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Hugh Ferriss’s midcentury rendering for a Fifth Avenue entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with ramps instead of stairs (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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.

Cover of Never Built New York (courtesy Metropolis Books)

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.”

Hugh Ferris’s drawing from 1947 for the preliminary Manhattan United Nations plans (courtesy Metropolis Books)

Joseph Urban’s drawing for the 1926 Metropolitan Opera House (courtesy Metropolis Books)

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.

Thomas Hastings and Daniel Chester French, “National American Indian Memorial” (1909) (courtesy Metropolis Books)

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.

Rufus Henry Gilbert’s 1870 design for air-powered elevated tubes (courtesy Metropolis Books)

Pages from Never Built New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Pages from Never Built New York (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Isamu Noguchi and Louis Kahn’s Adele Levy Memorial Playground, designed for Riverside Park (1960) (courtesy Metropolis Books)

Michael Graves’s 1985 design for the expansion of the Whitney Museum of American Art (courtesy Metropolis Books)

Aymar Embury II and Eliel Saarinen’s 1942 rendering for the exterior renovation of the American Museum of Natural History (courtesy Metropolis Books)

1911 New York Times article about Charles Rollinson Lamb’s 1904 diagonal street plan (courtesy Metropolis Books)

R. Buckminster Fuller’s “Dome Over Manhattan” (1961) (courtesy Metropolis Books)

Robert Moses’s Fifth Avenue Extension (1955), cutting through Washington Square Park (courtesy Metropolis Books)

Paul Rudolph’s “City Corridor” (1967) (courtesy Metropolis Books)

Moshe Safdie’s model for Habitat New York II for the Fulton Fish Market and South Street Seaport (1960s) (courtesy Metropolis Books)

Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Lower Manhattan (2000) (courtesy Metropolis Books)

McKim, Mead and White’s submission for the Grand Central Terminal (1903) (courtesy Metropolis Books)

Howe and Lescaze’s model for the Museum of Modern Art (1930), with cantilevered galleries for natural and artificial light (courtesy Metropolis Books)

Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin’s Never Built New York is published by Metropolis Books and available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...