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From the grid of Manhattan’s streets to the spire of the Empire State Building, New York City’s design has a weight of inevitability. Of course, it could all be much different. We might be visiting the Museum of Modern Art in cantilevered, light-filled galleries by Howe & Lescaze, as envisioned in 1930, or experiencing an expanded Whitney Museum of American Art as planned by Michael Graves in 1985, with colorful, geometric structures bombarding Marcel Breuer’s brutalist building.
Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin’s Never Built New York, published by Metropolis Books, is a compendium of 200 of these unrealized architectural dreams. The publication follows the authors’ 2013 book and exhibition at the A+D Museum, Never Built Los Angeles. In September 2017, a show co-curated by Lubell and Goldin will open at the Queens Museum exploring unrealized New York City plans through models, prints, installations, and animations.
In a foreword for the new book, architect Daniel Libeskind — whose 2002 Gardens of the World tower for the World Trade Center site is featured in it — writes: “The power of a drawing and its creative force does not lie merely in its use as a tool for practical purposes. It lies in the beholder’s imagination.”
And the fantasies contained in the renderings and drawings in Never Built New York are incredible. Lubell and Goldin note that for “a city constantly renewing itself, and continuously tearing down to build anew, genuinely pathbreaking concepts often languish. In a city that embraced both Art Deco and modernist skyscrapers — and is certainly the more beautiful for both — stabs at truly rattling or upending the status quo rarely have a happy result.”
Indeed, the impression one gets from flipping through Never Built New York is one of visionary ambition for a city that’s often remained architecturally conservative, partly due to space limitations and partly because of bureaucratic city planning. (See Hyperallergic’s previous piece on unbuilt museums of New York City.)
Few may regret the absence of Frank Gehry’s gargantuan 2000 Guggenheim Museum, which was planned to loom over the East River in Lower Manhattan. Yet the lack of a version of Moshe Safdie’s Habitat (which stands in Montreal), Raymond Hood’s elegant and congestion-combatting 1925 Skyscraper Bridges, or the incredible geodesic 1955 Dodger Dome by Norman Bel Geddes and R. Buckminster Fuller is lamentable. They were missed opportunities for experimentation.
Ellis Island was left to decay for decades before opening as a museum in 1990. Proposals like Frank Lloyd Wright’s futuristic “Key Project” from 1959 or Philip Johnson’s ziggurat-shaped 1966 Ellis Island National Immigration Museum — which would have encouraged plants and trees to grow in empty structures — show how the island could have been an active part of the city all along.
Lubell and Goldin scoured archives, including the Library of Congress, to excavate projects that reflect different perceptions of New York City’s identity. For instance, the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 blueprint promoted the grid, but it also involved open public spaces, almost all of which were obliterated. A 1909 plan by Thomas Hastings with Daniel Chester French for a “National American Indian Memorial” to greet arrivals in New York Harbor would have commemorated the “vanishing” Native Americans with a huge statue atop a version of Hastings’s New York Public Library, guarded by a pair of buffalo instead of lions. And at one point, the Brooklyn Museum was to be twice the size of the Louvre in Paris, but its full 1893 design by McKim, Mead and White went unrealized due to financial restrictions. Each of these projects signifies an alternate reality for the city, a path that could have been but was ultimately never taken.