A Look at the New York City That Might’ve Been Through Its Unbuilt Architectural Plans

R. Buckminster Fuller's Dome Over Manhhattan, proposed in July 1950, was a two-mile-diameter glass bubble centered over 42nd street.
R. Buckminster Fuller’s Dome Over Manhattan, proposed in July 1950, was a two-mile-diameter glass bubble centered over 42nd street. (Metropolis Books)

 

New York City has a skyline that is as historic as it is ever-changing. Even today, buildings are rising in the metropolis that will forever alter its profile. But there were many designs for skyscrapers and thousands of other New York City projects that never made it off the drawing board. A new book is shedding light on the buildings of New York that never were—from tiny projects designed by big-name firms to far-fetched concepts (see above) for now-iconic sites.

New York City currently boasts the tallest tower in the country, but the unbuilt designs in the book show that architects had plans to take it to greater heights—and even lower depths. Never Built New York includes almost 200 proposals for infrastructure, skyscrapers, public transport, entertainment venues, and vast areas of redevelopment throughout the five boroughs. The book features alternative designs for landmarks like the United Nations, Lincoln Center, Grand Central Terminal, Columbus Circle, and many more. Covering the city’s existence, the proposals stretch from its nascent growth to today, including rejected plans for projects just getting underway like the new Penn Station.

Victor Gruen's mixed-used redevelopment plan for "Welfare Island," as Roosevelt Island was called in 1961
Victor Gruen’s mixed-used redevelopment plan for ‘Welfare Island,’ as Roosevelt Island was called in 1961. (Metropolis Books)
A mixed-use project proposal from Moshe Sadie that would've changed the face of Manhattan, "with its wildly varied, precast, modular concrete forms, communal configurations, and lush garden terraces," was a predecessor to the structures being realized today in China and Singapore
A mixed-use project proposal from Moshe Sadie that would’ve changed the face of Manhattan, “with its wildly varied, precast, modular concrete forms, communal configurations, and lush garden terraces,” was a predecessor to the structures being realized today in China and Singapore. (Metropolis Books)

 

Spanning over 200 years, these designs are a historical dissection of contemporary architecture and provide the opportunity to review the city’s growth. It’s impossible to know how each proposal would affect New York today if they had been built, but Never Built offers readers a space to let their imagination run wild. What if Frank Lloyd Wright’s final design (a proposal for Ellis Island) had been brought to fruition? Would his masterplan for urban planning have unfolded in New York as well?

Some plans that may have seemed too forward-thinking at the time, don’t seem all that impossible now. For instance, Alfred Ely Beach’s system of airtight subway cars—propelled by atmospheric pressure—bares similarities to today’s transport startup Hyperloop. Then again, many of the pie-in-the-sky designs were exactly that: Willliam Zeckendorf’s idea for a rooftop airport—perched on steel columns 200 feet above street level, stretched from 24th street to 71st street and from Ninth Avenue to the Hudson River—is just one of those examples.

William Zeckendrof's Rooftop Airport
Pitched by a man known for pursuing big ideas, William Zeckendorf dreamed up this concept for a rooftop airport in 1945 (Metropolitan Books)

 

Showcasing how much the city’s two rivers and its grid structure came to simultaneously limit and foster innovative urban planning, Never Built New York is an homage to the 200 years of visionary architecture that didn’t come to be. A Columbia University architecture professor, Kenneth Frampton, described the book as “a fascinating scholarly tour de force, ultimately paralleling in its brilliant ambition the infinite spectrum of its subject matter.”

Edward Larrabee Barnes suggested wrapping the New York Botanical Garden in a geodesic dome that created a unique climate in each chamber. (Metropolitan Books)
Edward Larrabee Barnes suggested wrapping the New York Botanical Garden in a geodesic dome that created a unique climate in each chamber (Metropolis Books)
Phillip Johnoson's design for the renovation of Ellis Island in 1954. (Metropolitan Books)
Phillip Johnson’s design for the renovation of Ellis Island in 1954 (Metropolis Books)
This other wordly design by Samuel Friede, a 750-tall globe with 11 rotating floors of entertainment, is the epitome of the city's endless ambitions it had at the turn of the century. (Metropolitan Books)
This otherworldly design by Samuel Friede, a 750-tall globe with 11 rotating floors of entertainment, is the epitome of the city’s endless ambitions it had at the turn of the century. (Metropolis Books)
The architect behind many of NYC's landmarks like 30 Rockefeller, Raymond Hood proposed this bridge, with two 50-60 story apartment buildings on either side, as a solution for congestion. (Metropolitan Books)
The architect behind many of NYC’s landmarks like 30 Rockefeller, Raymond Hood proposed this bridge, with two 50-60 story apartment buildings on either side, as a solution for congestion. (Metropolis Books)
Frank Gehry's 2003 proposal for the Atlantic Yards project, with his imagined version of the Barclay's Center in blue behind the skyscraper. (Metropolitan Books)
Frank Gehry’s 2003 proposal for the Atlantic Yards project, with his imagined version of the Barclay’s Center in blue behind the skyscraper. (Metropolis Books)
Hellmuth, Obata, & Kassabaum pitched this plan to cover the Post Office's atrium with glass and steel, reminiscent of the original Penn Station, for the transport hub's relocation. (Metropolitan Books)
Hellmuth, Obata, and Kassabaum pitched this plan to cover the Post Office’s atrium with glass and steel, reminiscent of the original Penn Station, for the transport hub’s relocation. (Metropolis Books)

 

Currently on display at the Queens Museum, the designs featured in the book will be exhibited until February 18, 2018. Read more about that here. If you like what you see above and want to see more, you can purchase a copy of Never Built New York for $55 via Artbook here. If that doesn’t satiate your architectural appetite, another book featuring unbuilt designs from Los Angeles has been previewed here.


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