Tuesday, 29 July 2014

56. Wonder: The Empire State Building

(For the Empire State Building preview, please click here.)

What's the tallest building in the world? It's certainly not the Empire State Building. The Empire State Building, as of August 2014, is the 24th tallest building in the world (although a more impressive 11th if you're counting antennae) and every year it slumps further down that list. This is a building that was built for height, and was hyped throughout its construction as the 8th Wonder of the World. So what's the big deal?

Well, it's everything else really. Surroundings, style, reputation. The Empire State Building is not an isolated tower in the wilderness, it is right at the heart of one of the world's great cities. New York is a city of skyscrapers, but the Empire State Building is not crowded out by its neighbours, it stands clear: a keystone of a legendary skyline. From its opening in 1931 to the construction of the World Trade Center twin towers in 1972, the Empire State Building was the tallest building in New York, and in the world. The 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center gave the Empire State Building the crown of New York's tallest back (the world's crown had long since been taken by various others) but although the nearly complete new World Trade Center is taller by 160 metres, it's downtown. The Empire State Building is midtown, and in midtown it is king.

It is prominently positioned, therefore, but that alone does not make it distinctive. So many modern skyscrapers are huge glass towers, of varying degrees of anonymity, but the Empire State Building is from a more charming era. It has style - Art Deco style to be precise, distinctive to its era and distinctive to New York. And how many modern skyscrapers, however tall, can you say that about? Shanghai's super-tall skyscrapers, Dubai's Burj Khalifa, London's Shard, the new World Trade Center... you could shuffle them all around without any real clash of style. But just as the pyramids are particular to pharaonic Egypt, the Forbidden City is to the later dynasties of China, or the cascade of giant domes and half-domes of Mehmet Sinan's mosques are to the Ottoman empire, the Empire State Building is particular to early 20th Century New York, or, I'll grant you, North America. It is a symbol, and represents well its time and place; in this case, the bold ambition and brash assertion of 1920s and 30s USA.

From its very first press conference, the hype machine was rolling. The biggest building in the world, the 8th Wonder of the World, it was a big event even before construction had begun. Much of this was due to the energy of a man called Alfred E. Smith. He was the former New York state governor, and was widely popular with both the common man and the elite of New York. The frontman and president of Empire State Incorporated, he enjoyed generating publicity. And he was good at it. It was an age of prosperity, hype, and grand statements and on the 29th August 1929, the first public announcement of the Empire State Building was made - the biggest building of all time! Immediately it was a huge news story. But two months later, and before construction had even begun, the stock markets crashed: the Great Depression of the 1930s had begun.

Making Smith's job even more crucial. Without him, would there have been an Empire State Building? In 1928, before being made president of Empire State Incorporated, Smith had run with the Democrats for presidency, losing to the Republican Herbert Hoover, who won due in large part to the Republicans being associated with the economic prosperity. Timing is everything. With the Great Depression hitting soon after, Hoover's term took place in difficult circumstances, and he lost the 1932 election to Franklin D. Roosevelt - but he still managed to get a dam named after him. Which makes you wonder that if Smith had instead won the election, we'd now have a Smith Dam rather than a Hoover Dam nestled near Las Vegas, and perhaps no Empire State Building.

Likely, the Empire State Building would have occurred regardless of Alfred E. Smith, but with much less fanfare. Successful publicity shouldn't be underestimated though. After construction was complete, the Empire State Building had a rough run. Functionally, it is essentially a large office block, but initially only a quarter of it was leased out, giving it the nickname of the "Empty State Building". By 1936, it was fighting off bankruptcy, and only negotiations with the mortgage lender kept the owners afloat. A huge office building without tenants, this is the stuff of a white elephant. For investors, it seemed like a folly - but not to the public. Due to Smith's earlier hype, it remained popular with the general public, and it was tourism which kept it going. Even during the Depression, the observation deck was always busy, with over a million people a year paying a dollar to visit. This may have saved it. Only in 1981 was the Empire State Building declared a New York City Landmark, meaning that it cannot be torn down or changed in any way; prior to that, any owner that chose to could have dismantled it. This was exactly the fate of the gorgeous Singer Building, the tallest building in the world from 1908 to 1909, and torn down in 1968 because the new owner wanted to build something more efficient in its place. Good job, I guess...

The Empire State Building changed ownership in 1951 and 1961, and fortunately by then it was almost fully rented. More importantly, it had prestige, helped in no small way by having an angry King Kong (also hyped as an 8th Wonder of the World) swinging from it in 1933, so that any thought of tearing it down would have been insanity, but it might not have been this way. A less successful publicist might have left a failing Empire State Building seeming like an expensive folly, rather like London's widely reviled Millennium Dome, and its fate much less secure. For the Empire State Building and New York, Smith losing the presidential election was the best thing that could have happened.

