NYC Skyline and Architecture

Sylvia Frastai

NYC’s Changing Skyline


We see a tremendous change in the New York City skyline when comparing what it looks like today to what it looked like in 1876. This change was sparked by the steel grid approach for the construction of multi- story buildings during the second half of the 19th century in the United States. Technological improvements enabled the construction of fireproofed iron-framed structures with deep foundations. New inventions such as the elevator and electric lighting made it both technically and commercially possible to build skyscrapers. Population growth in the developing urban area during the mid-19th century caused skyscrapers to rise in New York City. Architects were forced to build even taller buildings than the ones that stood in the 19th century because of the limited space in Manhattan. The skyline has not only changed because of the height of the buildings, but also because of the new and unique styles of architecture being used to design the skyscrapers in NYC. The different styles of architecture that were introduced over the years gave the city’s skyline a new personality.


The evolution of the skyscraper is divided into a series of periods defined by distinct architectural forms and methods of designs. Once the frame of a skyscraper was formulated, the exterior details could be borrowed from all different types of historical styles. According to Montgomery Schuyler, an influential architecture critic, the history of skyscrapers could be divided into seven distinct phases:

Phase 1-
A time before skyscrapers, dated roughly between 1849 and 1870, composed of buildings containing the essential elements of the skyscraper but not yet assembled into a single structure.

Phase 2– Took place between 1868-70. This phase contained the necessary ingredients for the early skyscraper but the compositional features of Phase 1 still exist.

Phase 3-
This phase began in 1878 when the French mansardic mode gives way to a flat-roofed formula.

Phase 4-
Starting in the late 1880s and characterized by a tripartite system of composition corresponding to the parts of a classic column with its base, shaft, and capital.

Phase 5-
Dealing with the skyscraper in tower form. In this category three variants are recognized: the “isolated” tower, conceived as early as 1888; a “mounted” tower, dating about 1911, as exemplified by the Woolworth Building; and a “set-back” tower, resulting from the rights provided by the revision of the zoning codes from 1916 onward.

Phase 6-
This phases is associated with the “setback” or “ziggurat” approach to skyscraper design. The style was fueled by the 1916 act to allow light and air to reach the streets. The “set-back” style encouraged a diversity of buildings in NYC, while remaining consistent in the very tall tower style of skyscrapers.



Phase 7-
Dating from 1930 and represented by Rockefeller Center, features a limited space development, park-like setting, and often of multi-block dimensions.

After WWII, skyscraper projects began embracing international styles of architecture, while rejecting the designs of earlier skyscrapers. Many old skyscrapers were redesigned or even demolished to fit this new taste. During the 1920’s and 1930’s, skyscrapers were designed in an Art Deco architectural approach. This style typically involved the use of rich color and ornamentation on the surfaces of the buildings to call attention to the increasingly complex three-dimensional shape of the skyscrapers, in contrast to earlier styles.


Architecture is a form of art that can truly define the city and society that surround it. Architecture is a social art rather than a personal one. In other words, it is a reflection of a society and its values, rather than a medium of individual expression. Famous architects from all over the world create diverse skylines in cities throughout the world using the incredible skyscrapers they design. While architecture does tells you about the architect who built it, it mostly tells you about the place and the society in which it was built. For example, when we look at the Chrysler Building we don’t necessarily think of William Van Alen. Rather, we think of New York during the jazz age or the roaring twenties.


Sometimes architects make their work more about themselves and not about the city they are building in. The architecture becomes all about branding and authorship rather than enhancing the city in which it is being built. For example, a famous architect named Frank Gehry builds his skyscrapers with a very unique, yet consistent style. Gehry has several extremely similar works all over the world that can be easily pointed out as his work. This leads many people to believe that his architecture has no connection to the city where it was built. Rather, Gehry chooses to make a statement about himself and his artwork instead of working his creations into the already established “personality” of a city. As shown in the photographs below, Frank Gehry had a very similar design for his skyscraper in Manhattan and for his work in Dusseldorf, Germany as well. He failed to incorporate the essence of each city into the architecture of the buildings. These two cities have almost nothing in common, yet Gehry used similar architecture because he uses architecture as a medium of personal expression, rather than a reflection of the city where his artwork stands.



Because so many famous architects do this, some argue that it strips the individuality of a city and makes all cities look the same because the artists are using their own style in every city without taking into consideration the uniqueness of each city they are building in.

The globalization of architecture allows for architecture to become similar in various cities. In the 1950’s each city had its own unique feel because only architects from that state built the architecture. Some say architects should only be permitted to build in the city where they are from because they understand that city, along with the culture of it and the people who live there. A connection is felt when the architect truly understands the city, rather than when he builds in a city that he knows nothing about. Frank Gehry built the Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A., where he lives, and part of the building’s greatness has to do with the fact that Gehry understands L.A. and the people who live there. Cities lose their particularity and character when architects that have no connection to the city build skyscrapers and change the entire look of the skyline. However, some people encourage architects to build skyscrapers around the world because it spices up the area with different and exciting buildings, instead of having a uniform style throughout the city.


The Future of NYC


This photograph depicts what the New York City skyline is expected to look like in the year 2020. Our city will continue to grow vertically with new skyscrapers like the One57, the Nordstom’s Tower, Tribeca 101, and One Vanderbilt.