Every apartment at 432 Park Ave. in New York City has a phenomenal view, but there’s one direction none of its residents can look: straight down. The 1,396-foot-high, 85-story supertower was designed that way, according to its architect, Rafael Viñoly, because anyone capable of looking directly groundward would be terrified. Viñoly didn’t have any outsize concern for those with a particular fear of heights. He simply knew that his ultraluxury apartment building, the unofficial team captain of Midtown Manhattan’s Billionaires’ Row, was going to sway like crazy in the wind. “If you saw the facade, you’d have not one, but two heart attacks, because the thing does move,” Viñoly said during a lecture while the skyscraper was under construction. “Don’t tell the tenants.”
The tenants found out for themselves. At 432 Park, chandeliers often sway with the building, and creaking sounds can be heard on gusty nights. Elevators have been shut down in high wind because their cables were shaking too much to be safe. Right before Labor Day, the entire building had to clear out for about two days during extensive repairs to the building’s electrical systems. It’s hardly what residents thought they’d be getting for their $20 million-plus investments. (That sound at the edge of your hearing is the world’s smallest Stradivarius.)
Neither New Yorkers nor visitors need to worry that 432 Park or its fellow concrete-and-steel metaphors might actually fall down. The companies that designed and engineered the buildings, all of which qualify as “supertall” towers of at least 300 meters (984 feet), are global leaders in this niche. They had to hew to city, state, and international standards that ensure the world’s elite skyscrapers stay right-side up. As long as they can meet those safety requirements, developers have broad discretion over how much their buildings can move. Swaying is considered a matter of personal motion sensitivity; comfort, subjective.
More important for the rest of us, each generation of supertalls is a proving ground for the next, says Kate Ascher, the author of The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper and a professor of urban development at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. “These buildings, just given their size, you can’t test in a lab,” Ascher says. “You put it in the field, and it operates differently.”
Although that’s far from soothing, advances in materials science and construction technology, along with experience, are starting to help residents’ day-to-day comfort levels climb along with buildings’ heights. Experts are constantly refining ideal structural shapes, masses, and weights, as well as more obscure features like the multi-ton machines known as tuned mass dampers, which are designed to limit a building’s sway.
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