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An insider’s guide to the best architecture in New York

No other metropolitan area has a skyline as iconic — or diverse — as New York City’s. Given the daily volume of people who traverse Gotham’s streets, descend upon its tourism sites, partake of its cultural offerings, and rub elbows on its subways, the city presents a compelling visual landscape…and a unique puzzle for its architects.

To learn more about an architect’s perspective on the city, we spoke with Rick Bell, who serves as Executive Director of Design and Construction Excellence for the city’s Department of Design and Construction.

Given his position, Bell spends a significant amount of time pondering the city’s vertical landscape. “New York continues to be aspirational — not just in terms of height,” says Bell. “There’s a big push for connectivity. I think of the Standard Hotel that straddles the High Line, built by architect Todd Schliemann. That structure defines the changing attitude of the city — bringing value to everything along its perimeter.”

Bell points out that the 1,776-foot spire atop One World Trade Center is a soaring example of the city’s expressionistic bent (when it debuted in 2015, it became the tallest building in the city, easily surpassing the Empire State Building). Other statuesque showstoppers that height-seeking visitors should crane their necks to admire include Frank Gehry’s New York by Gehry tower in Lower Manhattan and Renzo Piano’s Midtown home for The New York Times. 

Beyond its lofty skyscrapers, New York’s many museums are also fertile ground for architecture lovers after inspiration. The New Museum made waves when its Bowery location was unveiled in 2007 (resembling a stack of white boxes, the structure is impossible to ignore), and Grimshaw Architects have contributed to a streamlined vision of New York with their work on the Queens Museum, which doubled its exhibition space with a sleek new wing. The Whitney, meanwhile, is one of New York’s biggest architectural blockbusters. Originally located in the Upper East Side, the American art museum has since relocated to the Meatpacking District and now occupies a riverside space dreamed up by Renzo Piano. It comes with plenty of viewing platforms and open-air areas to drink in the city and Hudson views alongside the masterpieces.

Another example of New York architecture that has Bell captivated is the Fulton Center in Lower Manhattan. Both striking and functional, the transit hub hosts 10 subway lines and can accommodate up to 300,000 commuters per day. The structure plunges four storeys into the earth, but an incredible “sky reflector net,” an oculus which sends light into its depths, is only one of many beautiful elements that make it a standout. “The Fulton Center speaks to New York’s identity as a “portal city,” says Bell.

What’s next for architecture in New York? Bell sees environmental and health concerns as top priorities for local projects, and notices that more and more significant work is taking place in the outer boroughs beyond Manhattan. The biggest game-changer for Bell? “Bike lanes,” he says. “So much work has been done to promote physical health, and that is more and more evident in the design of the city.”

There’s much for visitors to New York to look forward to, then. But while looking to the future, explorers should also relish the historic buildings that have given the Big Apple its unmatchable looks. From the Art Deco flourishes of the Chrysler Building to the neoclassical New York Public Library, from the spiralling Guggenheim to the flattened Flatiron Building, from the gothic Dakota to the tony Waldorf-Astoria, classic New York architecture is totally inimitable, and stunning to behold.