What’s the going price for a one-bedroom nestled into an elbow in the struts of the Manhattan Bridge? We’ll never know, and that’s probably for the best, but a new exhibit at the Queens Museum in Flushing, New York will at least give you a rough sketch of what that lifestyle might have been like.
Never Built New York, curated by Sam Lubell and Greg Coldin and designed by Christian Wassmann, opens today, and features over 150 years-worth of drawings and models of New York City’s boldest, weirdest, long-forgotten building projects. That includes things as well-known Frank Lloyd Wright’s zany sci-fi vision for Ellis Island (his last major drawing before his death in 1959) and alternate mock-ups for the Freedom Tower, as well as lesser-known daydreams that never got anywhere close to off the ground, like William Zeckendorf’s 1946 plan for a $3 billion airport stretching over 40 blocks of the Hudson River and into Midtown Manhattan. Or, even weirder, Raymond Hood’s 1925 concept for solving a housing crisis by fitting 50-story skyscrapers into the city’s bridges.
Pieces of the exhibit were pulled from about 40 public and private archives, including the Library of Congress, MTA records, various New York architecture firms, university collections, and the lobby of a Madison Square restaurant that just happened to be renovating when Lubell and Coldin walked in and noticed a wooden mock-up of a 100-story tower that was meant to be the crown jewel of that area. The first 29 stories were built, but the Great Depression hit, and now it’s still there, unfinished, hideously wide at the base for a building of its size.
There are also five virtual reality experiences included in Never Built New York, which allow visitors to see what various New York City landmarks — including Coney Island and Grand Central Terminal — might have looked like in an alternate timeline. The former might have had a huge globe, the latter an 108-story tower with a crown. Within the next few weeks, the curators say, there will be a stand-alone app powered by architecture startup Visual Vocal, so anyone can look at the immersive illustrations.
In a preview of the exhibit, Lubell referred to many of the abandoned ideas as “ghosts,” saying that things that actually get built can have a “domino effect” on the city around them, influencing other decisions about land-use and aesthetics, but even unbuilt things can have an impact — the thrillingly named “ghost effect.” (This exhibit is a fun fall trip if you’re done with all of New York City’s many ghost tours, by the way.) For example, in 1981, Steven Holl proposed a “bridge of houses” be built along the abandoned railway beds in Chelsea. The apartments were supposed to range from single-room studios for the homeless to luxury condos, and the plan’s popularity was later used as justification for doing something beautiful with the space. Now we have the High Line, a very nice ghost.
Though Never Built New York will probably feel most unsettling to New Yorkers, the people who have intimate relationships with the city as it exists, Lubell says the exhibit should be just as interesting for tourists. “Anybody can relate to the craziness or the emotional impact of having an airport glommed onto the side of your downtown,” he told The Verge in a phone call. “There’s also the seduction of being transported to a time when an idea like that wasn’t all that far-fetched. Anybody can relate to that, and can be interested in seeing these visions that represent a different way of thinking and a different time in the country’s history, when people were pursuing things that we now see as insane.”
Some of these visions seem magical — like Steven Holl’s “Parallax Towers,” a series of skyscrapers connected by horizontal elevators in the river off of 72nd street — but others are jarring in the destruction they would have entailed. In the 1950s and 60s, for example, notorious public transit-foe Robert Moses pushed a plan that would have connected the Holland Tunnel and the Manhattan Bridge with a 10-lane expressway — demolishing much of SoHo and Little Italy, then considered “blighted” neighborhoods.
But the team says they want visitors to try to suspend judgment during the exhibit (Coldin noting that the Lower Manhattan Expressway might, however appalling, have solved the near-constant standstill on Canal Street, a problem that persists 60 years later). “You can envision the city as something more than it is at present,” he argued. “You can begin to look at the ways that the city is not functioning. In our show, there’s a 1920 proposal [that] said they should build a number of subways that would have been double what we have today. Now, you could look at that and lament the fact, or you could say ‘that’s what we need to do, we need to have that level of commitment and dedication to the idealist proposition.’” In a slightly alt universe, Governor Cuomo might not get 6,000 tweets per day telling him to “fix the subway.” Huh.
The best thing about Never Built New York is that it’s organized geographically, not chronologically, which means it’s easy to see which pockets of the city have been a sticking point for decades or even centuries — the spots different urban planners and architects have returned to over and over, looking for a more utopian way for it to exist. The wealth of information and could-have-beens are confusing and dizzying on their face, but they’re beautiful as a hodge-podge portrait of a city that’s constantly brainstorming.
(Also, there’s a bouncy house!)
Never Built New York will be on display at the Queens Museum through February 18, 2018.