Never Built New York, an exhibit at the Queens Museum, was well worth the trek to Flushing Meadows for anyone interested not only in New York City’s history but also in the vagaries of urban development in the modern era. On display were architectural proposals for close to one hundred buildings, monuments, parks, and transport systems that never got far beyond the drawing board: some because they were pie-in-the-sky concoctions or prohibitively expensive; others because of political or local opposition, lack of interest among financial backers, or legal problems; and yet others because they failed to win architectural competitions or were modified beyond recognition in the course of the project’s completion.
The exhibition, curated by Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell and designed by Studio Christian Wassmann, extended across three spaces, each with a different focus. The Skylight Gallery was devoted to never-realized projects for Flushing Meadows Corona Park, in which the museum is situated. The Shelley and Donald Rubin Gallery held the bulk of the models and drawings on view and finally led to the hall holding the museum’s famous 1:1200-scale panorama of New York City, on which models of some of the unbuilt structures were placed in situ. Ideally, the show should have been viewed in this order, but as the path from the first to the second gallery was somewhat confusing, the average visitor tended to end up at the panorama, sometimes without realizing that he or she had missed the most important section. A bit of signage would have resolved this problem.
According to the museum’s press release, the projects were drawn from forty public and private archives. Although the selection represented a wide range of styles, the works were by and large those of well-known, established architects, from Stanford White and Richard Morris Hunt to Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid. The emphasis, however, tended toward modernity, as only eight of the proposals dated to the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, save a few notable omissions—the original plan for Saint John the Divine, for example, or the giant red skyscraper on pilotis that was to have risen on the site of Carnegie Hall—the exhibition included more than enough fascinating material to “take visitors beyond the limitations of reality, into an alternate history of New York.”
The dedication of a separate section to Flushing Meadows Corona Park was a nice touch in a museum so committed to local residents. This was also the most cohesive part of the exhibit, as it presented consecutive proposals for one particular site, albeit not in chronological order. The site in question was, of course, the ash dump transformed by Robert Moses, New York City park commissioner, into the 1939 World’s Fair. The plans (actually facsimiles) lined the walls of the museum’s sunken atrium, wrapping around a large inflated model of Eliot Noyes’s design for the 1964–65 World’s Fair’s Westinghouse pavilion, which, on weekends, doubled as a “bouncy castle” for tots.
The earliest plan on view in this gallery was that of Randolph H. Almiroty and Anton E. Lindblad’s gargantuan amphitheater meant to hold 160,000 spectators and 40,000 parking spaces. Designed in 1940 to host “the Olympics, giant symphony orchestras, circuses, scout jamborees, and international conferences,” it serves as a reminder of the more inclusive approach to mass entertainment that reigned in the city before developers started constructing venues targeted at specific audiences. Especially impressive were plans for the stadium’s retractable roof, which was to have englobed the entire structure and would have been made to slide apart on tracks that curiously anticipated those of Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Culture Shed. The project was presumably scrapped after the fair failed to generate the profit promised by Moses, who had hoped to use the money to construct a permanent park.
After the Second World War, the site served as the fledgling United Nations’ temporary headquarters, which Moses tried to make permanent through the promise of a monumental complex with a hemispherical amphitheater, immense reflecting pool, artificial waterfalls, and fifty-one free-standing pylons representing the organization’s founding members. On display here were several of Hugh Ferriss’s evocative charcoal renderings of the design by Wallace Harrison, Aymar Embury II, Louis Skidmore, W. Earl Andrews, and others. The plan was laid to rest after John D. Rockefeller Jr. bought the UN a chunk of Midtown Manhattan.
The park then hosted the second, unofficial New York World’s Fair of 1964–65, again organized by the indefatigable Moses. Here we were able to admire a series of rejected designs for the Rheingold Beer pavilion by Kahn & Jacobs as well as a flying saucer delicately balanced on multicolored, wing-like trusses, a more elegant example of the Googie architecture for which the fair came to be known. More impressive was Paul Rudolph’s 160-foot-tall Galaxon pavilion, designed to stand on the site later occupied by the Unisphere. Meant to serve as a public star-gazing facility, the flying saucer in this case was perched atop a series of interconnected staircases— a sort of forerunner of Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel in Hudson Yards, but with a loftier purpose.
The final works in this area were devoted to various plans for the park since the last fair: a vast brutalist recreational complex by Marcel Breuer, Kenzo Tange, and Lawrence Tange, designed during Thomas Hoving’s short stint as park commissioner; a wall-less, futuristic major-league soccer stadium designed by SHoP in 2013 and axed by the city’s current mayor, Bill de Blasio; and finally, Eric Owen Moss’s “surgical” reconstruction of the Queens Museum, which would have ripped open the staid classical façade of Aymar Embury II’s building (the sole survivor of the 1939 fair) to make way for a curvaceous, laminated-glass “drape” that shifted from transparent to opaque depending on the activities performed inside. Nixed by the museum’s new director, the scheme was abandoned in favor of a far less invasive procedure performed by Grimshaw Architects in 2013.
