Eight months into the pandemic, New York keeps right on building. Midtown seems populated entirely by construction workers finishing crash pads for plutocrats who may never show up. The 700-foot Union Carbide Building on Park Avenue is shrinking day by day so its successor, a super-tall JPMorgan headquarters designed by Norman Foster, can rise in its place. The pandemic stilled the frenzy for a while, but we’re now back to 190 million square feet of floor space under construction in the five boroughs. Planned and designed years ago, many of these projects keep going because they have the permits and the capital, and because their builders have no choice but to assume the world will be healed by the time they’re open for business. Two office buildings are spectacularly ill-timed: The 1,401-foot-high One Vanderbilt, next door to Grand Central Terminal, is still getting its makeup on, and the more horizontal Dock 72 has been keeping a lonely vigil at the Brooklyn Navy Yard since just before COVID hit. These two nearly vacant buildings, totems of the city’s economic hopes, embody the combination of confidence and wishful thinking that is helping New Yorkers get through each week. Please wish them well.
After 9/11, skeptics wondered whether tall office buildings had become too vulnerable to be viable. The answer came quickly: Skyscrapers would do just fine, thank you very much. The urge to compete, expand, and consolidate drove the construction of tens of millions of square feet of offices, rekindled the business district of lower Manhattan, and pushed midtown westward, toward Hudson Yards. Spurred by the desire to replace shabby, low-ceilinged offices in the area around Grand Central with a new crop of corporate headquarters, the city rezoned Midtown East, effectively demoting the Chrysler Building to the status of future runt.
Now, we face a double whammy of doubt: the first a matter of safety, the second of preference. At the moment, buildings sit empty because of their ability to collect and distribute a deadly virus. But that’s not even the most ominous threat. Far more worrisome is the prospect of companies happy to off-load their rent, utilities, maintenance, and janitorial costs onto their employees and a workforce that would rather stay home. Offices aren’t likely to fade away completely or all at once, though even a permanent 10 to 15 percent falloff in demand would shudder through New York’s economy. The (less probable) catastrophist’s version of that future is a massive shift away from collective workplaces that would leave Manhattan with a skyline of shells, an agglomeration of surplus space left behind by a fast-moving economy. Similar abandonments have happened before. New England’s 19th-century mills have been stilled and largely derelict for decades. The Rust Belt is still rusting. Port cities all over the world are lined with rotting wharves. Germany’s industrial heartland in the Ruhr valley metamorphosed into an immense quasi-archaeological park. Lower Manhattan once looked similar, until its loft factories were repurposed into living spaces. Economies are unsentimental, and no natural law prevents an immense forest of high-rises from declining into a wilderness area. Such an apocalyptic event would sweep away all the smaller-scale fretting about abandoned movie theaters, shuttered restaurants, and bankrupted stores. It would create a glut of emptiness that would challenge the entire city’s rationale for existence.
The effects would be uneven, and so would the adaptations. Fresh office space tends to make older versions feel creakier still, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a market for them. Just as many of Wall Street’s Art Deco palaces of finance have been converted into apartments, Park Avenue’s corporate display cases could be, too. “Those big mid-century-modern buildings would be great places for living and working,” says the architect Jonathan Marvel. He envisions turning executive suites into balconies. “You could knock out a lot of windows and create outdoor spaces within those huge floorplates.” Office buildings’ vast distances from elevator to edge make them tricky to adapt, but “the world of lighting has been so transformed,” Marvel says, “that we can bring near daylight at very little cost even into very deep buildings.”
For now, bright new office space is still leaping into a gloomy market, 1.7 million square feet at One Vanderbilt, another 675,000 at Dock 72, all that acreage temporarily inhabited by a population that would fit in a school bus. The first megalith to benefit from the process of Midtown East rezoning, One Vanderbilt was designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox, which plants reflective towers in megalopolises around the world and is keen to preempt criticism that its designs would be equally at home in Taipei or Baku as in Manhattan. The firm recently gave New York the tallest skyscraper at Hudson Yards as well as its shorter sidekick. One Vanderbilt is more graceful than either, spiraling, vortexlike, up to its needle. Yet, especially at the top, it shares with those other buildings a chunky aesthetic, with variously sized blocks squeezing together like a gang of sailors lashed to a mast.
