Never Built New York

IF YOU BELIEVE New York City's ongoing infestation of sliver towers and chain stores is ruining the town you love, you may find some small cheer in knowing how much worse things could be. Never Built New York provides detailed, copiously illustrated accounts of citywide plans spanning a century—a few intriguing, others fanciful, many examples of outright vandalism—that highlight how technological change, commercial exigencies, and architectural vanity could combine to distastefully ill effect. In his late-1960s effort to "reimagine" Robert Moses's doomed Lower Manhattan Expressway, the much-esteemed Paul Rudolph designed a futuristic concrete pyramidal structure—in places sixty stories high—that would straddle the highway and be connected by "people movers." If even a portion of this megalomaniacal project had come to fruition, the buildings, with shapes that call to mind unchecked crystal growth, would have been hideous, and the manifest disdain for air, sunlight, and sky would have warranted criminal charges for the architect. We might delight in the drawings as visionary art if the cluttered spectacle they depict suggested more than a cheap sci-fi-movie set from the era. The cleaving of Washington Square Park by that proposed highway is shown in a bucolic-seeming sketch that presents only a few vehicles wending their way through and around the arch, as if the city had been abandoned because of a plague. Of course, in reality, the result would have meant bumper-to-bumper traffic in the midst of an otherwise saving patch of green. That it almost came to pass but didn't—famously, community opposition included Eleanor Roosevelt and Jane Jacobs—should prove a tonic to despair about current, lesser despoliations.

Raymond Hood’s Skyscraper Bridges, 1925, illustrated by Hugh Ferris in The Metropolis of Tomorrow (Washburn, 1929).

Unlike such dodged-bullet schemes, plans for Norman Bel Geddes's floating airport at the foot of Battery Park, R. Buckminster Fuller's glass dome over Manhattan, and Frank Lloyd Wright's Epcotization of Ellis Island were not quite taken seriously and are amusing in their flagrant unreality. In each case, the conception reflects a deeply flawed sense of what constitutes urban life and, more importantly, urban pleasure; still, the childlike extravagance of the images (these are the kinds of things kids doodle in geometry class) testifies to the omnipotent inclinations of architects. This desire to thoroughly remake the city can find elegant and not entirely impractical expression. Raymond Hood's Skyscraper Bridges from 1925 (above), rendered by the renowned draftsman Hugh Ferriss, is inspirational in its grandeur yet modest in its deferment to the Art Deco style that dominated the period. Unlike other street-bound behemoths (the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, 40 Wall Street) of the time, the mass of these twin buildings from foundation to spire would have been visible from almost anywhere in the city. Ferriss's moody depiction conjures the city as a shadowy domain beneath a vibratory sky—it is a place of night and dreams rather than of neon and commerce. The unbuilt buildings of New York are also shadows, and each one's absence—as this volume reminds us—is a testament to possibility thwarted.