In the Rubin Gallery, “whose long tapering shape,” the press release tells us, “resembles that of Manhattan,” the material was allegedly “organized geographically … mimicking the height and density of the vibrant cacophony of Manhattan.” Albeit a graceful way of dealing with a claustrophobic space, the analogy was probably lost on most visitors, especially since some of the designs on view were meant not for Manhattan but for the so-called outer boroughs. In any case, here a wide assortment of documents was exhibited in an admittedly cacophonic manner, which nonetheless contributed to the thrill of (re)discovery.
Among the older projects were various attempts to cut diagonals through Manhattan’s tyrannical grid, Thomas Kennard Johnson’s wild proposal to create a landfill that would add four miles to the island, Alfred Ely Beach’s pneumatic railway, and an elevated train line suspended over the street on Victorian cast-iron arches. Likewise on view were alternative solutions to Grand Central Terminal by McKim, Mead and White; Reed and Stem; and Warren & Wetmore, along with Marcel Breuer’s 1968 skyscraper, the first version of which was to have destroyed the integrity of the station’s famous waiting room and the second to have obliterated its graceful façade. More shocking still is I. M. Pei’s 1954 Hyperboloid, a 1497-foot-tall, hourglass-shaped, glass-and-steel tower backed by William Zeckendorf, who believed it to be vastly superior to the “second-rate Beaux Arts Building,” whose main hall was “not really a great space.” While Breuer’s project was cut short by preservationists with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis as their spokesperson, Pei’s was aborted by the suicide of Robert Young, chairman of the New York Central Railroad.
The prize for misdirected ambition should probably have gone to Thomas Hastings’s National American Indian Memorial (1909). The brainchild of Rodman Wanamaker, the huge Beaux-Arts structure was to be crowned by a Mayan pyramid, from which soared a 129-foot-tall copper figure of an Indian chief pointing toward the sky in the “universal Indian sign of peace.” Intended to serve as both a museum for Native American culture and a lighthouse for Staten Island (twenty-four feet taller than the Colossus of Rhodes), the project got as far as a ground-breaking ceremony graced by the presence of the US president, William Howard Taft, before Wanamaker, heir of the department-store fortune, shifted his attention to other hobbies.
A somewhat happier end was in store for McKim, Mead and White’s original plan for the Brooklyn Museum (1893), which was to have been twice the size of the Louvre (in fact, the largest museum in the world) and was designed to accommodate not only works of art but also studios, libraries, classrooms, lecture halls, and music rooms for the exercise and exploration of the arts and sciences—a mission as broad as the building. The borough’s integration into the City of New York in 1898 clipped the scale of the project by nearly two-thirds, leaving behind what is visible from Eastern Parkway today. Other museum proposals include both Michael Graves’s and Rem Koolhaas’s over-the-top (literally and figuratively) expansions of the former Whitney Museum on Madison Avenue—brash examples of “starchitect” rivalry attempting to subsume and distract attention away from Marcel Breuer’s brutalist fortress. A far greater loss to the city lies in the rejection of Howe & Lescaze’s elegant cantilevered skyscraper for the nascent Museum of Modern Art. Last but perhaps most conspicuous is Frank Gehry’s downtown Guggenheim, a vertiginous cluster of glass, titanium, and concrete at the foot of the Manhattan skyline, which fell victim to the financial slump following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when New Yorkers were too traumatized to dish out $678 million for a piece of faux-deconstruction when there was so much of the real stuff on view around the bend.
Significant space on the wall was reserved for the various attempts to rebuild the Metropolitan Opera. Most notable of these were Joseph Urban’s dark and foreboding “Coliseum plan” of 1926, which did not meet the taste of Otto Kahn, the opera board’s chair, who preferred the more conventional solutions of Benjamin Wistar Morris. The latter’s design for a massive, slightly fascistic structure was in fact to serve as Rockefeller Center’s focal point until the 1929 stock-market crash cut short its life. Although eternally strapped for cash, the opera eventually got a new home thanks to the support of John D. Rockefeller Jr. and the ruthless rezoning of Robert Moses, who commissioned Wallace Harrison to oversee the design and construction of Lincoln Center. On view were several of Harrison’s preliminary designs for the plaza that were admittedly more whimsical than the finished product (e.g., the Metropolitan Opera Foot), and more inspired by the Googie architecture of the simultaneously rising World’s Fair than by any conventional opera house built to date.
