Midtown Manhattan has become a cradle for some of the world’s most progressive – and tallest – architectural marvels. One57, 432 Park, and 220 Central Park South all pierce the skyline with one very consistent theme: walls of bright, shiny, translucent glass. A bit farther east, 252 East 57th Street has made headlines for its curved glass façade – a stark contrast to the surrounding prewar brick and stone buildings of Sutton Place.
The concentration of these new glass towers, and the brisk pace at which they’ve come onto the market, echoes another architectural revolution in our history. Half a century ago and a few thousand miles away, the mid-century modern movement came to define Palm Springs, California in much the same way the glass towers are transforming modern Midtown Manhattan.
After World War II, the area became popular with Hollywood’s rich and famous, and architects used their commission checks to flex their design muscles. Mid-century modern homes, a style characterized by clean simplicity and integration with nature – were a natural fit for scenic Palm Springs. Suddenly, structures were outfitted with ample windows and open floor plans, led by the desire to bring the outdoors inside. Above all, function was the mainstay of the mid-century modern movement, to serve the changing dynamic of suburban American family life.
Fast-forward fifty years later, and many of these same elements can be found in the supertall towers that are redefining New York’s cityscape. Open floorplans seem to stretch through glass-clad walls that spill over vast panoramic views, giving the impression that there’s nothing between you and the outside world. Developers are catering to ultra-high net worth individuals from around the globe much like the architects wooed big money from Hollywood to Palm Springs years ago. The aesthetic is clean, simple, and wholly functional. Hotel-style services have become commonplace to keep up with the jet setting nature of an increasingly global consumer.
Despite its critics, mid-century modern architecture is largely considered timeless. I don’t think it’s timeless in the sense that you can drop an Eames chair in any space and claim it’s not dated. What has stood the test of time is the fundamental ethos of the mid-century model: a clean and simple lifestyle that seamlessly blends with your surrounding environment. The glass towers that hover high above Central Park South certainly reflect that. At first, people were surprised at how they changed the landscape, but with time, they became the new standard of New York living.
The big question is: what’s next? We may have already gotten a glimpse with "The Big Bend" - a curved, 4,000 foot-long skyscraper proposed for Manhattan's Billionaire's Row. Designers of the project were inspired by the invention of an elevator that moves both vertically and horizontally. It’s just an idea at this point, but if it comes to fruition, it would be the longest building in the world (longer than two stacked 432 Parks!), proving that anything’s possible in NYC.
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