The Imaginary Apple

A museum exhibition shows off the New York City that designers dreamed up, but which never actually got built.

R. Buckminster Fuller’s idea for a dome over Manhattan.

Queens Museum; Courtesy The Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller and Stanford University Libraries Department of Special Collections.

There’s a room at the Queens Museum’s Never Built New York, an exhibition of the city’s architectural paths not taken, that collects forgotten designs for the very land on which the museum sits. For nearly a century, Flushing Meadows–Corona Park and its surroundings have been treated as one of the city’s most tantalizing blank spaces, a screen on which New York’s planners and politicians have enlisted talented architects to project their fantasies. Two times the park hosted the World’s fair, a national fever dream of the future. Planning czar Robert Moses and architect Wallace Harrison wanted to build the United Nations here as a sprawling classical forum instead of the elegant skyscraper we know today. Marcel Breuer, Kenzo Tange, and Lawrence Halperin pitched a soaring Flushing Meadows Sports Park. Paul Rudolph drew up the Galaxon, a giant stargazing dish. Every city has a place like this for every era: a succession of dream sites that tell of local ambitions and failures.

Through blueprints, drawings, renderings, and models, Never Built New York displays more than 80 failed megaprojects: doomed skyscrapers, institutions, bridges, airports, boulevards, even entire landmasses. They hang from the walls, hover in virtual reality, and adorn the museum’s enormous panorama model of New York.

The show comes at a time when the city is suffering a kind of identity crisis over its failure to build big. In September, plans for a dazzling “floating” park in the Hudson River were scuttled. In October, Lincoln Center abandoned a $500 million plan to renovate the home of the New York Philharmonic. Through it all, hopes for a crucial new Hudson River train tunnel—arguably the most important new infrastructure project in America—founder under a distracted administration whose “infrastructure weeks” have become a recurring punchline. “An entrenched ethos boils down to: Don’t just do something, stand there,” wrote the New York Times op-ed board.

The Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, a leader of the Progressive Era City Beautiful movement, is famous for counseling his peers to “make no little plans.” But not necessarily because it was better to build big. Rather, Burnham thought, “a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.” It’s a pick-me-up for architects who, a century later, build a fraction of what they draw and draw a fraction of what they imagine. At this reliquary in Queens, these faded diagrams—noble and ignoble, logical and inane—spring to life.

Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin, the pair of architecture critics who curated the exhibition, first published these schemes in an eponymous coffee-table book in 2016. Seeing these alternate dimensions of New York in person is more vivid and engaging, thanks to the size of the models and blueprints arrayed by designer Christian Wassmann, but contains less detail about each individual effort.

That’s just fine. In the Manhattan room, which has the cluttered, meticulous air of grandpa’s basement model train set, we see Frank Lloyd Wright’s bug-like complex for Ellis Island, Frank Gehry’s dull East River Guggenheim, and a model of Moshe Safdie’s intricate, modular Habitat for New York. We see the plan for the shiny new Dodger Stadium, which was supposed to keep Dem Bums in Brooklyn. “It is no dream,” Norman Bel Geddes, the modern designer and stadium architect, told a newspaper. “The only question mark is world conditions; the only secret is its exact location.” Spoiler alert: It was a dream—its location would be Los Angeles.

But Bel Geddes’ misplaced confidence is just one way the show serves as a history of the way we sell and discuss ideas. Most of the projects on display here had to be hand-drawn and hand-built in styles that reflect their architects. They leave much to the imagination, but also invite the viewer to meet the architect halfway.

The high-touch diagrams and ornate models are a reminder of something else: Few of these plans really had to win public approval anyway. A number of them were in some way linked to Robert Moses, the midcentury planner whose autocratic tactics reshaped the region. The failures of his and other midcentury megaprojects—from housing to highways to corporate campuses—did much to discredit the very idea of building big. Organic small-scale interventions, and local control over their implementation, have carried the day.

Visiting New York in 1946, after the building lull of the Great Depression and World War II, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that the skyline no longer made him optimistic. The skyscrapers now looked like “historical monuments” rather than the future. “To build them took a faith we no longer possess,” he wrote. That spirit of pessimism is with us today, too. We were right to lose trust in government and corporations to do the right thing with our cities. But we also lost something when we abandoned the register of thought that pervades Never Built New York.

Of course, we now have computer-generated renderings that can quickly spawn breathless news coverage of shiny projects that will never be built. But the power has made designers lazy, splitting alternate futures between glossy sales pitches for dull ideas (gondolas, streetcars) and thoughtless speculations that employ technology for technology’s sake. Many of the wondrous designs in Never Built New York hold a lost middle ground: utopian ideas that took themselves and their role in the public good seriously. Enveloping all of Midtown in a giant glass dome, as Buckminster Fuller proposed in 1950, would not be a good idea or a feasible one. But how admirable that the futurist’s promise for this fantastical design was to save money on heating, cooling, and snow removal. The same is true of Raymond Hood’s bridge homes, suspension bridges stacked with apartments for 50,000 people. What a terrible fire hazard. But why not momentarily entertain the idea of a “great water-spanning town” during New York’s devastating post–World War I housing shortage?

Of course, dreaming of radical futures (cough—hyperloop—cough) can distract from the real work of city-building, which consists largely of cleaning streets, maintaining parks, and picking up trash. But I’d argue that these visions, rather than crowding out more humdrum responsibilities, leave them room to flourish. Having watched these unfamiliar buildings shuffled in and out of the city’s deck, I left with a sense that the concrete, steel, and glass around me had suddenly become a little more elastic.