There is something about staring out at the colossus of New York, or walking among its teeming multitudes, that inspires even the most amateur urban planner to envision ripping the whole thing apart and starting over.
It’s why there is a special genre of film, from King Kong to Ghostbusters 2, whose main thrill is watching the city burst into flames or crumble into dust.
Perhaps it is because New York is so imposing, a self-contained universe more than a city. Or perhaps it is because the city can seem to have so little regard for itself and its heritage, ripping down buildings almost as soon as they go up in a frenzy of real estate speculation.
There is another New York that seemingly lies just on the other side of the curtain from this one, the one of the city as it was in memory when we first moved here, or first visited, or first fell in love with it. Or that other New York is the one that never was, that never made it past the drawing board, the planning commission, or the fevered imagination of some wide-eyed architect.
This New York is the subject of a mesmerizing show at the Queens Museum. Called “Never Built New York,” it is a vision of a city that never was.
There is the 144-block long floating airport on the West Side of Manhattan that looked like an aircraft carrier decked over the Hudson River from 24th to 71st streets. The brainchild of William Zeckendorf, a real estate magnate who owned the Chrysler Building, the airport was going to have shops and offices below, much like the Port Authority does today, before the public blanched at the $3 billion cost.
There is “Skyrise for Harlem,” a collaboration between the poet June Jordan and the inventor Buckminster Fuller that would have lifted the then poverty-stricken neighborhood into the sky with a series of cylindrical towers and walkways that would have eliminated the neighborhood’s corners where most drug-dealing and violence went down.
There are skyrise apartment blocks built on top of the rails of East River bridges, a way of making sure that there is hardly a sliver of sky in the five boroughs not put to public use.
The first gallery of “Never Built New York” as designed by curators Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin (who last year published a book under the same name with Metropolitan Books) is narrow at its entrance before the walls open up a bit wider about a quarter of the way through, the images and renderings tossed almost haphazardly on the walls and floors, as if they are about to topple onto one another.
The room, looks, in other words, like New York, and indeed the renderings and building plans are arranged south-to-north as if they were in the real Manhattan.
Upon entering the gallery you see the rather ridiculous-looking National American Indian Memorial, a grand staircase with a regal Indian chief perched on top overlooking New York harbor from the north shore of Staten Island (the scheme to actually build the thing, like many schemes depicted in the show, fell apart when it became apparent that the financial backers had little interest in financing much beyond themselves.)
Travel a little further up and there is Charles Rollinson Lamb’s plan to tear up the island’s grid with broad avenues in order to relieve congestion on Broadway. Hovering over the entire thing, on the far back wall, is Fuller’s Dome Over Manhattan, a geodesic orb that would have presumably cut down on the city’s healing and cooling costs.
The Queens Museum is not an easy place to get to without a car; it involves a twenty-minute walk underneath an elevated railway and through Flushing Meadows Park.
When most New Yorkers or visitors go there, it is usually to see the Panorama, a 9,335-square-foot replica of New York in miniature, with every street, park, bridge and building (to the extent the museum can keep up with an ever-changing metropolis, at least) that was constructed for the 1964 World’s Fair.
For “Never Built New York,” however the curators added the Never Buildings to the model, their ghostly presence standing like a vision on the landscape.
Making the unseen more real, however, the curators added a virtual reality component to the panorama, so certain buildings—like the Zeckendorf Airport and the Coney Island Globe Tower, a 1906 7,700-foot structure that would have placed all of the neighborhood’s attractions under one roof—shimmer before visitors who don the special glasses. I audibly gasped.
Adding a bit of fun to the proceedings, the final gallery has just various plans for the park on it walls, but at the gallery’s center is a bouncy-house replication of one of those ideas, Eliot Noyes’ Westinghouse Pavilion for the ’64 World’s Fair, which consisted of eight 45-foot diameter silver spheres floating off a domed foyer. The bouncy house was sadly deflated when your correspondent visited.
It is tempting to dismiss a lot of what is here as the fanciful scribblings of a bunch of wide-eyed hucksters. But the show exists in an uncanny valley of the real and the not real.
So much of New York seemed unlikely when it was first proposed: think of the High Line, an unused elevated railway turned into a pedestrian park, or Battery Park City, built on 92-acres of landfill in the Hudson River, or Hudson Yards, where 16 skyscrapers, practically a city unto itself, will rise on a deck over a bunch of train yards.
New York has been home to so many bad ideas too--freeways that cut through the heart of many neighborhoods, soulless towers that block out sunlight, the wanton disregard of its own architectural history, it can sometimes feel like the difference between what gets build and what doesn’t is pure chance.
The overwhelming experience of "Never Built New York" is gratitude that it can be so hard to get anything done, since it means most plans remain on the drafting table. And it serves as a reminder that what remains behind, the five boroughs of brick and mortar, are pretty great as they are.
Never Built New York is at the Queens Museum until February 18, 2018. More details here.