Book Review: Never Built New York

Never Built New York

Never Built New York explores the future that never was with its collection of architectural proposals for New York that never saw the light of day. Packed with charcoal sketches, architectural models and computer-generated images of failed schemes from the past 200 years, the book explores the New York City that might have been - a city where you could catch a football game in Manhattan, fly into a rooftop airport and live under a giant geodesic dome.

Buckminster Fuller's Dome Over Manhattan, 1961

Never Built New York encompasses both ideas that were fortunately rejected (such as the thoroughly impractical scheme by John A. Harris’s for draining the East River to create more land) and visionary schemes that were regrettably thwarted.  For every crazy scheme, there is one that is gloriously inventive such as I.M. Pei’s Helix of 1957, a cylindrical tower with pie-shaped apartments that could be expanded or contracted as residents’ need for space changed.

As authors, Lubell and Goldin note, 'In a city that embraced both Art Deco and modernist skyscrapers — and is certainly the more beautiful for both — stabs at truly rattling or upending the status quo rarely have a happy result'.

For many proposals, including Rufus Henry Gilbert's glorious proposal for a train propelled by compressed air running inside atmospheric tubes, the barrier is financing.

Rufus Henry Gilbert's proposal for an elevated railway

For other proposals, the stumbling block is bureaucracy. For example, William Zeckendorf's ambitious design for a 144 square block elevated airport in Manhattan hit the buffers when Park Commissioner, Robert Moses branded the project 'ridiculous'.

Elevated airport New York

Sobering as it is to consider all this wasted creativity, Never Built New York is a wonderful guide to an alternate New York and is a testament to the remarkable inventiveness of humans to find ways to improve city living.

As Goldin and Lubell put it: 'this trek through the distant and recent past is also a journey ahead. Never Built New York is about the power of ideas to shape the future. Indulge and imagine'.