By Barry Benepe
I have often referred to the sky in earlier articles. This is because we could not define architecture, the City, or even our Earth without it. Heaven, which has such a long historical presence in our legends and beliefs, is a place “up there,” deep in the blue. Humankind has devoted billions in both lives and currency to get deep into it, both physically, by satellite, and through abstract measurement and definition. Architecture (and painting) is a more down-to-earth way of acknowledging its presence.
The Sky Reveals Art and Architecture
Driving along a small road in Aix-en-Provence, I suddenly saw, through a break in the pines, a view over a broad valley. There, in the far distance, was a familiar presence, familiar because I had seen it revealed by Paul Cezanne—Montagne Sainte Victoire! The view drew me to render it in watercolor, which is the perfect medium for its pale hues. Painting it, I could feel the seductive power of what he saw, especially the way the very pale pink of the mountain edged uncertainly into the very pale blue effervescence of the sky. The mountain greeted the sky, shaking hands.
Similarly, as I exited the subway one day at Broadway and 94th Street, I saw a new tall building over a half-mile to the north, high above the surrounding rooflines. Like Montagne Sainte Victoire, the edges of this building and its three overlapping facades appear to fade into the surrounding sky. This occurs in full sunlight where the reflective colored panels disperse the light. On a gray day, the building will stand starkly dark like a lone tooth in a toothless gum of surrounding low buildings.
The Supertall Wands
In the discussion about the long shadows thrown by the supertalls on West 57th Street into Central Park, the element of thickness and time have been ignored. During the middle of a winter day, a 100-story tower will throw a wand-like shadow across the park, which rotates like the hour hand of a clock, moving one degree of a circle each minute. Similarly, the tip of the tower will move about 100 feet per minute, leaving the great bulk of the park in the sun. Of course, the closer we get to the base of the shadow, the longer we will remain in it. The predominant 20-story buildings along 59th Street, along the southern edge of the park, keep that section in shadow for the entire year except for midsummer at midday. It is not clear why supertalls are anathema; I call this the “San Gimignano Effect,” named after the Medieval Tuscan hilltop town where various families tried to outdo each other by building taller towers; it is probably the largest compact collection of towers in Italy. Here in NYC, the Planning Commission, lacking a clear vision, has not been willing, or able, to deal with the tower phenomenon. In cases where a tower is created by acquiring “air rights” from adjacent properties, it can produce the corollary benefit of protecting a lower street wall with architectural or historical character, as was the case with the 35XV condominium complex (See my letter in the November 2015 issue of WestView).
Of course, the path of the tower shadow is not semi-circular like a clock. As the Earth turns toward and away from the sun each day and season, the accumulated shadows will develop a shape more like the forward edge of a butterfly than a fan. I confirmed this with a year-long experiment utilizing a rod embedded in a smooth board with a regular tracing of the rod’s shadow. A very real challenge is the number and density of towers south of the park. This can be controlled by a “shrink-wrap” floor area zoning envelope which limits floor area and ancillary “air rights” to the existing built environment. Here in the West Village and Chelsea, we will begin to see towers three to four times the prevailing heights of buildings along the Hudson River Park as the Trust sells off its money bag of “air rights” generously given to it by the State legislature in 2013. We have to be aware and fight to protect our views of the sky.