Hype is a theme that has continued throughout the building's history. In 1931, the Washington Star writer, Israel Klein, included the Empire State Building in his seven (very American) Wonders of the World. In 1955, the American Society of Civil Engineering chose it as one of the greatest engineering achievements in American history. In just one of an endless stream of comparisons, a 1958 issue of holiday magazine boasted that if the Eiffel Tower was put on top of the Great Pyramid, the Empire State Building would still be taller by 38 feet. But of course, these kind of comparisons can now be used against it, and if you put the Eiffel Tower on top of the Great Pyramid and then put the Empire State Building on top, this remarkable and teetering combination would still be shorter than the Burj Khalifa by 7 metres. Nonetheless, the Empire State Building may now be just the 24th tallest building in the world, but hype is still part of the Empire State Building's story, and Alfred E. Smith was the man who kickstarted all this.

Smith was the official boss and the figurehead of the project, but a man called John J. Raskob was the businessman, getting investors, doing deals, and quietly buying the land (then holding the Waldorf-Astoria hotel) the new skyscraper would later stand on. After announcing their intentions to the public, to great fanfare, in September 1929 the management set a completion date of May 1st 1931 - just one year, nine months to design and build the entire Empire State Building. Before the Waldorf-Astoria was even demolished, this remit was given to the architectural firm Shreve, Lamb & Harmon. Raskob and Smith wanted the tallest building in the world in the middle of New York, on budget, and in just 18 months time. And it had to be beautiful. This was bold, ambitious, and probably somewhat unrealistic - yet it was ready a month early, in April 1931.

The Empire State Building was the only notable building Shreve, Lamb & Harmon ever did, everything else was merely functional. No doubt, they pulled off a minor miracle. Richmond Shreve and William Lamb were the two partners most involved, and they made a good team. Shreve was the organisational force, and the entire operation was extremely professional, always with a clear focus on the goal of getting the job done well and on time. No muddling along, everything was planned in advance, to the point that precise plans, materials and their quantities were known even before the Astoria-Waldorf was demolished. The only other factor he had to judge was the competition. Walter Chrysler, the founder of the Chrysler car company, was building his Chrysler Building, and he wanted his to be the tallest in the world. His main disadvantage was that he had started earlier, so when he heard Raskob's plans to make the Empire State Building 1000 feet high, he gave the Chrysler a steel spire, bringing it to 1048 feet. It worked. The Chrysler Building was the tallest in the world - for 11 months. With time on their side, the Empire State Building were able to tweak the design, first to 1050 feet, and later by adding a tower to bring it to 1250 feet.

William F. Lamb was in charge of design. He was restricted by Raskob's demands, and by New York's zoning laws which meant that the building couldn't rise sheer from the pavement, it had to be set back as it rose, but when we admire the Empire State Building today, he's the man to thank. Designed it from the top floor first, working down, he created the distinctive profile, and happily was working in the age of Art Deco and its stylish geometry that makes so many pre-World War 2 American skyscrapers so handsome. It's not just the overall shape of the building, it's the smaller, often-overlooked details. The shimmering facade is due to the chrome-nickel-steel alloy, which never goes dull, that runs up in vertical lines. Between each window - and there are 6500 of them - a flat plate of silver aluminium was placed over the granite or limestone surface. This combines to create a vertical effect, making the building seem taller.

For Lamb's troubles, he was awarded the Architectural League's Medal of Honour for Architecture upon completion in 1931, but he wouldn't have made a song or dance about it. Among the entire cast and crew behind the Empire State Building, Lamb appears to be the only modest one. As everybody and the rest of the city was shouting about their tallest building in the world, Lamb kept quiet. The day before the opening ceremony, he quietly disappeared, sailing off to Europe, for "work". His wife later revealed he didn't want to be in the spotlight.

In recent years, the Empire State Building has been done up, at the no small cost of $550 million. This gave it a much-needed polish and patch-up, making it more attractive to new tenants, as well as restoring many of the Art Deco details lost during a 1960s restoration. About a fifth of the money was used to make the building greener, saving 38% of its energy, and up to $4.4 million a year.. I've visited a couple of times before this trip, in 2000 and 2003, and recall being impressed, but this time it was more gleaming and gorgeous than ever. The lobby is spotless, gleaming marble walls and gold-and-aluminium-leaf Art Deco murals, and this atmospheric gleam is repeated throughout the various other spaces and corridors.

