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Thread: Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda: Grand Schemes

  1. #1

    Default Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda: Grand Schemes

    August 1, 2004

    Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda

    By JIM RASENBERGER


    An architect proposed "bridge apartment houses" for the city in 1925. One big benefit: the chance for a daily dip in the river.

    AT the far end of West 57th Street, across the West Side Highway from the car dealerships and construction sites, a Department of Sanitation pier stretches out into the Hudson River. The garbage trucks parked along the edge of the highway emit a rank, slightly fruity odor that assumes an almost material thickness on warm summer days. Small birds dart among the trucks, pecking at scraps.

    The pier is not especially picturesque, but it's an ideal perspective from which to contemplate the fate of once-grand schemes discarded into the dustbin of history. It was here, in the 1920's, that the structural engineer Gustav Lindenthal came close to building the greatest bridge in the world.

    Mr. Lindenthal's bridge would have crossed the Hudson River from West 57th Street to Weehawken, N.J., a 7,460-foot double-decked structure with a center span of 3,240 feet, far longer than any span raised at the time. It would have provided 16 lanes for automobiles on the top deck and 12 rail tracks on the lower deck and would have been supported by two immense towers, each taller than the Woolworth Building, then the world's tallest skyscraper. The bridge would have been a structure of such record-breaking enormity, it would have instantly ranked as a defining icon of New York.

    But the bridge was never built. And now, instead of a view of an icon, the western end of 57th Street offers a parking lot for garbage trucks.

    At a time when New York City is awash in big plans - from the billion-dollar Freedom Tower to the $6.5 billion overhaul of Manhattan's West Side; from the revived Second Avenue subway line to the rail tunnel that Governor Pataki hopes to bore under the East River - it is both illuminating and instructive to consider the fate of earlier big plans that arrived with much fanfare and promise, only to fizzle.

    Collectively, these unrealized blueprints form a Manhattan of the imagination, a phantom metropolis of breathtaking and, in some cases, rash constructions that make even Mr. Lindenthal's bridge, not to mention a little thing like a football stadium, appear modest by comparison. The unbuilt city hovers alongside present-day New York, existing only in the subjunctive tense: the city that coulda-woulda-shoulda been.

    Elevated Sidewalks of New York

    Any appreciation of the subjunctive city must begin in the 1920's, the booming decade that spawned so many extravagant plans for New York. Some of these plans were brilliant; others seemed to have been hatched during a champagne binge. Several, such as the Empire State Building and the George Washington Bridge, were realized. Most were not.

    In 1924, the influential architect Harvey Wiley Corbett announced a plan to transform all of Midtown Manhattan into a multitiered grid, in which sidewalks would be elevated a full story off the ground and streets would be given over entirely to automobile traffic. The plan was not just practical, Mr. Corbett insisted, but necessary. Segregating cars and pedestrians was the only sensible solution to the overwhelming problem of traffic congestion. As an additional benefit, the terraced city would be a more beautiful and beguiling place, according to a report issued by Mr. Corbett and others: "a modernized Venice, a city of arcades, piazzas and bridges, with canals for streets, only the canals will not be filled with water but with freely flowing motor traffic."

    A year later, Raymond Hood, the architect who had already designed the American Radiator Building and would soon design much of Rockefeller Center, conceived a plan to hang apartment houses from the cables of the city's suspension bridges.

    As rendered by the illustrator Hugh Ferriss in his 1929 classic of visionary architecture, "The Metropolis of Tomorrow," these "bridge apartment houses" remain among the most wonderfully outlandish of New York's hypothetical structures. Like Mr. Corbett before him, though, Hood maintained that his ideas were sound both economically and structurally. "The moment one begins to speculate on the possibility of erecting apartment houses on our bridges," Mr. Hood told The New York Times, "the thought comes that it is strange we have not always had them."

    The Times agreed that Mr. Hood's plan had much to recommend it. "From the standpoint of sheer beauty, of startling picturesqueness, nobody can deny the fascination of these bridge communities," the newspaper mused, admiring, among other aspects of the plan, the possibilities for water sports. "Facilities could easily be provided for descending to the water level, attired in bathing suits for the daily dip."

    Far-Fetched but Nearly Realized

    In retrospect, it may seem obvious that the ambitions of both Mr. Corbett and Mr. Hood were too grandiose to succeed. Then again, if grandiosity were an impediment to development in New York, there would be no Rockefeller Center, no Brooklyn Bridge, no Central Park, no subway system. New York, for better or worse, is all about grandiosity.

    There is no evidence that anyone ever seriously considered erecting such a bridge as Hood envisioned or undertaking Corbett's multitiered city. But plenty of far-fetched schemes have earned the attention of serious minds and powerful wills.