As gargantuan money smelters go, this one aspires to be a good neighbor. The lobby opens toward Grand Central, and a corner hall acts as a public conduit from subway to street, siphoning foot traffic away from congested concourses underground. Conscious of dropping the new kid in an old neighborhood, the architects have paid their respects to the past. Early-20th-century buildings step away from the street as they go up; One Vanderbilt deconstructs the setbacks into vertical facets. Few architects working today are willing to emulate the giddy stainless-steel fantasy, terra-cotta reliefs, and sinewed statuary of a century ago. The modernist prejudice against expressive ornaments persists; now they’re also considered pointlessly expensive. Even so, the architects have smuggled in whatever surface interest the cost-paring crew would allow. A canopy shoots from the lobby through the glass wall and out over the sidewalk, pulling even with Grand Central’s carved cornice. The scalloped terra-cotta shingles on the underside of the canopy pay homage to the tiled vaults inside the station. More glazed terra-cotta panels on the façade — shimmering, angled, and arranged in horizontal stripes — suggest a tower about to launch into motion.
I wish the architects had pushed these gestures further and owned the arrogance of overtopping Manhattan’s high-rise icons. If you’re going to usurp the Empire State Building’s crown, you might as well do it with flair. Twirl, flaunt, show off. Instead, One Vanderbilt is simultaneously bold and meek. Powerful in structure, held in place by a latticework of immense steel threads, the polite giant is careful not to muss up the skyline too much. The point of the building, after all, is to woo prospective tenants, and the way to do that is with lordly views, generous daylight, floors so spacious and unimpeded that they could accommodate a sporting event, and an indoor climate caressed by a constant, undetectable artificial breeze. These things, plus the subbasement presence of five subway lines, Metro-North, and, eventually, the Long Island Rail Road, all help. The tower was already 65 percent leased before the pandemic struck, and three more tenants have signed leases in the past few months. It seems entirely plausible that, a few months from now, battalions of freshly vaccinated workers will blow a year’s worth of dust off their shoes, squeeze back into hard pants, and start occupying these fallow indoor acres. And, because COVID has probably ended the era of packing employees elbow-to-elbow at long worktables, they might even enjoy a little extra breathing room.
When that happens, smaller, more nimble companies may be appreciating the virtues of being out of the midtown maelstrom and closer to employees willing to commute by bike, foot, shuttle, or ferry. Originally conceived as the WeWork flagship co-working space, Dock 72 dominates the much lower skyline of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. (WeWork controls only about one-third of the square footage; I toured the building with the developer, Bill Rudin, who is trying to woo corporate tenants to the rest.) Long, narrow, and only 17 stories tall, it noses into Wallabout Bay as if en route to the open sea. Erected above a disused dry-dock system and lifted up on V-shaped columns, the building appears ready to float above the coming decades’ glacier melt. In a precarious world, maybe it helps to be built on rubble.
“The dry dock is made of fill: slag, bricks, and timber and coal fragments,” says Sital Patel, one of the co-founders of the architecture firm S9. “When we started driving piles, they were pulling up cannons.” Directing the weight down angled columns and gathering them into points helped structural engineers contend with the challenge of building on fill. It also created a ground-level public space sheltered by the building’s mass. Virtually every workstation offers views onto the gritty bustle of the Navy Yard, including the active dry dock next door where vessels are repaired and painted, just as they have been here for a couple of centuries. From the generous terraces and the airy gym, the lower-Manhattan skyline puts on a perpetual show. Dock 72 is at home in a former shipbuilder’s habitat; it’s a brawny, undemonstrative structure, framed in battleship-gray cement and trimmed in rusty-red panels that emulate the look of weathered steel. On the mild day when I visited, as a scattering of WeWork employees kept to their distanced orbits, it seemed like a luxuriantly pleasant place to get a day’s tasks done, though the wind battering at the glass walls in midwinter might make it feel more exposed.
The building was born between disasters. It opened late last year, just as WeWork was imploding. Now, trimmed down and chastened, the company has a new, pandemic-honed pitch, geared to tenants that want to relinquish a Manhattan headquarters in favor of scattered offices and conference rooms. “There’s some argument for that, but I’m a little skeptical,” says Reeves Wiedeman, a writer at this magazine and the author of Billion Dollar Loser: The Epic Rise and Spectacular Fall of Adam Neumann and WeWork. “Their whole business model was predicated on squeezing in as many people as possible. Does it work if they’re spacing people out? My guess is not.”
Truth is, nobody knows how this will all play out. I’ve spent virtually my whole career working from home and thought of it as a form of freedom. Yet I find it hard to believe that millions of what we once called office workers will embrace a lifestyle of kitchen command centers and laundry breaks or focus their daytime need for companionship on a household pet. To look around a new office building these days is to watch the business world and its commercial-real-estate arm conduct a real-time experiment in social psychology, and the outcome will affect us all.