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New York's Lighthouse

Published: April 23, 2006

Underwood & Underwood/Corbis, 1938

In St. Gabriele Park, the stately Empire State Building is seen in the background.

Lewis W. Hine/George Eastman House/Getty Images

During construction, the view through a window in the Chrysler Building.

LIKE most people, I made a trip to the observatory of the Empire State Building on my very first visit to New York, when I was a gawky Canadian teenager fresh off the train from Toronto. My visit to that building, which will have been open 75 years on May 1, was romantic in more than one sense.

I was with my first girlfriend, a petite girl with braces on her teeth. Though neither of us had seen "An Affair to Remember," the 1957 Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr weepie that immortalizes the building as the quintessential New York lovers' rendezvous, we knew that the top of the building was the ideal place to share a kiss, even if it was awkward and adolescent and jostled by other tourists hefting the bulky camera equipment of the pre-digital day.

The movie we saw later that day in Times Square — a matinee of "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" — featured a fistfight in the back of the theater, in the smoking rows, and my girlfriend and I broke up on the train ride back to Canada. But that moment on top of the building, looking out over the broad Hudson and Lower Manhattan's dense packing of brick and stone, sealed New York's grip on me, as it has on millions of others.

I would not visit the top of the Empire State again for two decades, probably a typical gap. You go once, and you may never go again. Natives may never go at all, which is a shame. The foursquare view from the top of the Empire State, even more than the sweep of Manhattan that was available from the summit of the twin towers, is one of life's great vistas. It may not quite be, as the building's primary booster and moving force, Al Smith, argued, better than air travel. But it must surely be what Ms. Kerr breathlessly calls it (twice): the nearest thing to heaven we have in New York.

IN business terms, the Empire State Building may be the most famous white elephant on the planet. Built against all logic during the Depression, it has never succeeded in its ostensible function as an office building. Early years of indifference gave it the label "Empty State Building," and vacancy rates have recently climbed again, from a low of 1.7 percent in 2000 to more than 18 percent.

The current rent of just $37 a square foot is well below Midtown averages of $48, and yet the building's owners still can't fill the place. (The small offices and antiquated infrastructure are part of the deterrent, despite projected upgrades; but so is a continuing feud between the two companies that control the building, Helmsley-Spear and Wien & Malkin, which complicates leasing arrangements. The dispute arose a decade ago when heirs of the building's co-owners since 1961, Harry Helmsley and Lawrence Wien — both now dead — could not agree on control.)

Meanwhile, some four million visitors a year make their way to the observatory on the 86th floor (a higher deck, near the building's 102nd-floor summit, reopened last fall after having been closed for years). Here, the weight of the building's significance seems to outstrip its financial woes, even its very material existence. Like all great monuments, the Empire State Building shelters meanings that extend well beyond its gorgeous Indiana limestone cladding and tiny throwback offices.

Consider just three of the many factors that make the building memorable: the idea of the skyscraper, the mythical functions of the tower and finally the peculiarly American dream-logic of the building's astonishing construction.

When the Empire State Building opened its rather modest Fifth Avenue doors on May 1, 1931 — Al Smith, the former governor, was there, of course, with photographers, kids and a band — the event punctuated a period of architectural ambition and civic glee that the world is not likely to witness again.

In the span of two short decades, New York's congested street plan and material wealth, together with crucial developments in science and technology, tempered steel and the elevator, led to the invention of a new architectural form. From Lower Manhattan to Midtown, from Wall Street up to the 40's, Manhattan pushed into the sky the planet's first vertebrate buildings, shoving aside the squat crustaceans that had held sway for so long.

The Empire State had several distinguished predecessors during the 1920's. The "race for the sky" contest — between H. Craig Severance's Manhattan Company Building, way downtown, and William Van Alen's Chrysler Building — gripped the city's imagination in a manner that is hard to imagine now. When Van Alen won the race by hoisting the Chrysler's distinctive spire from a secret mechanism built inside the peak, the skyscraper and the idea of war over architectural one-upmanship seemed settled for good.

For many, the Chrysler remains Manhattan's best tall building, a Deco masterpiece, even though it was mocked mercilessly by contemporary critics, not least for the distinctive sheathing of its "Aztec pinnacle," to quote the poet Charles Tomlinson.

The race was not over, however. One of the most poignant pictures ever captured of the Chrysler — not by Margaret Bourke-White, that disciple of the Chrysler cult — shows the rising column of the Empire State construction at 34th Street through one of the triangular slash-windows of the uptown rival.

