One Man's Obsessive Mission to Draw Every Building in New York

A new book by Australian artist James Gulliver Hancock captures all the ones he's done so far.

James Gulliver Hancock wants you to know about a little personal project of his. It's nothing big, really. Just something he does whenever he has the chance. The project is to draw all 900,000 buildings in New York City. Like we said, nothing major.

Hancock began his epic effort in April of 2010 along with a personal blog where he posted many of the finished works. More than 500 of the buildings in New York that he's drawn so far were just published in the very appropriately titled book: All the Buildings in New York: That I've Drawn So Far (Universe).

The 35-year-old Australian now splits his time between his native Sydney and Brooklyn, where he works out a studio at the Pencil Factory, in Greenpoint. Hancock says he and his wife originally preferred Berlin as a home but thought it best to locate in the United States for work. So they chose New York as "the most European city" in the country, he tells Atlantic Cities.

"Once we moved though, it felt like the most natural course of things," Hancock says. "I found a great group of peers and was inspired every day by the city I'd seen in film and on TV growing up."

You started out just drawing brownstones in Brooklyn. How did you go from that little hobby to the far more ambitious project of drawing every building in the city?

I'd done a few more similar type projects that ended in doing one large silkscreen print. Some of these were "All the Rain in London," "All the Snow in Montreal," "All the Bicycles in Berlin." These were whimsical attempts to capture the thing that most stood out to me in each place I visited.

When we moved to New York, I started the same process, but because there were so many places I wanted to draw, I set up a little blog so I could track them like a diary. It really did start to feel like a diary that helped me to understand my new home.

What's your process for drawing a particular building?

I do draw on site, though these drawings are typically the quicker black and white drawings. The more detailed color ones I do sketches and take photos and do the final drawing back in the studio. I'm so in love with buildings that I'm always taking photos when I'm out and about, so even when I'm out of town I'm able to continue the project.

I now also get a lot of commissions asking me to draw certain buildings that are special to people. This is a great aspect to the project as it takes me to parts of the city that I wouldn't normally go to. It also really gives me a feel for the reality of the city — the daily lives of the people of New York. One of the cutest ones was a couple that so loved the apartments they moved from to live together that they commissioned one of each and the new apartment they both lived in together.

Your drawings have an almost cartoon-like feel and yet they also seem quite accurate.

I've always drawn with this mix of technicality and whimsy. I think it is a great extension of my personality; a little bit of technical obsession, combined with a little bit of artistic messiness. It's a push and pull which I think you can see in my drawings and is somehow relevant to New York, which is after all a crazy organic mess organized on a grid.

You told the New York Times you don't "hate" any particular types of buildings — but are there any that you especially love?

I definitely love the brownstones. I'd never really experienced this way of living before. They're four or so stories, with the railroad apartments, the old lady in the basement probably, the boiler down there too, clanging the pipes all the way to the top. It seems like such an efficient, social way of living in a dense society, allowing for privacy, but also almost forcing daily interactions, via the stoops and staircases.

Do you ever worry that by the time you finish all the buildings, some of them won't still be there?

It excites me that if a decade or so a lot of new buildings will be up, I'll have to draw them again.

All images courtesy of James Gulliver Hancock.

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