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Why inverted pyramids, leaning towers, and other weird shapes may spread across the skyline

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A New York structural engineer sees more and more towers taking advantage of unorthodox silhouettes

Manhattan’s crowded streets and tiny apartments inspire some ingenious spatial solutions. Structural engineer Stephen DeSimone, President of DeSimone Consulting Engineers, believes that kind of creativity, and the steady upward march of the price-per-square-foot of prime real estate, may soon lead to developers pushing high-rises that bend, lean, and overcrowd adjacent buildings. His firm has helped developed projects with slight "inverted pyramid layouts" to achieve more cost-effectiveness, and he believes more and more will continue to pop up in the city’s overcrowded skyline.

"They certainly make for more interesting and visually impressive designs, but there’s also a financial driver behind this type of design," he says. "

Two current DeSimone projects, 45 East 22nd Street, which recently topped out, and 111 Murray Street in Lower Manhattan, which is currently under construction, showcase a concept he believes will become an even larger trend. The later, with a silhouette inspired by a Murano glass vase, rise from the streets with lower floors of approximately 2,500 square feet and slowly expands skyward after hitting the mid-point, reaching 4,500 square feet on the highest levels. These loftier, larger floor plates command a premium price, making developing the lot more profitable

Cantilevered structures that accomplish the same effect aren’t anything new in the architectural world, especially in New York City, but DeSImone believes more and more developers will be applying these forms to bigger and bigger projects for a real estate, rather than aesthetic, purpose.

Flaring skyward, 111 Murray Street cantilevers out, the inverse of traditional building design. The shape presents a structural challenge; the added square footage and additional wind forces make the high-rise function like a building 30-40 feet taller. The effect is "like placing a sail out the window," DeSimone says, and requires additional dampers and structural modifications to accommodate.

But the larger, uninterrupted upper floors make the added technical complexity worthwhile. DeSimone believes there’s no technical limit to what could be done with these structures—"it’s limited by our imagination"—and, New York being New York, and the value of Central Park views being so high, he could see a lollipop-like structure making a perverse kind of sense (if only for the bottom line).

"I mean, it would look really stupid, of course, but financially, it’s quite advantageous," he says.

In a real world of zoning and air rights, that would never happen. But he does believe more and more building will cantilever over adjacent property lines, most likely in mid-block lots, and widen in every direction in order to provide expansive, and expensive, views. The ability of these shapes to unlock value, and even take advantage of "unused" space above existing structures, is too profitable to pass up.

"It becomes a spatial and legal issue," he says. "The assemblage of air rights is one thing, but now you’re looking at the right to lean over an adjacent property. From a legal standpoint, it becomes a more difficult game to play."

Will towers shaped like spinning tops be a more common sight? DeSImone brings up the development rush around Central Park as a prime example. The area, he says, went from a place where your grandmother lived to Billionaire’s Row. Inverted pyramid-style structures could provide view corridors to the park that would be easy to sell.

"Development is outpacing regulations," he says. "I think we’ll see more of it, but it’ll get harder to do as people take closer looks at these things."