    In 1923, the Rev. Christian Reisner of the Methodist Church in Washington Heights, convinced that he was complying with the will of God Himself, unfurled plans to build a 40-story church at Broadway and West 173rd Street. Plans for the so-called Broadway Temple specified a 2,000-seat nave, a five-story basement complete with swimming pool and bowling alley, and a 75-foot-high rotating cross on its summit. In addition to divine inspiration, Mr. Reisner received $100,000 from John D. Rockefeller Jr. for the church's construction. Only the Depression quashed the plan.

    Another man of the cloth to try his hand at development in the 1920's was the Rev. William Norman Guthrie of St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery in the East Village. Mr. Guthrie commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design a residential tower on church grounds at Second Avenue and 10th Street. Wright, whose ambitions were seldom modest, came back with a plan for four identical towers.

    Just 13 stories apiece, the buildings would not have raised the skyline, but they would surely have raised eyebrows. Wright modeled his buildings on trees, each floor cantilevering out from a central core like branches from a trunk. At a time when tall buildings in New York were almost exclusively post-and-beam structures, the idea of dispensing with exterior columns was near heresy. So, too, was Wright's intention to build in reinforced concrete when virtually every tall building was supported by steel.

    "It was an entirely new structure," said Hillary Ballon, professor of art history at Columbia University and curator of a Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit that will open at the Skyscraper Museum in October. "American progress was embodied by the steel frame building. And here's someone who comes along and says: 'That's not the way to build. It makes no sense.' "

    Whatever chance Wright had of overcoming concerns about his design disappeared, like so many architectural dreams, when money for the project evaporated in the stock market crash of 1929.

    On Broadway

    Soaring skyscrapers and sweeping bridges have long provided the most visually striking designs for the city, but nothing inspires urban visionaries so dependably as the conundrum of rapid transit: namely, how to get millions of people from one place to another quickly. A 1900 plan for the Williamsburg Bridge featured a "moving sidewalk" to carry pedestrians across the steel-ribbed span from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to Hanover Square in Lower Manhattan in less than 15 minutes.

    And in 1951, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company lobbied - unsuccessfully - to build a conveyor between Times Square and Grand Central that would have whisked passengers under Midtown in translucent six-seater "transfer cars," station to station, in two minutes.

    The most tantalizing human conveyor of all was the "Endless Traveling or Railway Sidewalk," an elevated loop proposed in 1873 by the inventor Alfred Speer for operation on lower Broadway. According to Mr. Speer's plan, passengers would climb stairs to a platform and step into a small car, which would then deposit them onto a continuously moving promenade. In fair weather, they could stand on the promenade and take in the bustle of the traffic below; in more inclement weather, they might seek shelter in the numerous drawing rooms (for women) and smoking rooms (for men) at convenient intervals along the promenade.

    Mr. Speer's fanciful contraption might seem more suitable to a Jules Verne novel than Downtown Manhattan, but many of the city's best minds favored its construction. In the end, though, Gov. John Dix nixed Mr. Speer's plan. The governor explained that while he could accept the idea of the loop passing over Broadway once, he could not abide it passing over Broadway twice.

    Twists and Shouts

    As Rebecca Read Shanor points out in her 1988 survey of New York's unbuilt structures, "The City That Never Was" (Viking-Penguin), the difference between projects that get built and those that don't often comes down to whim and luck. Of course, whim and luck can cut both ways, killing worthwhile projects but also halting terrible ones.

    Among the alarming revelations in Ms. Read Shanor's book and other architectural histories of New York is how narrowly the city has averted blunders. For every proposal that might have enhanced the city's charms, there is another that would have ravaged them.

    In 1910, Mayor William Jay Gaynor, exasperated by traffic congestion, resolved to cut an entirely new thoroughfare through Midtown. Gaynor's street, running north-south between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, would have been 2.5 miles long and would have required the sacrifice of hundreds of buildings and the paving over of Bryant Park.

    A man of great determination, Mayor Gaynor might well have accomplished his goal were it not for the bullet a would-be assassin shot into his throat in 1910. The mayor did not die for another three years, but he was depleted of his once prodigious energy and abandoned his ambitious plan.

    The most infamous near-disaster of urban planning of 20th-century New York was Robert Moses' Lower Manhattan Expressway. The expressway, a six-lane elevated road, would have crossed Manhattan just north or south of Canal Street, plowing through thousands of apartments, hundreds of businesses and the now landmark buildings of the cast-iron district.

    Mr. Moses first proposed the expressway in 1940 and quickly won the support of Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia and the New York City Planning Commission. Through three decades and five mayors, through cycles of opposition and support, Mr. Moses, who almost always got what he wanted, pushed his plan.

