Crowding in Midtown: The Empire State Building as Enduring Icon

Look at the Manhattan skyline from Brooklyn or New Jersey and you don't need to be an architectural expert to pick out the Empire State Building. But what if it were surrounded by other skyscrapers, like other more densely populated parts of the city skyline. Would it still be an icon? Yesterday, that question became a little less hypothetical; The City Council approved plans for a nearby skyscraper that's nearly as high as the Empire State Building.

Neal Bascomb, author of Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City, answered questions about what this could mean for the New York skyline.

When we say something is iconic, it's because it's unique and it's powerful. How much of the Empire State Building's power and uniqueness comes from dominating a relatively empty slice of the skyline?
I certainly think it plays a role. You can't come in from New Jersey or, as you said, look from Brooklyn, and not be amazed by what they call the lone sentinel in the sky -- the Empire State Building on 34th Street. But it's by no means the only contributing factor. One, it was the tallest building in the world for a long time, so that alone made it iconic. Secondly, it was architecturally widely praised, unlike its competitor at the time, the Chrysler Building. I think, third, it just became part of culture. It was part of movies, like "King Kong," and all the rest. They did a brilliant job of marketing the building.

When it was built, did the Empire State Building's developers and backers think it would dominate the New York City skyline indefinitely, or did they picture skyscrapers growing around it? Back in those days, big developers and captains of industry seemed to be announcing a new skyscraper every week, right?

Yes. They were going up, as they said, "like weeds." I think they wanted to be the tallest. They probably would have preferred to be the tallest forever, but I think that would have been naive. I mean, buildings were going up very fast, skyscrapers much taller than the Empire State Building being announced almost on a weekly basis. But, they wanted to be the tallest because it would give the building a name, and that's what they thought to do. Now whether or not its position on 34th Street -- whether they wanted that to be alone, no, I don't think they did. They wanted the Empire State Building to be the beginning of building that area around 34th Street and Fifth Avenue as an office district.

In light of that, what did you make of the argument from the current owners? They lobbied the City Council to turn down this new skyscraper nearby, saying that it would tarnish the city skyline.

Yes, and that's not terribly surprising. They do want to protect their position, they want to protect the view, they want to protect the light that the Empire State Building gets. But, I think that is wishful thinking. Back in the 1920s, I heard or read of the same arguments about not building here or not building there. It was not successful in the 1920s, and I don't think it will be successful in 2010.

Why did skyscrapers come to cluster in other parts of Manhattan, but not there on 34th Street?

Well, believe it or not, there are zoning regulations in New York, and at the time that area around 34th Street and Fifth Avenue -- there was a tug of war over the high-end department stores and where the garment district should be, and the zoning laws did allow buildings of such magnitude to go up. The buildings promoters changed those laws so they could build the Empire State Building. But, before 1928, that simply wasn't possible.

And indeed with this new building, 15 Penn Plaza, they got the City Council to change the zoning regulations once again to allow them to build such a big building. Do you think the Empire State Building will stand the test of time? Will it still be a destination if the area around it fills with other skyscrapers?

I think absolutely. I mean, look at the Chrysler Building -- [it] is surrounded by taller and tall buildings. And you could argue, with the Empire State Building, they battle each other still for iconic status.