Never Built New York at the Queens Museum has three distinct experiences with a New York City that never was. One is a salon-style gallery packed with models, blueprints, drawings, and other ephemera, arranged geographically like a collage of unrealized Manhattan; another plots illuminated models of unbuilt designs right on the museum’s 1960s Panorama of the City of New York ; and the third features a bouncy castle in the atrium.
Visitors can take off their shoes and enter a scaled-down version of Eliot Noyes’s 1961 plan for a silvery Westinghouse Pavilion of connected orbs intended for the 1964 New York World’s Fair (the very event for which the museum was built). While jumping around the inflatable Pavilion is perhaps not going to deepen your understanding of modernist architecture, it definitely captures the playful sci-fi futurism that marked the midcentury World’s Fairs.
That exuberant blurring of timelines, whether a World’s Fair proposal turned into a 21st-century designer bouncy castle or the luminescent models that haunt the Panorama, is central to Never Built New York. Curated by Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin and designed by Christian Wassmann, the exhibition is all about speculating on missed opportunities in almost two centuries of New York City history — like the elegantly cantilevered 1930 Museum of Modern Art by George Howe and William Lescaze — and dodged disasters — like Norman Sper’s 1934 scheme to dam the Hudson River and connect Manhattan with New Jersey, and Robert Moses’s 1960s LOMEX expressway. The exhibition follows Never Built Los Angeles at the Architecture and Design Museum in LA, also curated by Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin, and their Never Built New York book.
In that 2016 publication, Lubell and Goldin write 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, although there are some visually bombastic projects currently underway, such as Thomas Heatherwick’s hive-like “Vessel” at Hudson Yards or Steven Holl Architects’s Hunters Point library with its concrete cut-outs, rarely have New York’s most transformative proposals been realized. Never Built New York involves materials from the Avery Archives at Columbia University, New-York Historical Society, Library of Congress, MTA records, and architecture firms. It exhumes ideas both visionary — Norman Bel Geddes’s “All-Weather-All-Purpose” stadium for the Brooklyn Dodgers whose “synthetic substance” in place of grass anticipated AstroTurf by a decade — and infamous. Thomas Hastings’s National American Indian Memorial for Staten Island had a grand groundbreaking in 1913, only for participants (including a large contingent of indigenous people) to discover that its supposed donor, Rodman Wanamaker, was just a very mediocre fundraiser. Near the Hastings drawing is a 1959 framed cocktail napkin on which Frank Lloyd Wright sketched one of his last designs — a glass domed residential development for Ellis Island. Its lush rendering by Taliesin Associated Architects is a futuristic fever dream, yet it’s worth noting that the Ellis Island museum wasn’t opened until 1990, the island’s historic architecture left to decay in isolation from the rest of the city.
Every unseen building represents not just an alternative cityscape, but a different direction for New York design. Would McKim, Mead & White’s 1903 plan for a 14-story Grand Central featuring a Beaux Arts clock tower have endured against obliterating proposals like I. M. Pei’s 1950s Hyperboloid circular tower? If Rufus Henry Gilbert’s elevated railway concept from 1872, with its Gothic iron arches and pedestrian-respecting height, had been built, would elevated rails have remained in Manhattan? Would Steven Holl’s 1970s “Bridge of Houses” for the disused railway tracks in Chelsea have been better than the High Line for a housing-pressed New York?
On the Queens Museum Panorama, these unbuilt sites are physically mapped. Each of the plastic models, made by students in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, is spectrally lit with LED lights. Developer William Zeckendorf’s 1945 Manhattan airport proposal consumes 40 blocks of the West Side; Raymond Hood’s 1925 residential skyscraper bridges loom over the Hudson River. Virtual reality (VR) glasses positioned on the balcony overlooking the miniature five boroughs offer immersive digital renderings of five sites, including one that would have been right outside the museum: Paul Rudolph’s Galaxon. The tilted, flying saucer-shaped platform for stargazing would have stood where the Unisphere stands today. It is an architectural expression of our small place in the universe, while the Earth-shaped Unisphere celebrates the our human conquering of outer space, with rings on the stainless steel globe mapping the paths of astronauts Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn, as well as the first communications satellite.
Never Built New York is much lighter on text and analysis than it is on visuals. Instead it is about remembering alternative futures, and considering how these can reframe our perception of the contemporary city. Never Built New York asks that we see the city not as a static landscape, but as one of possibilities.
Never Built New York continues through February 18, 2018 at the Queens Museum (New York City Building, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens).