In 1916, New York City instituted the first-ever American zoning regulation in direct response to the construction of the Equitable Building, a hulking, sun-blocking high-rise that positively loomed over the streets of Lower Manhattan. Under the landmark 1916 Zoning Ordinance, skyscrapers — which were being erected fast and furiously during the first half of the 20th century in New York, Chicago and other quick-growing urban areas — were required to be designed in such a way that they didn’t block sunlight and air from reaching the city streets below, much like the Equitable Building rather rudely did. In turn, the game-changing code gave way to now-ubiquitous setback-style skyscrapers like the Empire State Building, which tapers as it gets taller as to not to cast permanent shadows on the man-made canyons below.
Over the years, zoning laws have changed radically as has skyscraper design. However, the precedent set by a century-old building code remains: don’t hog all the fresh air and sunlight.
The area around and directly along the High Line — you know, Manhattan’s tourist-snaring linear park located on a defunct elevated railway that has prompted numerous rail-to-trail park projects in cities across the globe since first opening in 2009 — has given way to several high-profile high-rise buildings that breathe new life into the traditional setback skyscraper. One notable example is Bjarke Ingels Group’s The Spiral, a planned 65-story office tower perched at the northern terminus of the High Line that not only tapers to allow sunlight to pass below but is also wrapped in a cascading ribbon of lushly planted terraces and hanging gardens — a “continuous green pathway” — all the way to the top.
While nowhere near as imposing as The Spiral, Solar Carve Tower is a 12-story mixed-use building nestled between the High Line and the Hudson River at 10th Avenue and 14th Street that really goes out of its way to not impose. In fact, politeness and an assertive need to not loom over the High Line and the surrounding streets is the tower’s raison d'être, an element firmly embedded in the mid-rise structure’s DNA.
Designed by Studio Gang, the eponymous Chicago-based firm of architect and MacArthur fellow Jeanne Gang, Solar Carve Tower has been in the works for several years now. In 2015, the project, after a handful of false starts and some community opposition, was officially given the go-ahead. Earlier this week, new renderings of the under-construction tower were released to the public, further generating interest in its unusually thoughtful — and highly environmentally sustainable — futuristic design.
The 213-foot-tall Solar Carve Tower is a showcase of sorts that demonstrates the firm’s groundbreaking work in “solar carving,” a design strategy in which tall buildings are sculpted by the angles of the sun as a means of dramatically minimizing blocked light and views.
MacArthur fellow Jeanne Gang is best known for Aqua Tower, a Chicago skyscraper. Solar Carve Tower, a smartly non-intruding office building rising next to Manhattan's High Line, is pictured above. (Rendering: Studio Gang)
Specifically designed to avoid obstruction of light and air flow by all means possible (and not irk its lower-slung Meatpacking District neighbors), Solar Carve was designed in a similar vein as NBBJ’s conceptual No Shadow Tower for London. As Studio Gang explains, “this integrated response allows the building to benefit the important public green space of the High Line — privileging light, fresh air, and river views to the public park — while also becoming a new iconic silhouette on the New York skyline.”
Elaborates Gang in a 2016 interview with ArchDaily: “We noticed that new buildings around our site were beginning to crowd the High Lines’s solar access and that if we were to follow traditional zoning requirements, we would be contributing to that kind of destruction of the public realm. So we sculpted our building using the angles of the sun. We treated the High Line as public space to be protected by not blocking its sunlight.”
Boasting a distinctive chiseled form and a “faceted, gem-like façade,” Gang’s solar ray-sculpted tower is developed by Aurora Capital and William Gottlieb Real Estate and will include over 165,000 square feet of commercial space including 17,000 square feet of dedicated retail space on the ground floor. All but one floor of the tower is equipped with a private terrace while the roof will be topped with a massive (10,000 square foot) communal green space complete with a variety of shrubs and trees. Offering a seamless connection to nature, the tower’s second floor will also include a lushly planted oversized terrace positioned at the same height as its also lushly planted neighbor just across the street, the High Line.
Per the New York Post, the tower is aiming for LEED Silver designation and, as such, incorporates numerous sustainable design elements and eco-friendly features including a bike storage facility (and adjacent locker room for bike commuters) and, of course, ample natural daylighting that reduces energy use. The vegetated roof and terraces also help to naturally insulate the building and keep it cool during sweltering NYC summers.
Despite facing some hiccups in its early stages, Solar Carve Tower has emerged as a shining example of how to masterfully design a mid-rise building in a dense urban area that’s stunning as it is sensitive; a showstopping edifice from an acclaimed American architect that sticks out while also striving not to offend the neighbors.
Directly across the way from the Solar Carve Tower on the banks of Hudson River, another big-name project has faced even greater opposition: Pier55.
Designed by Thomas Heatherwick, Pier55 takes the form of a performing arts-centric floating pier-park that, according to critics, will disturb marine life in the river while serving more or less as a vanity project for its founders (and primary funders), billionaire media mogul Barry Diller and his wife, the fashion icon, Diane von Furstenberg. The lawsuit-riddled Pier55 has drawn numerous comparisons to another highly divisive, majority privately funded floating river park, London’s Thames-straddling Garden Bridge, which is also designed by Heatherwick. Following a temporarily halt in construction brought on by a headline-garnering court battle, work on the $130 million park is moving ahead ... for now.
As for Studio Gang, the firm's New York-area projects outside of Solar Carve Tower are decidedly far less controversial including an innovative FDNY fire station and training center in the Bronx and a simply breathtaking expansion at the Museum of Natural History.