    What finally defeated him was public outrage. A coalition, led by the urban activist Jane Jacobs and supported by Assemblyman Louis DeSalvio, organized against the expressway in 1962. Testifying before the city's Board of Estimate, Mr. DeSalvio voiced what many New Yorkers had come to believe about Moses, that he was a "stubborn old man" and his expressway "a mad visionary's dream." Even as opposition consolidated against it, the expressway staggered on menacingly for another nine years, like a bullet-riddled Hollywood villain who refuses to keel over. Finally, in 1971, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller declared the project truly dead.

    Looking back over New York's history, Ms. Read Shanor is struck by the impact of public opinion on the outcome of big plans. "It's a confluence of things," Ms. Read Shanor said. "But if New Yorkers don't like something, and they yell loud enough, boy, it doesn't happen."

    Flashes of Common Sense

    The Lower Manhattan Expressway would surely have doomed SoHo, through whose heart it would have sliced. Paradoxically, though, the 30-year threat of such a project probably did more to preserve SoHo than the good deeds of any preservationist. No developer wanted to invest money in a neighborhood that was slated for the wrecking ball, so little new construction, or demolition, occurred in SoHo for three decades. As a result, by the 1970's, SoHo was tattered but intact, still displaying the 19th-century charms that would soon transform it into a mecca for galleries, boutiques, restaurants and tourists. It's the sort of twist that makes the impact of never-realized projects so difficult to assess.

    Consider Mr. Lindenthal's bridge at West 57th Street. After decades of planning and years of near-misses, the span was rejected in 1929 by the War Department (which held jurisdiction over the Hudson). Had Mr. Lindenthal been permitted to build his bridge, would New York be better or worse off for it?

    The thought of such an extraordinary bridge still "stirs the imagination," as a New York Times editorial put it in 1931, but the specter of thousands more cars pouring into Midtown every morning is a grim one. "It is not too much to say that a bridge of this capacity would transform the whole midtown area of Manhattan," The Times pointed out 73 years ago. "Its present streets are not exactly empty."

    Perhaps all that can be predicted with certainty is that the city, because it is run by human beings - politicians, builders, architects, citizens - will make mistakes, and with any luck, these mistakes will be balanced by flashes of common sense.

    The tragic demolition of the old Pennsylvania Station in the early 1960's is offset, somewhat, by the salvation of Carnegie Hall, nearly leveled to make way for a high rise in 1956. The replacement of the lovely Singer Building by the unlovely U.S. Steel building in 1972 is unfortunate; on the plus side of the equation, though, owners of the Empire State Building did not carry out a plan conceived that year to remove their building's famous spire and add 11 unsightly stories to its height.

    New Yorkers might be disappointed that the Metropolitan Museum of Art rejected a 1968 plan to set the Temple of Dendur on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, just across the East River from Midtown. Then again, they might be grateful that Consolidated Edison did not build a nuclear power plant there, a possibility the utility had considered a few years earlier.

    Ultimately, the measure of a great city is not only how flawlessly it advances the causes of good taste and intelligent urban planning, but also how well it accommodates its mistakes. When the twin towers of the World Trade Center topped out in 1972, they were, as Business Week put it, "the colossus nobody seems to love." Architecture critics derided them as ugly and dull. Real estate executives warned that they would glut the market with office space, while television executives worried they would disrupt transmission signals to the suburbs. Somehow, the city managed to survive the presence of these two monoliths, and even came to love them.

    And then, in a final twist, learned to survive all over again without them.

    Jim Rasenberger is the author of "High Steel: The Daring Men Who Built the World's Greatest Skyline," published earlier this year by HarperCollins.

    Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

  2. #2

    Default FLW Mile high

    Speaking of Woulda coulda, here's a site that includes a few detailed visions of Frank Lloyd Wright's Mile High (and other unbuilt FLW projects). The Structure on the left is for the atomic powered elevators.




    Great site for the Wright stuff. The movie teasingly cuts off as you're about to fly up the Mile high unfortunately.

    http://www.arch.columbia.edu/DDL/pro...ia/images.html

  3. #3

    Default

    Oh Fudge. The image dosen't seem to come up in my browser. But DO go to the site if all you've seen of The Mile High are the sketchy watercolors. It seems he REALLY did plan this out, floor by floor.

  4. #4

    Default

    I fixed it. Use the image's URL, not the page's.

  5. #5
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    I'm not certain if apartment houses hanging from suspension wires would have been a smart idea. From what little I know of engineering, suspension bridges, particularly the towers, need to be light and open to allow wind to pass through them, or they'll collapse a la Tacoma Narrows. But I digress.

