Book Review: Explaining the Manhattan Skyline by the Numbers

Book Review: Explaining the Manhattan Skyline by the Numbers

For the Skyscraper Dictionary, we defined the skyscraper as a building of height, profit, and pride. That’s another way of saying that height has both a rational and a fun component. The part involving the oohs and ahhs of skyscrapers has been published on extensively, but the numbers part, not so much.

Enter Jason M. Barr, an associate professor of economics at Rutgers University in Newark, who became begeistert by skyscrapers and numbers ten year ago after having read Carol Willis’ Form Follows Finance, and discovering the skyscraper database Emporis.

The end result of his ten-year research is the book Building the Skyline: The Birth and Growth of Manhattan’s Skyscrapers. Knowing how much has already been written on skyscrapers and New York, it’s a bit of a surprise that no one has done in-depth, statistical analysis of the New York skyscraper before. Given the magnitude of the project, I doubt anyone will find the courage to take on such a massive undertaking anytime soon. For that reason alone this book is an instant classic.

Naturally, the research touches upon the generally presumed relationship between building height and urban density. Barr shows that there is indeed a relation between height on the one hand, and population, employment, and economic growth on the other, but that the latter does not necessarily translates into population density. Explaining this comes with a good number of theories on spatial economics and knowledge on local history. Next to what may be perceived as ‘confirming what we already know’ this context delivers insights in the difference between causation and relation, in other words, it’s not all about the results, but perhaps more so about how to get there.

Figure: Total Height and the Skyscraper Profit Index, 1963-2013. source:

To me, the main focus of the book is explaining why New York City has two skylines, being Downtown and Midtown. The popular explanation involves the depth of the bedrock in between the two areas, which would make skyscrapers too expensive or even impossible, but Barr goes out of his way to explain bedrock depth has almost nothing to do with this. Barr’s analysis involves the shape of Manhattan, the location of the tenements, and the speed which with New York was developing. Cities usually grow by expanding in all four directions, and by slowly pushing out or transform existing neighbourhoods. However, New York had neither time or space to do that. The southern tip just wasn’t suitable anymore to be the one center of it all. People, with businesses in their wake, literally leapfrogged developed areas to find their place on the island, creating new pockets of activity.

This is off course the very short story. But if you have collected a vast number of data, know how to do the statistical analysis, and know the context in which to interpret the results, you know there is going to be more to come out of it. To name a few, Barr also discusses the relationship between income inequality and skyscrapers, the effect of train terminals, public transport and parks on skyscraper development, the profitability of skyscraper development, the cost of vanity height, and, as a bonus, the land value of all of Manhattan.

barr02Figure: Population Density across Manhattan in 1900. source:

Even though the 456 densely printed pages and the scientific approach might scare the casual reader, the book is surprisingly readable and as such suitable to be picked up by an urban enthusiast. Most of the stuff academics are interested in, such as tables, graphs and the analysis itself, is tucked away in an extensive appendix, along with a thorough biography of books, papers and other resources.

Building the Skyline looks at Manhattan through the eye of an economist, which confirms and debunks what you thought you already knew about the topic, and creates new insights while at it. Next to the fact-packed chapters on the numbers about the supply and demand for height and skyline, you’ll gain knowledge about the geology of Manhattan, its early history, and their effect on the development of the island as described in the first part of the book. To conclude in style, if you’re remotely interested in New York skyscrapers, I can say with confidence that there is a one hundred percent chance you’re going to appreciate Building the Skyline!


Building the Skyline
The Birth and Growth of Manhattan’s Skyscrapers
Jason M. Barr
publisher: Oxford University Press
2016 | hardback | 456 pages | ISBN-13: 978-0199344369
more: promotional Web-site

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