Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A new catalog of unrealized buildings and infrastructure holds lessons for today.
The Great Fire of 1776 devastated nearly a quarter of Manhattan’s building stock. Out of ruin, the 18th-century ruling elite saw opportunity: They could remake the city into something more orderly, resilient, and profitable than what the winding, narrow streets of yore had allowed. The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 inscribed an orderly crosshatch of streets onto the hilly island. An easily navigable city, with easily sub-dividable lots, emerged.
Here was the grid: the greatest conceivable boon to New York’s real-estate market. Its standardized parcels of land turned the city into a chessboard, with developers vying to dominate premium spaces. The grid’s relentless constraints may have pushed many buildings towards uniformity, but the parameters also prodded architects to new creative heights. Some of those more daring visions stand today—take the Chrysler building, or Bjarke Ingels’ new West Side pyramid—but many of them don’t. Tucked away in archives, desk drawers, and folios are thousands of unseen, wild-eyed answers to the question of how to use space in New York City.
In the new book, Never Built New York (Metropolis Books, $55), the architectural critics Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell tour nearly 200 of those unrealized building plans. The catalog represents, in one way, “200 years of failed attempts to confer that order, rationality, efficiency, ‘beauty’” dictated by the grid, the authors write. In another way, it “demonstrates just how hard it is, when a designer conceives of something new or outside the orthodoxy, to realize that innovation.” There are always new buildings going up in New York City, but “genuinely pathbreaking concepts often languish,” they write.
The book opens with 1811 Commissioners’ Plan for park spaces—almost none of which panned out, even as the grid itself did. As the 19th century unfolded, so did visionary transit schemes grown out of the machine-obsessed Victorian era: think tubes, monorails, and multi-tier expressways. From the skyscraper-infatuated 1920s come bridges trussed with imposing commercial towers, and from the wartime 1940s, an airstrip made of conjoined rooftops. The futuristic mid-20th century produces Buckminster Fuller’s plan for a bubble-enclosed baseball stadium to replace the Dodgers’ Ebbets Field, and a community of pancake-stacked towers and domes by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Along the way, Lubell and Goldin show how some of these plans leaned towards the rational uniformity that the grid encouraged, while others broke from it to cast a new image of the city. As economy and culture evolved over time, so did buildings’ aesthetics and the values they telegraphed. Here, the authors find lessons for modern-day New York, as new construction is increasingly shaped by an extremely wealthy elite (see: the towers at Hudson Yards). Architectural visions that reject the status quo may be ever less likely to see the light of day; they stand to become “less and less tethered to reality, while reality becomes a corporate-cushioned mirage,” write the authors.
Pushed further from its gridded conservatism, what could New York City look like? Never Built New York offers glimpses, at least, of what might have been.