Taller buildings would come, in Manhattan and Chicago and elsewhere, but the Empire State would not be surpassed.

Even without its now distinctive (and never used) dirigible mooring of chrome-nickel steel and faceted glass, added at Smith's behest and over William Lamb's objections so that the building would have "a hat," the Empire State would have been taller than the Chrysler. The spire made it 1,250 feet high — a figure that would settle skyscraper hash for almost half a century. This span as world's tallest building is itself worth a meta-record in this age of Asian gigantism, where structures like the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur straddle the summit of summits for, at best, a few years. (The world's tallest building at this writing is Taipei 101 in Taiwan, and at least three taller buildings are already planned in Shanghai alone.)

TO some eyes, the Chrysler remains aesthetically superior: a function, in part, of Deco's nostalgic appeal and Van Alen's instinctive grasp of Gotham's Batmannish soul. In a comparison with the slimmer Chrysler, it is easy to underestimate the tough masculine beauty of Lamb's design for the Empire State.

Whereas the Chrysler displays a giddy modernism, the Empire State combines subtle Deco grace notes with an assured, almost classical sense of proportion. Its solid central shaft rises gracefully from cleverly arranged volumes at the base, lifting to an understated cap of layered sections. In a Vanity Fair feature of the day, Lamb was named one of New York's 10 "Poets of Steel," an honor denied to both Van Alen and Severance.

But even absent such aesthetic rehabilitation, the Empire State would be superior in meaning, the distinctive image of mythic New York: the New York of film and fiction, beckoning and false, corrupted and sometimes corrupting, but irresistible for all that.

The building is, obviously, a tower, indeed the central tower of New York. Thus it functions, as the modernist master Robert A. M. Stern once put it, as "the lighthouse of Manhattan." But like all towers, it is no mere structure or landmark. A tower speaks of and to the human ambition for transcendence, that restless desire to transcend what the Futurist theorist Emilio Filippo Tommaso Marinetti called "the vile earth." The paradox of the tower, any tower, is that it stands fixed to the ground even as it stretches up and tries, somehow, to achieve liftoff.

The Empire State is not Futurist in design, nor is it explicitly utopian. Indeed, its workaday offices and no-nonsense design are deliberately utilitarian in conception. Most people who visit the building pay no attention to its often under-rented interior, a kind of urban time machine filled with diamond merchants, insurance companies and private investigators, among many, many others.

Nevertheless, with its machine-made grace, the Empire State Building towers above the island grid and fixes the scene. Standing at the center of Manhattan, it gathers up the city to itself and then redeploys it, out and down, to every spot from which it can be seen.

Towers spring from military desire as well as spiritual urges, and the central position of the Empire State might raise, as towers do, the specter of surveillance. Especially in these Patriot Act days, one can imagine that it drapes a visual net over New York, a sort of heaven-suspended security system.

And yet the grid it overlooks is, for all its constraints, a stage of freedom and spontaneity. Its very rigidity seems to offer new invitations to liberty. The streets crush and bend and mangle their straight lines, giving way to the wonky charm of the West Village, for example, or the Battery. The Empire State, meanwhile, resolutely resists any link to the security state. Its empire is not the one of watchful eyes and foreign invasions; rather, at its summit assemble the free citizens of the world, multilingual and blessed, who ascend to gather in their views and memories, not data or evidence.

The Empire State holds New York's eight million souls together in a way the taller World Trade Center never could, and even now, in dark memory, does not. The older building's unlikely birth in the middle of the 1929 Crash; its defiant optimism steered by Al Smith and the financier John J. Raskob, those quintessential self-made men; the astonishing assembly line of steel and stone that made it the fastest megaproject the world had seen; its gathering of workers from all nations and trades — all this combines to make the Empire State the ultimate dream building.

Monument and promise, folly and wonder of the world, it can be no surprise that no other tall building even dared challenge it for pre-eminence for almost half a century.

We sometimes speculate about a particular feature of a city, and wonder what things would be like if it did not exist. Especially because of what happened to those taller buildings downtown, the answer in the case of the Empire State Building is clear. Like our ideas of God and happiness, if the Empire State Building did not exist in the New York skyline, we would have to invent it.

Mark Kingwell, a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and a contributing editor to Harper's magazine, is the author of "Nearest Thing to Heaven: The Empire State Building and American Dreams," to be published next month by Yale University Press.

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It must be a pain to re-engineer the ESB to fit today's fiber-optic, air-conditioned office environment, yet it will always have a symbolic importance in the New York real estate market.
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