Never Built New York: Grand Architectural Visions, Dashed Dreams, and Good, Old-Fashioned Hubris

Architects are a stubborn bunch when it comes to letting go of their dreams. “It takes about 15 years until they admit that a project is ‘Never Built’—or maybe never,” author Sam Lubell told guests on hand for a recent conversation about Never Built New York (Metropolis Books/Artbook D.A.P.), a new coffee-table book showcasing unrealized grand plans for the big city.


“But that’s the way architects work,” Lubell added. “It’s part of the profession that you’re going to get things nixed. Still, the idea you came up with doesn’t just go away. It will show up in your own work or someone else’s. Buildings are not just solid forms. They’re made of ideas. And those ideas don’t always disappear.”




Lubell and his co-author, Greg Goldin, steer that truth toward reality in their 200+page volume, an erudite, well researched trove of glorious failures, grandiose coulda-shouldas, and outrageous why-nots. As unrealized projects, these are in a sense pie-in-the-sky musings, usually beautifully rendered for marketing purposes. Yet many are viable plans that might well have reached fruition if not for prevailing circumstances. Collectively they offer insights into the architectural creative process, the socio-economic turf wars of city planning, and alternate cityscapes that might have been. Goldin and Lubell take us on a curated tour of near misses, each begging the questions: Doesn’t that look cool? Is that really a good idea? Would it have actually worked if built?


Case in point: The book’s cover features a seductively curvy skyscraper design by Zaha Hadid for 425 Park Avenue, submitted to a 2012 competition (eventually won by Foster + Partners). “It’s surprising how often the second-prize winner ends up being the most influential,” noted Barry Bergdoll, professor of art history and archeology at Columbia University, who moderated the Never Built discussion at the Center for Architecture in New York. “The alternate ideas are a lot of times more interesting than what gets built,” Lubell added. “The architects draw us in with images of this perfection that never actually happens.”


Sometimes that’s for good reason. While the late Hadid’s curvaceous form certainly looks sexier than the 425 Park Avenue design now under construction, its viability as an actual structure—or lack thereof—may have been its undoing. Still, Never Built New York shows how bygone visions live on in elaborate depictions. “It’s not just that ‘this building might have been…’ it’s the beauty of the drawing, which can take many forms,” said co-author Goldin. “It can be a rendering that’s so captivating in the way it captures light or the city, that you fall in love with the image. And that’s a way of entering the imaginary landscape. It has an afterlife all its own.”


For projects in the real world, the reasons for failure are myriad. Economic and/or political upheavals lead the list. Frank Gehry’s scheme for a new Guggenheim Museum in Lower Manhattan, south of the Brooklyn Bridge, eventually succumbed to world events.


Gehry’s blowin-in-the-wind steel exterior echoes that of his Guggenheim Bilbao; the New York version was to be even bigger. “Thirty-six galleries––some as small as 1,300 square feet, others up to 20,000––would be inserted within what Gehry called the ‘wrappers,’” Goldin and Lubell write in NBNY. “In all, 200,000 square feet of exhibition space was planned”—four times the size of Frank Lloyd Wright’s uptown Guggenheim opus, and twice the size of Bilbao’s. The plan even boasted a modicum of flood-proofing: “The flowing, baroque silhouette was to be lifted up on six enormous steel-and-concrete columns. Six acres of broad, swooping esplanades and sculpture gardens were to be built on petal-shaped platforms above the river.”


In the Millennial zeitgeist, the lofty $678-million estimated cost didn’t deter the museum. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had pledged $35 million worth of city-owned land, along with nearly $33 million in capital contributions. All systems go—until September 11, 2001. “The destruction of the World Trade Center knocked the stilts out from under the global economy,” NBNY notes, “and in the ensuing downturn the Guggenheim found its purse was bare.” The city’s downtown priorities shifted to Ground Zero. Gehry got an impressive model for his portfolio. And while the city of Bilbao can attest to the power of a fancifully designed waterfront Guggenheim, would New York have fared the same?