And a good thing too, because with the crowds we had plenty of time to hang around and appreciate it. Perhaps my earlier memories are rose-tinted, but I don't remember hanging around for over an hour, in a fairly fast-moving but perpetual queue of people. I suspect we got off lucky, as the queues weren't out the door, as I believe they can be, but were contained within the upstairs pre-security check lobby. Even so, it seemed a queue without end, with the turning of every corner revealing another winding series of tourist heads. Of course, the limitations are the lifts. They take less than a minute to whisk people up to the 80th floor, at speeds of around 1000 feet per second (which is the same as 11 miles per hour, but sounds more impressive), but even being able to cope with up to a thousand people an hour leaves a long backlog during busy spells. Once on the gorgeously-decorated 80th floor, the queues still don't abate. We fell into another long queue for the lift, for a mere six floors, to the observation deck. Recognising that this is a little stupid, and somewhat frustrating, staff directed a group of us to an unmarked stairway. This seems like a service stairway - the decor looks decidedly 1960s and for the first time the Empire State Building loses its lustre. But once there, at the observation deck, the views of Manhattan are as spectacular as you would imagine.

It's all open air too, although high railings keep everybody safely in. Over 30 people have committed suicide from the Empire State Building, and the railings were put up in 1947 during a three-week spell that saw five people make the attempt. That seems to have nipped things in the bud, and although incidents still occur, they are rare. The Empire State Building is not regarded as a fashionable spot to die. Compare it to the Golden Gate Bridge, built in the same era, which has at least 30 people dying each year, and has a total tally of something like 1600.

Not every attempt succeeds, and the slight recess of the 86th floor has, a couple of times, seen the jumper land just one floor below. This is also where your phone ends up, if you try to take a photo over the edge and drop it. Better than hitting some poor pedestrian.

There's no doubt, the views from the Empire State Building are pretty incredible. Arguably though, they're not the best. The Empire State Building is a very handsome building and a key part of the New York skyline - but of course, it's the one building you don't see when standing on it. A better view, to my eyes, is from the Rockefeller Center, still midtown but closer to Central Park. The queues are far less and there is more space at the top. And of course, you can see the Empire State Building.

The 86th floor is as high as I went in 2000 and 2003, because the topmost observation deck, a small, enclosed level on the 102nd floor, was closed between 1999 and 2005. This time I went up - and for free. It's supposed to cost an extra $17, but taking advantage of the organisational chaos that existed on the 86th floor that day (the staff seemed more anxious about getting people to go down), Danielle and I found ourselves in the small lift to this small top level without anyone checking our tickets. To our surprise, the 102nd floor was quiet. Enclosed in glass, it offers the same kind of views as the 86th floor, as you'd imagine, just a little higher. It's fun to visit for free, but there's absolutely no way it's worth an extra $17.

This small observation deck has a curious history. It was designed to be a pre- and post-docking deck for passengers on dirigibles, i.e. Zeppelin-style airships. As well as being for offices, Smith also envisioned, with some characteristic excitement, the Empire State Building being used as a dirigible mooring station. Airships would fly into Manhattan and dock on the mooring mast, and the passengers disembark at the most high profile location in town. There were certain ludicrous impracticalities however, mostly that the wind at that height made docking an airship extremely difficult especially with the updrafts, and having many tons of airship hanging in the air above Manhattan didn't seem like a good idea.

The first picture is a fake, but gives the idea, but the second one is real. Two test dockings were attempted, and one managed a three-minute connection (the other got as far as transferring a bundle of newspapers). Not exactly the kind of thing that inspires confidence in future passengers, so the idea was quietly shelved. Still, the extra 200 feet of height conveniently made the Empire State Building considerably taller than the Chrysler.

As mentioned earlier, the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, in which two planes flew into the two towers, made the Empire State Building again the tallest building in New York until recently. But the Empire State Building itself has also been the site of a plane crash, albeit on a less cataclysmic scale. On Saturday, 29th July, 1945 a B-25 bomber was flying low due to heavy fog. It crashed into the 78th, 79th and 80th floors, killing 14 people, 11 of them in the building. Until the World Trade Center attacks, it was the world's highest fire, although the bomber was 10 tons rather than the 100-plus tons of the World Trade Center's passenger planes, hence the much lesser damage.

Visiting the Empire State Building is kind of a must-see for anyone visiting New York, but to be honest I think Danielle and I would skip the observation deck in future. New York has a lot of tall buildings, and they all - the Rockefeller Center especially - offer great views. The Empire State Building's views are certainly great, but why queue for hours to see them when similar views require virtually no queuing at all? It's more fun to simply choose a spot on the ground and enjoy the view of the Empire State Building towering overhead. We particularly enjoyed the views from Madison Square Park, several blocks downtown, and from the VU Rooftop Bar from the nearby LaQuinta Manhattan Hotel.

