? Not if I could help it…
The Angry Architect