Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
Renzo Picasso wanted to build seven-layer "superstreets" through American cities.
But Renzo Giovanni Battista Picasso, born in 1880 in Genoa, Italy, was clearly his own man. An inventor, engineer, and designer with a taste for the fantastical, his whimsical and weird ideas reflect what urbanists of a century ago envisioned as the American city of the future.
His father and grandfather, both Genoese architects and urban planners, had made significant contributions to his hometown. But unlike them, Picasso wasn’t bound by geography or tradition. Via the Renzo Picasso archive:
While he had a great love of Genoa, Picasso was truly a “world citizen.” He spent much of his time traveling and exploring the great cities of Europe and America. Upon visiting New York City in 1911, he was deeply impressed by the urbanism and technical innovation of modern American architecture. Deviating from the more conservative styles of his father and grandfather, he produced a large number of visionary drawings and plans depicting the most striking aspects of what he saw, such as skyscrapers, elevators, public transports, and urban plans.
Picasso, who died in 1975, designed several buildings in Genoa, and was loosely associated with the avant-garde art movement called Futurism, which emerged in Italy before World War I. Like the Futurists, Picasso was enthralled with technology, modernity, and the quickening pace of industrial civilization; he loved sketching subway lines and dreaming up wildly impractical conveyances. (Among his many unrealized projects: this fearsome “battling motorcanoe.”) Now, the Renzo Picasso Archive is trying to collect what remains of his plans, maps, designs, and notes.
One image from 1929, titled “American Multiple Highway,” shows a stacked roadway system that runs along the length of Manhattan, and beyond:
Casira Copes, assistant archivist at the Renzo Picasso Archive, explains the image further in an email to CityLab:
It was intended to have seven levels: six for automobiles and pedestrians, and one underground for the subway. As can be seen in the image, the criss-cross pattern is the intersection of the "Super Streets," three of which go from North to South and the other three from East to West. All the levels would have connected between them and with the ground by means of ramps, and to the corresponding buildings via catwalks.
According to Copes, Picasso “had very close ties” with the New York City government during the 1920s and 1930s and he based this work on information from over 220 pages of urban planning proposals obtained from the mayor’s office. “Picasso's design was intended to help better express a lot of the more complex ideas in a more clear and visual manner,” Copes says. “The idea for the American Multiple Highway was intended to be a complete system for not just Manhattan, but all the major cities of the US, ‘from the Atlantic to the Pacific,’” she adds, quoting from Picasso’s translated notes.
Another scheme, “Crosstown Boulevard,” was also created in collaboration with the city government. It shows four lanes for traffic: a yellow one for cars and other automobiles running normal speed, a red express lane for fast-moving vehicles that weaves underneath the yellow lane, a green one for trains, and a blue level for "areo-garages"—a network of runway-topped hangars so planes and other air traffic could fly among (and through!) the skyscrapers.
The image below, titled “Super-Via,” encapsulates perfectly Picasso’s view of urbanism. It represents the heart of a city as a dense, complex, and layered ecosystem with symbiotic connections throughout.
“He felt there was something very organic in the way most cities have their highest points near the heart of urban life,” Copes says. “In this case, ‘Grand Central Street’ is the large river that gives life to the ‘trees’ known as skyscrapers.”
Did Picasso really expect anyone to build such creations? Copes says that the architect did believe his ideas were possible to implement. “Considering the multitude of numerical data we have from him, it's safe to say that he had a lot of faith in these ideas,” she says. “Although we must keep in mind that this was based on New York in the late 1920s, and we shouldn't necessarily assume that means he would believe it to be the best idea in this day-and-age.”
Indeed, some elements of his vision—underground highways and designated lanes, for example—are now common. If nothing else, Picasso certainly grasped something important about American cities: We would soon want a lot more room for cars. But even if we’re unlikely to now embark on a seven-layer superhighway initiative, there are lessons here that contemporary urban planners can learn from Picasso.
“I think the admirable thing about Renzo Picasso's work is how he understood the ways in which these different aspects of urban systems related to one another and that these sorts of plans must have consideration from every conceivable angle,” Copes says. “He considered usability, business and economic effects, and of course the aesthetic nature of every idea. I think it's that sort of thoroughness and exploration that should really be taken away from his works.”
H/T: Big Think