How much does the Empire State Building depend on its height and its hype? Would it be so impressive if it had finished shorter than the Chrysler Building, and had never held the world's tallest title? The question is perhaps unfair, it is what it is after all, we may as well ask if the Taj Mahal would be so great if it was a little less beautiful. Except, in my view, nothing else as beautiful as the Taj Mahal has ever been built, whereas the Empire State Building now has 23 superiors in terms of height. Something of its mystique has therefore gone. In the giddy heights of 1932, with the skyscraper a fresh addition in the sky, it would have been easily possible to proclaim it as a new World Wonder. Many did. These days, for height, we can look at the Burj Khalifa and say "wow". The child who looks up with wonder at the Empire State Building can be told, "Ah, there's one twice as big in Dubai." The Empire State Building no longer defines the world of skyscrapers. It has drifted into the category of legends, like watching John McEnroe play tennis at a Senior event.

We have to peg the Empire State Building down a superlative, from biggest to simply very big, and appreciate its other qualities, which fortunately it has many. Personality is one of them, and like the city it belongs to, it has plenty. The Wall Street Journal's architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable writes: "An iconic image is about much more than the brutal breaking of scale. Architecture transforms and fixes a city's identity." This is the Empire State Building's strength: it defines New York. And how many of the 23 taller buildings out there - 23 Marine in Dubai, anyone? CITIC Plaza in Guangzhou? - can make such a strong claim?

Some criteria.

Size: Essentially 381 metres tall, although 443 metres with all these silly antennae, and for 39 years the tallest building in the world.
Engineering: Rather incredibly, conceived and built in just a little over 18 months, and still holding the record for fastest-ever built major skyscraper. It's a marvellous piece of technical prowess.
Artistry: From a distance, towering and muscular, from close up with gorgeous Art Deco details. Inside is likewise exquisite.
Age/Durability: 1931, which is pretty old for a skyscraper.
Fame/Iconicity: "The tallest building in the world". Films and TV have held spread the fame of the Empire State Building, but being tallest in the world for 39 years made the hype easy. Since being knocked of its throne, it has become a legendary skyscraper.
Context: It's a key part of a classic skyline, and remains uncrowded by its neighbours.
Back Story: The classic New York story of ambition and hype, with a little bit of Depression sprinkled in.
Originality/Distinctiveness: Sure, it wasn't the first skyscraper and it wasn't the first Art Deco skyscraper either, but its predecessors are influences rather than templates. With the modern age of glass skyscrapers, it stands out even more.
Wow Factor: If it was the first ever supertall skyscraper you saw, you'd definitely be gobsmacked. These days, it's still very impressive, still very handsome, but if you've seen taller skyscrapers, the impact of the Empire State Building might not be quite as powerful.

While its citymate, the Statue of Liberty, might shade it for sheer unadulterated recognition factor, there is no question that the Empire State Building remains one of the world's most famous structures. It belongs to a golden era of skyscrapers, an era that it epitomises, of boldness, ambition, and honest-to-God good-looking pieces of architecture. I see the Empire State Building straddling two different worlds, of old and new. One foot is in a more historic era, with attractive stonework and attention to detail that typifies the great buildings of old. The other foot is in the modern era, with increasing use of modern techniques and materials, making it part of a new world of skyscraper cities. There's no question that the Empire State Building is an impressive building, that will remain impressive till the end of its days, whenever that should be. Its place in legend is secured. But that doesn't make it a Wonder. A World Wonder needs to be more than a legend - the Forbidden City is steeped in legend, but didn't particularly impress me. Compared to the very top of my list, the Empire State Building lacks the extremes of beauty, mystery, visceral impact, or otherworldiness that defines the best. These are tall orders though, the Top 7 are very special. I think the Empire State Building is just a shade below what I'd term a Wonder, and therefore just a shade below the transfixingly improbable but beautiful Leaning Tower of Pisa (give the Empire State Building a 5 degree lean and I'll reconsider) but certainly above St Peter's of Rome.


  1. "Wow Factor: If it was the first ever supertall skyscraper you saw, you'd definitely be gobsmacked. These days, it's still very impressive, still very handsome, but if you've seen taller skyscrapers, the impact of the Empire State Building might not be quite as powerful."

    I tend to view "classic" (i.e; pre WWII) skyscrapers in a different category as more recent ones. There is still something of old world architecture about them, in the attention to detail and ornamentation (the Tribune building in Chicago is one that seems to be particularly appealing in this respect). I'd almost go as far to say that classic scrapers should only be compared with each other, and modern ones ditto.

    1. Yes, I agree with you. You see a building like the Tribune (which I happened to see a matter of days ago) and it more resembles a cathedral than a glass tower. It does seem a bit pointless comparing classic and modern skyscrapers, when there is such a gulf in style. My criticism of the Empire State Building on these grounds may be somewhat unfair therefore, although there's no doubt it loses something of its mystique by no longer being the "tallest building in the world".


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