In 1811, New York’s street commissioners mapped out a future metropolis. Although most residents lived downtown below Houston Street – then tellingly called North Street – they envisioned the city stretching another eight miles into upper Manhattan. Where there were marshes, boulders and hilltop farms, the surveyors drew avenues 100 foot wide, bisected by narrower streets.
The commissioners’ plan was the most farsighted in New York City history. By the end of the 19th century, once-rural roads were lined with brownstones or apartment blocks. It also acted like an architectural corset, squeezing buildings into right angles and 25-by-100-foot lots. For generations since, urban designers have struggled to wriggle free.
A new book, “Never Built New York” by Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell demonstrates how the confines of the grid have been both an inspiration to countless architects and (along with the city’s intractable bureaucracy and special interests) a “great irritant”. The beautifully illustrated volume compiles nearly 200 failed proposals – shown in models and sketches – that offer a glimpse of what might have been. The designers wrestle with the city’s lack of space, looking above and below street level or even into the surrounding waterways for new places to build. The book shows that the street commissioners weren’t the only visionaries to try and reshape Manhattan, but that theirs was the rare big idea to break ground.
Sobering as it is, “Never Built New York” also reveals the remarkable inventiveness behind each failure. It includes designs for aerial streets many storeys high, allowing pedestrians to walk between skyscrapers; and for giant apartment blocks clinging precariously to the sides of bridges. But the most tantalising – or terrifying – dustbin projects would have torn the urban fabric.
Congestion has always been an annoyance of the grid, with only 12 avenues for north-south traffic. At the turn of the 20th century, many planners argued that diagonal boulevards would be an elegant fix, imbuing the city with European grandeur. London and Paris had already made similar improvements, splicing crowded neighbourhoods in the name of modernity (and slum clearance). New roads could radiate from Union Square, as Julius Harder suggested in 1898, or plough through Lower East Side tenements to Cooper Square, as Charles R. Lamb would have it a few years later. It’s enticing to imagine strolling up these grands boulevards after a visit to the Greenmarket or passing angular echoes of the Flatiron Building. But property owners would have none of it and the roads never left the drawing board.
Some plans got closer to construction. Alfred Ely Beach, a lawyer and journalist, envisioned an underground pneumatic railway running through Manhattan and Brooklyn, with air pressure pushing the cars. Powered by a steam engine and a giant fan, the principle had already been tested in London at the 1864 exhibition at Crystal Palace. In 1870, Beach built a 294-foot demonstration tunnel near City Hall – replete with a frescoed waiting area and a piano – which the public could visit for 25 cents. The state legislature approved the tube, but the governor vetoed it. At the same time, Rufus Henry Gilbert, an inventor, proposed an elevated pneumatic line running on top of wrought-iron Gothic arches. This too got the go-ahead, only to lose investors when the stock market collapsed in the panic of 1873.
The closest New York got to a Baron Haussmann was Robert Moses, a city planner who used his extraordinary power to remake the city for the automobile. He left us 416 miles of charmless highway across the five boroughs, razing neighbourhoods in the process. One of the blessedly quashed plans in “Never Built” is his 1955 Fifth Avenue Extension, which would have bulldozed part of Washington Square Park to connect with a Lower Manhattan Expressway through SoHo. In a triumph of civic activism, Jane Jacobs, a journalist, shredded these blueprints and launched the preservation movement.
New York’s architecture has always been more tepid than the city’s creative, aspirational reputation would suggest. As the authors note, “Embedded in New York’s deepest psyche is a conservatism that eschews risk.” The World Trade Centre site is a glaring recent example. In 2002, Daniel Libeskind (who wrote the foreword to this book) proposed a delicate, angular tower with an offset spire. Larry Silverstein, the developer, interfered, and the so-called Freedom Tower was bulked up beyond recognition. The new One World Trade Center is a corporate box. In Brooklyn, a collection of exuberant Frank Gehry buildings designed for Atlantic Yards met the same fate, felled by community opposition and budget cuts. In the past, Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip Johnson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe suffered similar indignities.
Today, though, there is a new optimism. A spate of recent successes, like the elevated High Line, has created a new sense of possibility. Unfazed by the demise of a park on a pier in the East River, proposed in 1973, Thomas Heatherwick has drawn one up for the Hudson. His snazzy Pier 55 could sprout offshore by 2020. The Lowline, a seemingly fanciful underground garden, received preliminary city approval in July. Despite shelves of archived designs, New Yorkers still manage to believe that this one will actually happen.
Never Built New York by Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell out now (Metropolis Books/Distributed Art Publishers)