Among other theater plans in the exhibit, honorable mention should have gone to yet another casualty of the Great Depression, namely, Joseph Urban’s Reinhart Theater, a crisp, elegant black vitrine box adorned with gilt balconies that double as fire escapes. Certainly this would have been a more felicitous addition to Broadway than Philip Johnson’s retro Times Square redevelopment scheme, replete with skinny, mansard-capped skyscrapers, which called for the destruction of the iconic New York Times tower—a proposal that failed to win many hearts. To this same region of the exhibition belonged Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates’ deliberately silly hotel and “‘gateway’ for the city’s 42nd Street Development Project” surmounted by a fool’s tricorn cap.
The show included a few highly inventive solutions to New York’s chronic housing problem, Raymond Hood’s suspension apartment bridges being the most spectacular. Spanning ten thousand feet, each of them could accommodate fifty thousand inhabitants in sixty-story towers as well as shops and theaters on either side of a broad thoroughfare. On a more intimate scale was Steven Holl’s Bridge of Houses, a proposal to crown New York Central’s abandoned elevated railway (today’s High Line) with a series of “villas” catering to members of every social class—a decidedly more egalitarian solution than that of the current tourist-infested walkway from which the little people can ogle at the luxury condos of the 1 percent. While Frank Lloyd Wright’s oak-tree-inspired Saint-Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie Towers of 1927 and I. M. Pei’s 1949 expanding and contracting Helix apartments may have made living in the round seem like fun, the same cannot have been said of R. Buckminster Fuller’s Skyrise for Harlem, a cluster of nine proposed one-hundred-story residential towers with an uncanny resemblance to nuclear power plants that were touted as an “instant” and “total solution to an American problem” in 1965.
Not ignored were several of Robert Moses’s failed attempts to accelerate automobile traffic through the city, including his brazen proposal to extend Fifth Avenue through the Washington Square Arch, which sprung Jane Jacobs into action, as well as his even more ambitious Mid-Manhattan Expressway, a super-sized omelet that would have entailed the breakage of an unprecedented number of eggs. The sole project with the potential to wreak even greater havoc on the island was Zeckendorf’s rooftop airport, which could have accommodated up to sixty-eight planes per hour on an elevated platform stretching over Ninth Avenue between Twenty-First and Seventy-First Streets, beneath which lay factories, stores, apartments, warehouses, railroads, and steamship terminals. Although Lifemagazine hailed it as “New York City’s Dream Airport” in 1945, Moses dismissed the idea as “ridiculous.”
After absorbing and pondering all of the above and many other unrealized projects, visitors finally found themselves before the museum’s magnificent 9,335-square-foot panorama of New York City, over which translucent plastic models of forty-four of the projects on view were superimposed by the Fabrication Lab at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. Illuminated from within, the models took on the guise of ghostly apparitions, especially when the light in the exhibition hall dimmed to simulate nightfall. Available too were a couple of headsets that allowed visitors who could figure out how to use them to admire five of the projects in all their virtual glory.
Set in context, the models revealed certain aspects of the city’s architectural development that were not specifically addressed by the curators of the exhibition. Looking at the scores of low-income and subsidized housing projects instituted by Moses throughout the five boroughs and conspicuously marked in red on the panorama (which he, in fact, commissioned), the viewer may have realized how little creativity has been exerted on the problem of affordable housing in New York, at least since Mayor John Lindsay’s failed attempt to redevelop run-down areas of Brooklyn and the Bronx with “Linear Cities” in the late 1960s. One cannot help but conclude that “progressive” when applied to architecture, at least in this town, has everything to do with cutting-edge technology and design and nothing to do with politics. The panorama also revealed that many a revolutionary design that looks fabulous on paper or in a glass-encased 3-D model appears ludicrous or worse when forced into the remorseless regularity of Manhattan’s grid—sort of like a loud-mouthed, attention-starved, neon-haired adolescent lost amid a phalanx of possibly boring but incredibly competent corporate CEOs clad in gray suits. Finally, one noticed the dearth of innovative projects in boroughs beyond Manhattan, especially ones designed specifically for inhabitants of those regions. This is all the more unfortunate as many of the less conventional structures would have looked far better along the coast of Staten Island or against the green backdrop of the Bronx’s parks than confined in Manhattan, as is aptly demonstrated by Peter Eisenman’s design for the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences and Morphosis’s Olympic Village in Long Island City.
