The Urban Imaginary: Never Built New York by Karla Kelsey

Mapping an architectural dreamspace.

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Never Built New York. Installation view. Courtesy Queens Museum. Photo by Hai Zhang. 

What might have been is a seductive line of fantasy, and Never Built New York at the Queens Museum invites visitors to apply it to the Empire City’s five boroughs. Containing roughly 150 objects including prints, drawings, models, installations, animations, and virtual reality experiences that draw on two centuries of architectural plans that were never realized, the show encourages such thought experiments as: What if the Hudson River had been dammed, as Norman Sper proposed, and New Yorkers could walk to New Jersey? What if Manhattanites lived in Raymond Hood’s 1925 apartment bridges designed to be fifty to sixty stories high? While such visions may be captivating, the show’s physical objects and its architectural organization push it beyond daydream and into presence: a remarkable feat for a project that centers around what never was. 

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Samuel Friede, Coney Island Globe Tower, 1906. Postcard. 3.81 x 5.86 inches. Courtesy Queens Museum.

Some of the unrealized projects are familiar, including various proposals for the post-9/11 World Trade Center site. Even so, the objects representing these ideas are unique and compelling. Daniel Libeskind’s original concept for the World Trade Center’s “Freedom Tower”—a crystal building tapering to a sharp, off-center spire—is represented by several ink-and-pastel sketches and a small vitrine of paper models that allow multi-dimensional access to the shard-like aesthetic completely absent from the stocky contours of the actualized construction. Other proposals, like Samuel Friede’s 1906 Coney Island Globe Tower are immediately novel. A seven hundred-foot tall, balloon-like entertainment structure, the Globe would have contained theaters, a dancehall, restaurants, bowling alley, observatory, casinos, hotel, roller rink, and four large circus rings. The project is represented by a whimsical postcard showing a steel-framed globe with cut-outs displaying a theater and a palm tree. A lighthouse lantern tops the globe, illuminating the Lower Bay.

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Never Built New York. Installation view. Courtesy Queens Museum. Photo by Hai Zhang.

Organized in three distinct exhibition spaces, the visitor first enters Never Built New York through a long, narrow gallery whose shape resembles Manhattan. The majority of the show’s archival documents are organized here, mapped onto the city geographically from downtown to uptown, each project located where it would have been built. Vitrines scattered in the center of the gallery hold models while prints and drawings (often facsimiles) hang all over the walls, providing a sensation of verticality and causing the visitor to look not only at the ground-floor level, but also up. The experience of this gallery overwhelms, crowded with architecture from different eras and marked only with numbers, which forces the visitor to look from object, to number, to printed gallery guide. As such, the experience of Never Built New York maps onto the experience of walking through the actual city, architectural guidebook in hand, craning the neck for a view of setbacks, water towers, and spires.

The second portion of the exhibition moves into the Queens Museum’s permanent Panorama of the City of New York. Robert Moses conceived of it for the 1964–65 World’s Fair; updated in 1992 and continuously since, the panorama shows the entire city in miniature, built to a scale of 1:1200. To this panorama Never Built New York adds forty models created by graduate students in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture. Printed with 3-D technology in luminous white plastic and fitted out with LED lights, the never-built architecture glows. In addition to these models, visitors can download an app on their phone or look through a virtual reality headset for immersion into five different projects. 

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Raymond Hood, Skyscraper Bridges, 1925. Virtual Reality illustration. Dimensions vary. Courtesy Shimahara Illustration. 

The last portion of the exhibition takes place in the Skylight Gallery, a large atrium in the center of the museum. This airy space features plans and drawings for Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the extensive site that houses the Queens Museum itself. The fourth largest park in the city, it was a salt marsh until the 1939–40 New York World’s Fair, and most of the projects in this gallery were proposed for the 1964–65 Fair, also hosted in the park. Along with works on paper, this portion of the exhibition includes a “bouncy castle” version of Eliot Noyes’s proposed pavilion for the 1964–65 Fair and a model of Paul Rudolph’s 1964 Galaxon, a gigantic saucer designed for star gazing which would have stood where the Unisphere, the enormous stainless steel globe, now stands, just visible outside the Skylight Gallery’s wall-sized window.

Walking through Never Built New York I was reminded of Jorge Luis Borges’s famous micro-fiction “On Exactitude in Science,” which describes a map of an empire so detailed it covers perfectly the entire area it depicts, and with the decline of the empire the map, itself, also frays. With luminous 3-D models and gorgeous prints, the map Never Built New York creates is hardly frayed and perhaps suggests an alternative universe where the Empire City that unfolds under its perfection is also clean, luminous, and whole. However, like the actual city it maps, the buildings of Never Built New York are products of mainly white male architects, and the majority of the show focuses on transportation, iconic public spaces, and museums instead of, for example, schools, hospitals, and public housing. On my way out of the museum through the winter-chilled park to the subway’s 7 Line, I wondered how very different after all the never-built empire might have been.

Never Built New York is on view at the Queens Museum until February 18.

Karla Kelsey is the author of four books, most recently Of Sphere, a book of experimental essays published by Essay Press.

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