The Secretive, Scheming World of Skyscraper Spire Design

By Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan on at

To most of us, the spires that top tall building are an afterthought; a necessary extra, by no means interesting. But if you look closer, those spires are where all the drama has gone down, from the 1920s to this very week.

Yesterday, the prolific property development blog NY YIMBY published a surprising report: The Western Hemisphere might be getting a new tallest building. Every tall building announced in New York in recent years has gracefully clocked in at just under 1,776 feet (541m) in deference to the new World Trade Center. But that era may be about to end, according to YIMBY’s Nikolai Fedak. A new residential skyscraper, aka the Nordstrom Tower, has apparently gone through a tiny but important growth spurt: a taller parapet may push its spire 20 feet (6m) higher than originally planned, boosting the height to 1,795 feet (547m).

The Secretive, Scheming World of Skyscraper Spire Design

According to the report, the design change would beat out the current tallest building in the US by a measly 19 feet (5.7m) of spire. The developer of the building, meanwhile, denied it in the NY Post, saying, “the Nordstrom Tower will categorically not be taller than 1 World Trade Center.”

Spire Shame

I’m sure at this point, you’re wondering why 19 feet (5.7m) of spire would warrant an official response and ensuing media frenzy. But if you look closely at the way tall buildings have used their spires over the past two decades, you’ll see that this kind of sneaky maneuver is by no means rare. Yes, SPIRE INTRIGUE is all around us—or rather, above us.

The Secretive, Scheming World of Skyscraper Spire DesignAP Photo/Mark Lennihan

Two years ago, the Council on Tall Buildings published a report on what it described as “vanity spire” among supertall (over 1,000 foot) buildings. By the council’s calculations, spire height has increased by 400 per cent since the 1970s. 29 per cent of the Burj Khalifa is “non-occupiable” spire height. 31 per cent of the New York Times Building is. If you lopped off the spires of all the supertalls in the world, 60 per cent of them wouldn’t even qualify as supertall anymore.

In short, the race skyward has pushed developers to develop the cheapest, easiest way to boost official building height: Taller spires.

The Secretive, Scheming World of Skyscraper Spire Design

Now, whether or not that’s a huge moral transgression is up to you. But it’s interesting to realise that there’s a very under-acknowledged alternate history to the world’s ever-increasing tall building heights.

Scheming at 1,000 Feet

In fact, this is very far from the first time a developer has quietly added a bit of spire to beat out a competing building. Fedak points out the most famous example of this kind of scheming: the construction of the Chrysler Building in the late 1920s.

Back then, two architects were locked in a fierce battle over which would build the tallest building in New York City — and the world. New York was going through a skyscraper boom, a bit like it is today, and William Van Alen and Craig Severance were leading it.

The two architects had been partners, once. But by 1929, they were racing each other to build a skyscraper that could claim bragging rights over the entire world. Van Alen was hard at work on his Chrysler Building. Severance had his Manhattan Co. Building. The architects kept their plans secret and ever-changing — all to elude the prying eyes of the rival.

Just when Severence thought he’d prevailed over his flashy uptown opponent, Van Alen unveiled his secret weapon:  the spire. 99 Percent Invisible explained in a great podcast last year:

Van Alen had the 185-foot spire secretly constructed inside the building and on Oct. 23, 1929, the vertex emerged from the building’s core, “like a butterfly from its cocoon.” With that, the Chrysler Building became the tallest building in the world.

The Secretive, Scheming World of Skyscraper Spire Design

The Secretive, Scheming World of Skyscraper Spire Design

Severence hadn’t planned on the spire intrigue. He lost the title of world’s tallest building as quickly as he thought he had gained in. Of course, neither would last very long, as Roman Mars pointed out, since the Empire State Building ended up eclipsing both less than a year later.

Of course, a lot has changed since the days of Severence and Van Alen. These days, it’s mainly the job of developers to keep their building heights secret and ever-changing until the last minute. In fact, the Burj Khalifa’s height remained secret until it opened. As to the Nordstrom Tower and the WTC, we’ll have to wait until the building is finished to ascertain its final height — and whether we really really have a new tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.

Then again, some things haven’t changed since the 1920s. It took a national panel of 25 experts to decide whether the World Trade Center was taller than Chicago’s Willis Tower back in 2013 — deliberations lasted a ridiculously long time, and in the end, it all came down to a few feet of spire.