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    Default More WRIGHT stuff

    It seems that Columbia architecture students are at least building Wright buildings in their computers, (and Calatrava and Childs are building Wright influenced buildings, the former more elegantly) here's another example, designed by Wright in 1924:




    "The National Life Insurance drawings presented a building to be constructed of reinforced concrete slabs, cantilevered from piers that emerge from the building mass above the setbacks"

    -Frank Lloyd Wright Quarterly, Summer '04

  9. #9

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    "Without question the most aesthetically and technologically daring postwar proposal for the Upper East Side's riverfront was Moshe Safedie's unrealized Habitat I (1968). Like Safdie's similar and also unrealized Habitat II, later proposed for lower Manhattan..., the sprawling development, which included stores, parking and a marina in addition to housing, was to be composed of complexly interlocking lightweight concrete modular units. The project, planned for a platform to be built in the East River, would extend roughly from Ninety-first to Ninety-fourth Street; a portion of the complex was to span the FDR Drive. Each octahedral unit was to be thirty-two feet across; some apartments would feature duplex formats, skylights and landscaped terraces. Pivoting interior walls would allow for the simple redesign of room configurations."

    "New York 1960, Architecture and Urbanism Between The Second World War and the Bicentennial," (The Monacelli Press, 1995), Robert A. M. Stern, Thomas Mellins and David Fishman











    Above, Habitat I 67 in Montreal



    Habitat
    New York 1967

    Modelled after the suspension system of a sailboat's mast and boom, Habitat New York II was conceived in two parts: three, fifty-storey core structures were to house elevators and mechanical services, while modules were to be suspended via cables from each of these structures' three projecting arms. At the base of the complex there was to have been one million square feet of office, retail, commercial and hotel space.

  10. #10

    Default

    Quote Originally Posted by thomasjfletcher
    "Without question the most aesthetically and technologically daring postwar proposal for the Upper East Side's riverfront was Moshe Safedie's unrealized Habitat I (1968). Like Safdie's similar and also unrealized Habitat II, later proposed for lower Manhattan..., the sprawling development, which included stores, parking and a marina in addition to housing, was to be composed of complexly interlocking lightweight concrete modular units. The project, planned for a platform to be built in the East River, would extend roughly from Ninety-first to Ninety-fourth Street; a portion of the complex was to span the FDR Drive. Each octahedral unit was to be thirty-two feet across; some apartments would feature duplex formats, skylights and landscaped terraces. Pivoting interior walls would allow for the simple redesign of room configurations."

    "New York 1960, Architecture and Urbanism Between The Second World War and the Bicentennial," (The Monacelli Press, 1995), Robert A. M. Stern, Thomas Mellins and David Fishman











    Above, Habitat I 67 in Montreal



    Habitat
    New York 1967

    Modelled after the suspension system of a sailboat's mast and boom, Habitat New York II was conceived in two parts: three, fifty-storey core structures were to house elevators and mechanical services, while modules were to be suspended via cables from each of these structures' three projecting arms. At the base of the complex there was to have been one million square feet of office, retail, commercial and hotel space.

    Maybe I'm architecturally ignorant, but it looks like a very modern version of those slums in Baghdad. I'm glad a great many of those 1930's-1980's projects didn't come to light. Manhy would have destoryed the fabric of the city.

  11. #11

    Default

    That complex is hideous! It looks like some kind of urban maze. Imagine what the graffiti would look like on that.

  12. #12

    Default

    What about Trump's '80s proposal for Columbus Center, Television City:


  13. #13

    Default

    Quote Originally Posted by thomasjfletcher
    "Without question the most aesthetically and technologically daring postwar proposal for the Upper East Side's riverfront was Moshe Safedie's unrealized Habitat I (1968). Like Safdie's similar and also unrealized Habitat II, later proposed for lower Manhattan..., the sprawling development, which included stores, parking and a marina in addition to housing, was to be composed of complexly interlocking lightweight concrete modular units. The project, planned for a platform to be built in the East River, would extend roughly from Ninety-first to Ninety-fourth Street; a portion of the complex was to span the FDR Drive. Each octahedral unit was to be thirty-two feet across; some apartments would feature duplex formats, skylights and landscaped terraces. Pivoting interior walls would allow for the simple redesign of room configurations."

    "New York 1960, Architecture and Urbanism Between The Second World War and the Bicentennial," (The Monacelli Press, 1995), Robert A. M. Stern, Thomas Mellins and David Fishman

    I actually find this, in Montreal, to be quite interesting. I'd love to see it in person.

    Safdie's Manhattan proposal, on the other hand, is hideous.

  14. #14

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    yes, this guy is one of the kings of brutalism.



    But it's interesting stuff alright.

  15. #15

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    That complex reminds me of the dorm complex I live in, in the University at Buffalo. It's called the Ellicott Complex. It was designed by Davis, Brody, and Associates of New York City; Milstein, Wittek, Davis Associates of Buffalo. It was completed in 1974 and houses more than 3000 students, along with several officed and departments within the University.




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