The exhibition was paired with a catalogue that is a worthy investment for anyone who wishes to go beyond the sentence or two devoted to each project in the gallery guide. Richly illustrated and chock-full of information, it nevertheless omits several projects, most likely because it was prepared a year in advance of the exhibition. Another shortcoming is the index, which lists projects only according to their architects, making navigation tricky for those unfamiliar with the discipline’s cast of characters. The choice of a retro typewriter font (which makes it difficult to distinguish a from o, for example) was a bit ill-advised, all the more so as a good number of the designs on view postdate the machine’s obsolescence. These, however, are minor quibbles.
The 408-page volume opens with a foreword by Daniel Libeskind, which amounts to a list of pithy, disjointed, and loaded observations, such as, “One can build a building yet wind up without any architecture” (8). The final two sentences, however, presumably set the agenda for the exhibition, as they are cited in the press release: “The drawings in … Never Built New York, are … not a compendium of nostalgia, regret, or opportunities missed. They are, on the contrary, drawing the open mind to rethink the built and the unbuilt” (8).
Although Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell, the authors of the more cohesive introduction to the catalogue, profess to agree with Libeskind’s claim, they nonetheless allow themselves to indulge in regret:
[T]he catalogue of unbuilt New York projects demonstrates just how hard it is, when a designer conceives of something new or outside the orthodoxy, to realize that innovation. In most other cities, this cold fact might be taken for granted; but in New York, where ceaseless creativity and aspiration are the norm, it is surprising how many potentially brilliant buildings are confined to the archives. (15)
Many of the city’s greatest creative minds have built nothing, or close to nothing, here in this bastion of high finance and towering construction. (16)
The best, the grandest, the most outlandish, the truly radical proposition usually is the one that doesn’t get built. … The castoffs—facing less and less expectation that they will be taken seriously—are better than the realities. This is a reversal from most art forms, where the final product usually benefits from what’s edited out. But in the maddening, almost impossible hothouse of New York, the buildings consigned to the ashcan mingle with, and then surpass, their realized siblings. (23–24)
Goldin and Lubell’s laments may be justified, but their essay teems with contradictions and even some muddy thinking. Although they malign private developers and corporate power, who else but these have the means to finance the construction and maintenance of buildings designed by Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry, et alia, whose works they revere? They complain about decisions made by unimaginative bureaucrats and short-sighted politicians, but how many Calatrava train hubs can the city sustain before its coffers are depleted? Yes, the odds are stacked against female architects in New York City (where are they not?), but has Manhattan really lost out by having only one luxury apartment building with $35-million residences by the late Zaha Hadid? Granted, Libeskind’s design for the Freedom Tower was more striking than David Childs’s One World Trade Center, but could the city and developers afford to dish out $4 billion for a structure that was vulnerable to truck bombs? If so, who would be willing to justify that decision to the families of victims should there be an attack of this sort?
At times, Goldin and Lubell simply cannot decide what they prefer. They laud the efforts of Jane Jacobs against the wicked Moses, but then scorn the grass-roots movement that put an end to Gehry’s Atlantic Yards, which would have torn up the fabric of a large swathe of downtown Brooklyn and displaced many old-time residents. They complain about gentrification and the gradual disappearance of the city’s “rough edges,” but then champion precisely the sort of architects who initiate or accelerate such changes.
Like so many critics, they bring up the notion of New York’s “delirium”—a topos thanks to Koolhaas—and present a picture of a nonconformist, frenetic, wildly creative community thriving in a physical environment that fails to reflect its nature. But do we really need buildings to announce to the city’s sixty million annual visitors that New York is indeed a crazy place—just in case some of them are too thick to notice the sirens, the jackhammers, the garbage, the congestion, the stress, the dysfunctional subways, the homelessness and hardship faced by some of the city’s most vulnerable residents? Moreover, is it this that makes New York tick? Or is it Wall Street? After all, delirium and cacophony are tolerated only as long as they do not interfere with the smooth operations of the free market. Even the colorful bedlam of Times Square is meticulously crafted by CEOs and politicians through zoning regulations that preserve it as such in order to generate billions for the entertainment industry. Beneath all the buzz and bright lights lies a remarkably sober, solid, and powerful engine, cool and calculated, heartless and financially driven. It is money, or the promise of it, that draws creative minds to New York, after all, not vice versa.
Thus, rather than lamenting the mismatch between the essence of New York and its architecture, Goldin and Lubell would do well to redirect their eyes from the sky to the ground. For just as the quest for money has laid the city’s foundations and ruled its destiny, so too has the grid, motivated purely by economic factors, dictated the fate of its physical development—at least that of its symbolic center. Indeed, if there is one thing that Never Built New York and the breathtaking panorama at the Queens Museum can teach us, it is that the grid, far more than any architectural folly, embodies the spirit of this almighty metropolis.
Irina Oryshkevich has a PhD in art history from Columbia University, where she teaches a class on the architecture of New York City each year.