Now reading

Unique Shape of New York City's Flatiron Building Has Le...

Unique Shape of New York City's Flatiron Building Has Led to Sustained Prestige

Rectangular forms have defined buildings for centuries. New York City, a city defined by its dense urban development, is only possible because developers go to extreme lengths to maximize space. No building exemplifies this phenomenon better than the Flatiron Building. Originally called the Fuller Building, the Flatiron Building was initially a nickname derived from the

The Flatiron Building at sunset. The light from the setting sun gives the building a golden hue, and the triangular shape of the building forcibly cuts through the built environment, creating two distinct paths leading into the horizon. The imagery it creates is quite striking, as no building in the city successfully embraces its shape in the same way.

Rectangular forms have defined buildings for centuries. New York City, a city defined by its dense urban development, is only possible because developers go to extreme lengths to maximize space. No building exemplifies this phenomenon better than the Flatiron Building. Originally called the Fuller Building, the Flatiron Building was initially a nickname derived from the shape of the building. The triangular form of the building was meant to fully optimize the similarly shaped lot. Even today, this shape continues to be unique in New York City and is one of the driving forces behind its continued relevance in the public conscience.

The Flatiron Building is unquestionably an iconic building in the New York City canon, however that was not the case when it initially opened. Regardless of the time period, the Flatiron Building has always stood out. This was especially true when it first opened in 1901. The Flatiron Building was significantly taller than any of the buildings in the area, and built in a shape that had not been seen in New York City. The unusual form of the Flatiron Building was the cause for conversation. While the triangular form was a display of technological advancement, architectural critics believed that the shape was absurd.

At the time it opened, the Flatiron Building towered over its surroundings as one of the first skyscrapers in New York City. While the shape of the building has always made it iconic, the fact that it was significantly taller than everything around it made it especially groundbreaking. When the Flatiron Building first opened, the neighborhood looked very different. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. 

If the opinion of the critics dictated the trajectory of the Flatiron Building, it would have quickly faded into obscurity. However, the building has always been well-received by local New Yorkers because of how different it is. Although the shape seemed strange to skeptics, the contours of the building accentuated the convergence of Fifth Avenue and Broadway, creating a monumental atmosphere, which made for the perfect scene. This location has been attracting photographers ever since, and has even made appearances in television shows and movies as a result. Even during times when residents of the neighborhood moved away, visitors continued to flock to the area, specifically to see this building.

The Flatiron District, a bustling area in Manhattan, not only houses the Flatiron Building, but also Madison Square Park, one of the borough's more famous parks. Madison Square Park is a famous spot to hang out for locals and tourists alike. This area is not only an intersection of major avenues, but also an intersection of nature and the built environment. In the horizon can be seen multiple buildings, most of which are significantly taller than the Flatiron Building, however they have not managed to stand out in the same way. The neighborhood is much different now. Structures taller than the Flatiron Building are commonplace now, but the Flatiron is still just as iconic.

Despite having opened over a century ago and the level of success it has seen, the Flatiron Building continues to be a one of a kind building. The importance of being distinct in New York City cannot be overstated. Buildings with equal architectural significance have fallen out of relevance because of how often they are imitated. The Seagram Building serves as the best cautionary tale, as even today, it struggles to find a new identity after countless buildings employed the architectural design that the Seagram Building made famous. The Flatiron Building has yet to experience a similar fate, despite there being multiple buildings with the same name. This is in part because none of the other “Flatiron Buildings” are located in New York City, a result of the fact that building in a triangular shape leads to pockets of unusable space in most other circumstances. Therefore, the Flatiron Building has not been imitated, carving a societal niche made solely for itself. Just as this niche has defined the course this building has taken through history, it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

What other buildings in New York City are unique like the Flatiron Building? Do you know where the copycat Flatiron Buildings are in other cities? Are there similarly distinct buildings in your city? How have they shaped the built environment? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.

Credits: Images by Quinn Harding, unless stated. Images and data linked to sources.

Become a Patron of The Global Grid
Intern photo

Quinn graduated last May from Haverford College in Growth and Structure of Cities with a focus in architecture. His interests in the field include issues of sustainability, historic preservation, and innovative use of public and communal spaces. Curr...

Tuesdays, in your inbox.

Weekly local urbanist news and jobs. 

You have Successfully Subscribed!