Brooklyn finally has a supertall. Hooray? A brooding, 1,066-foot black tower—“Brooklyn’s Futuristic Sinister Stalagmite,” snarked the publication Hell Gate—dominates the borough’s skyline and will do so for decades. Curiously enough, the Brooklyn Tower (aka 9 DeKalb) was, in early September, deemed by readers of the London-based design website Dezeen as this year’s best skyscraper, garnering a 30% plurality of the vote.
New York magazine’s Justin Davidson praised it as a “pillar of black glass pinstriped in bronze, [spiking] up above the borough as if challenging anyone to question its right to dominate.” In Bloomberg CityLab, Alexandra Lange wrote, “Maybe I should hate it for its bigness, its blackness, its thrust—but I don’t. Skylines need punctuation.”
Collage: photos by Max Touhey for JDS, used in New York magazine coverage and Dezeen poll.
The New York and CityLab reviews, as well as the Dezeen poll, featured flattering photos—credited to the project’s official photographer, some from the sky—that show how the tower’s bronze and copper pilasters temper its dark palette. Some were taken during sunset, when the light is generous.
View north in Downtown Brooklyn, with the Dime Savings Bank in front of the Brooklyn Tower.
To be sure, the building has texture, color, and personality when you’re within a few blocks of it. The tower’s hexagonal shafts are said to be inspired by the adjacent, landmarked Dime Savings Bank (which contributed air rights). That led Davidson to conclude—dubiously, to my mind—that the pairing “translates one century’s sense of glamour for the next.”
From a distance, however, the building’s monolithic massing and unfriendly mien combine as a bleak middle finger on the skyline or, when it pops up solo, a sour stub. It’s far less playful than, say, the American Copper Buildings that SHoP designed for JDS.
The Brooklyn Tower is in the distance; view from Carroll Gardens West.
Still, SHoP’s uber-confident Gregg Pasquarelli told Dezeen that, thanks to bonus bulk from the bank, the Brooklyn Tower would be uniquely visible, “kind of like the Empire State Building of Brooklyn,” adding, “We wanted to make sure that no matter what grid you were on, looking at it from wherever you were in Brooklyn, you felt like you were looking at the front.”
Well, be careful what you wish for. Unlike the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building, the new tower offers no spire nor much of a taper, and its light-absorbing coloration doesn’t help.
From Prospect Heights; Williamsburgh Savings Bank second from left.
Today, while several towers built since the 2004 rezoning of Downtown Brooklyn overshadow or even block the 512-foot 1929 Williamsburgh Savings Bank, for decades the borough’s tallest building, the bank’s tapered clock tower, when it peeks through the skyline, comfortably echoes those taller peers in Manhattan. (It’s now a condo building: One Hanson.)
The Brooklyn Tower has 149 condos up top, 398 rentals below and, in exchange for a tax break, provides 119 (30%) income-targeted “affordable” rentals, albeit aimed at households earning six figures. So one-bedrooms rent for $2,811, a roughly $2,000 discount over market-rate units, but hardly serving struggling Brooklynites.
The Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower, from Fort Greene looking south.
Hell Gate, like not a few Brooklynites, likened the Brooklyn Tower to Barad-dûr, aka the Dark Tower, as described in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. One reader, commenting on Davidson’s review, observed, “Everyone I know in Brooklyn associates 9 Dekalb with a villain’s lair.”
A defender countered: “People in Brooklyn seem pretty settled on the idea that 9 Dekalb is ominous and creepy, but I think its awesome … Compared to all the disgusting 00s looking glass condos around that area, it’s really making a statement.”
From Fulton Street in Downtown Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Tower center-right, 11 Hoyt far right.
Well, yes and no. The glassy Downtown Brooklyn context, especially near the supertall, is none too inspiring. But a few blocks away is Studio Gang’s handsome new 11 Hoyt, a 620-foot slab, accented by a scalloped facade created from precast concrete. (It’s all condos.)
No, 11 Hoyt couldn’t be Brooklyn’s flagship building, nor does it aim to be. But its undulating facade supplies flair, and it’s not unfriendly from afar. When 11 Hoyt is juxtaposed with the Brooklyn Tower, as shown below, they seem as if from different planets. In Dezeen’s poll, 11 Hoyt, perhaps hampered by an unflattering photo, came in third.
At left, 11 Hoyt. At right, the Brooklyn Tower.
(In a separate competition, by the website 6sqft, the Brooklyn Tower came in second in the vote for New York City’s 2021 Building of the Year, but dropped to eighth in the 2022 competition, which was won by the striking, sail-like Olympia tower, by Hill West Architects, in Brooklyn’s waterfront neighborhood of DUMBO.)
Though Davidson praised the supertall’s “brooding seriousness,” for many who experience the building as inescapably dominating the skyline, it’s a bummer. Responding to one Dezeen report, “commenters were split,” the publication acknowledged. One hailed the Brooklyn Tower as “beautiful,” while another called it “a vertical castle: heavy, defensive, dominating.”
To Dezeen, SHoP principal John Cerone linked the Brooklyn Tower to the Barclays Center, the Brooklyn arena that the firm revamped—after a design by Ellerbe Becket—to acclaim when it opened in 2012.
Looking northwest from Barclays Center plaza. Williamsburg Savings Bank tower in foreground; as is wedge-shaped 100 Flatbush. At center is the Brooklyn Tower. At far left is 11 Hoyt.
“People take selfies at Barclays and then they turn around and then take selfies down the street with the Brooklyn Tower,” said Cerone. “They don’t know they are by the same architects.”
Well, if they take selfies from the arena plaza, those photos include the Brooklyn Tower, but it’s not the focus. As shown above, a photo from the plaza foregrounds the familiar elegance of the Williamsburgh bank, with its multiple setbacks, plus the glassy wedge 100 Flatbush, while the supertall broods in the background.
“[T]his is a building that stands for Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Tower’s developers claim, “now and in the centuries to come.”
From Governors Island: supertall at center, 11 Hoyt to its right.
If so, why does it leave so many uneasy?
As I was finishing this essay, the writer Brenda Becker, a Facebook friend, posted her own photo of the Brooklyn Tower, observing, “Nothing says ‘Your cozy home in Brooklyn’ like the almost-completed Barad-Dûr, Dark Fortress of Luxury Real Estate.” That meme, I suspect, will stick.
Featured image: view from Gowanus. Supertall at center, 11 Hoyt is four buildings to the left. Photos by Norman Oder unless otherwise noted.