Parallel universe: tracing New York’s unbuilt history

Parallel universe: tracing New York’s unbuilt history

A new edition from Metropolis Books, Never Built New York explores what the Big Apple might look like in an alternative universe of unbuilt projects. Through sketches, renderings, prints and models, co-authors Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell tell the stories of nearly 200 projects proposed by architects over the last two centuries. More than just failed plans, the unrealised buildings make us question how the urban environment effects how we live today.

In the foreword to the book, Daniel Libeskind compares architects to composers, seeing their drawings as scores hidden in the back of drawers; never played yet laden with genius. The book shows architects as idealistic, yet often unrealistic dreamers; the Skyscraper Bridges of Raymond Hood emerge eerily from their pencil sketches and R Buckminster Fuller’s glass dome over Manhattan, half a mile in diameter, looks positively futuristic.

Moshe Safdie’s Habitat was a modular housing community proposed in 1968 to prevent middle class residents moving to the suburbs

Many of these radical plans looked to solve problems that still haven’t been tackled. William Zeckendorf’s floating airport, designed in 1945 in an attempt to reduce air-travel time, rose 200 ft above street level on steel columns with elevators rising from runways; while Robert Moses’ 1949 expressway, planned to combat congestion through a six lane path, sat ten floors above the street.

Many of the plans would replace the structures which define New York today. What if the High Line didn’t exist and Steven Holl’s 1980 Bridge of Houses existed instead? There’d be a housing system combining studios for the city’s homeless with luxury apartments, devised to reuse space and solve social problems.

Other designs feel like a great loss to New York. Moshe Safdie’s triangular patterned M-shaped Columbus Centre, George Howe and William Lescaze’s blocky, modernist Museum of Modern Art or Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim, which could have landed bang in the middle of Manhattan, could have completely changed our relationship with the city.

Somehow, Goldin and Lubell still manage to tell an architectural history of New York, through economic crises, changing mayors and governments, technological developments and trends – an inverse history of a city that never was.

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