This Sunday, September 17, the Queens Museum opens Never Built New York, organized by the co-curators of Never Built Los Angeles (2013)—AN‘s Contributing Editor Sam Lubell alongside contributor, critic, and writer Greg Goldin.
The exhibit, designed by Christian Wassmann, highlights unrealized architectural gems and urban design as its predecessors did, with a focus on New York. Spanning 150 years, the show presents works that would have “dramatically changed the landscape of New York for better or worse,” according to Lubell. In Goldin’s words, it’s meant to examine “the capacity of draftsmen and model makers to seduce you, when the real world effects [of those designs] could have been disastrous.”
Divided into three discrete spaces, the show features the speculative work of recognized architects like Harvey Wiley Corbett, Frank Lloyd Wright, I.M. Pei, Steven Holl, Buckminster Fuller, and others. Each of the three spaces—the Rubin Gallery, the Panorama of the City of New York, and the Skylight Room—approaches the plans and drawings at a decidedly different scale.
The Queens Museum itself is the only remaining in-use building from New York’s 1939 World’s Fair—its open, light-filled lobby was revamped by Grimshaw Architects in 2013. In the show, Eliot Noyes’ proposal for the Westinghouse Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair is represented as a 1:6 scale silver bouncy castle, gleaming under a skylight. It’s by far the splashiest piece of the show – the original would have been much less fun, a series of concentric spheres clustered around a rotating platform showcasing Westinghouse’s utilities business, resembling a giant fidget spinner to the contemporary eye.
On the walls surrounding the plush pneumatic project are models and drawings for projects related to the Museum and its home, Flushing Meadows. One highlight is a massive star-viewing platform called Galaxon by Paul Rudolph that was designed for the space where the Unisphere now stands, but was rejected from the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Tilted at 23 degrees (supposedly the best angle for star-observing), this massive saucer epitomizes the rush of scientific and popular excitement in the 1950s and ’60s leading up to the lunar landing, while the Unisphere, in contrast, centers Earth and earthly endeavors as monumental (its size is still astonishing at 140 feet tall).
In the Rubin Gallery, a dim, tapered room roughly resembling the shape of Manhattan, models, renderings, and drawings are arranged salon-style on the black walls. Organized geographically rather than temporally, this is the meat of the show, though much of it is contextualized only by a fold-out newspaper guide. At the entrance, viewers find work located in Staten Island and Lower Manhattan; at the exit, work located in Upper Manhattan and Queens. The first item on view is Thomas Hastings’s National American Indian Memorial. In 1913, project leaders held a groundbreaking ceremony on Staten Island attended by 32 Native chiefs, only to discover later that fundraising for the project had been a sham.
Many monoliths and megaprojects lie within the elongated space: a plan for Ellis Island sketched by Frank Lloyd Wright on a napkin (translated into beautiful renderings by Taliesen Associated Architects), Robert Moses’ infamous Lower and Midtown Manhattan Expressways, Steven Holl’s aqueous urbanist experiments the Bridge of Houses (1981) and Parallax Towers (1990), and Buckminster Fuller’s 1960 solution to house a quarter of a million people—fifteen 100-foot conical towers in Harlem — and so many more architectural relics. The projects in the room represent only about a fifth of the material that the curators combed through in the almost two years it took to put together the exhibition and its companion book.
The third area, the Panorama of the City of New York, is already familiar to many urbanists and architects, and reason enough to make the trek out to Flushing Meadows. In the familiar model landscape of the city, the curators have placed 26 luminous models of the unbuilt projects, fabricated over a summer by students from Columbia University’s GSAPP program.
Gazing down from a platform surrounding its perimeter, the massive structures from the previous room suddenly appear small – or rather, at scale with the city’s existing fabric, scattered throughout the boroughs, emitting a ghostly light. In the words of the curators, this lighting choice was meant to evoke the perspective of astronauts gazing down at a lonely planet, evoking a sense of fragility.
On the opposite side of the model, a virtual reality station is set up with several headsets containing graphics generated by Shimihara Illustration of five keystone projects in the exhibit. Making use of spherical photography, the headsets allow viewers to toggle from a bird’s eye view of New York City to a ground-level perspective of each project as it would have appeared in real life, in some cases with terrifying grandeur, as is the case for Fuller’s spiky-crowned, towering Harlem housing units.
When asked about the inspiration for the exhibit, Lubell referred to Rebecca Shanor’s The City That Never Was (1991) as a particularly influential text, Robert A.M. Stern’s famous New York book series, and Hugh Ferriss’ examinations of the art of rendering, from practical urban interventions to lurid, futuristic daydreams.
The curators were wary of remarking positively on most of the projects, suggesting that many were perhaps best suited for the realm of imagination alone. “Thank God that never came to pass” was a frequent aside. Due to the colossal scale of the majority of works featured (a hint at why they might not have received adequate funding), many would have resulted in the destruction of existing architectural treasures, such as a 55-story Park Avenue skyscraper by Marcel Breuer that would have cut its foundation directly through Grand Central Terminal. The show does spotlight a few modest, jewel box pieces, including Joseph Urban’s design for the 1926 Metropolitan Opera, which was squelched by the institution’s board.
Architects will find in Never Built New York a parallel New York full of architectural wonders, whether better off unbuilt or not. The show is on view through February 2018.