Rufus Henry Gilbert’s Elevated Railway (1870) featured air-powered elevated tubes.
Rufus Henry Gilbert’s Elevated Railway (1870) featured air-powered elevated tubes.



Gehry joins a long list of New York’s dashed dreamers. Back in the 19th century Rufus Henry Gilbert’s Elevated Railway was set to run from lower Manhattan to the Harlem River; its funding was thwarted by the Wall Street Panic of 1873. Gilbert later completed a more modest El, the beginning of NYC’s rapid-transit system, but then was forced out by execs at his own company. “His former partners, who were tied to ‘Boss’ Tweed, swindled him out of his holdings and erased him from the company name,” Goldin and Lubell write. “The shady stock swap left the inventor impoverished and broken.” Later the subsequent mass-transit designs for the city went underground—resulting in the subway system that opened for business in 1904. When the penniless Gilbert passed away in 1885, his innovations (including tube trains powered by compressed air) died as well.


I.M. Pei’s Hyperboloid (1954) employed diagonal columns to transfer loads to its exterior.



There are times when grand designs, however visionary, are best left unrealized. Grand Central Terminal would have gone the way of the original Beaux-Arts Penn Station if Robert Young had his way in the early 1950s. Head of the New York Central Railroad, Young and real estate tycoon William Zeckendorf hired I. M. Pei to design the Hyperboloid: “a 1,497-foot-tall office tower and transit hub that would replace Grand Central with one of the most advanced buildings in the world,” Goldin and Lubell write.


At 108 stories with a price tag of $100 million, the Hyperboloid “would have been the world’s tallest (and most costly) structure, besting the Empire State Building by more than 200 feet.” But once again economic reality stepped in. “Young, besieged by the railroad’s plummeting profits and by a senate investigation of the industry’s decline, committed suicide in January 1957, halting any hope for the structure.” (Grand Central would again face possible demolition in the mid 1970s, only to be saved by a public outcry led by Jacqueline Onassis.)


Buckminster Fuller’s Dome Over Manhattan (1961) was to run river to river from 29th to 62nd Streets.



At times (such as after shocking elections) the island of Manhattan can feel like a bubble—and in Buckminster Fuller’s wildest design, it actually got one. “Dome Over Manhattan was speculative but prescient, if one accepts that humanity is now determined to ruin the natural biosphere,” Goldin and Lubell write. Egged on by aforementioned Zeckendorf, Fuller envisioned a glass dome covering a two-mile swath of midtown Manhattan. On paper it’s a fascinating fantasia. In reality? It was never a reality.


Fuller touted his dome’s ecological and economic benefits: “A city’s structural surface is thermally equivalent to a well air cooled engine, as the buildings represent a contour of spined and finned surfaces which individually contain the least volume with the most surface,” he explains in an essay quoted in NBNY. “A Geodesic Dome would reduce the cooling surface one hundred fold, putting a stream-flow cowling over the ‘fins.’ Savings in snow and ice removals and in heating and cooling would soon pay for dome.”


While Fuller’s Geodesic Dome never enveloped midtown Manhattan, it did manifest in numerous versions including the celebrated U.S. Pavilion at the 1967 Montreal World Expo. “Never Built is full of ideas that reflect currents going on everywhere,” Lubell said at the NBNY panel discussion. “These are things that are usually more ambitious, and that’s why they don’t happen.”


New York is particularly fertile ground for grand architectural schemes—a city of seemingly boundless growth built on a granite foundation—tempered by harsh realities. “It’s a miracle to get something built anywhere, but that bar is really high in New York,” Lubell said. “You need a lot of money, a lot of will, and it just gets harder and harder. There’s more money required and less space to build. That barrier to entry does create some spectacular Never Built work, though. Because you’ve got all this incredible ambition—even if it’s continually foiled.”


Never Built New York shows what all too often happens when big dreams collide with life in the big city. Yet the book also reveals how failed ideas beget improved ideas—and without those architects who have the vision and audacity to think big, where would we be?


All images of Metropolis Books/Artbook D.A.P.


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