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

Buckminster fuller’s dome over manhattan (1961) was to run river to river from 29th to 62nd streets
Buckminster Fuller’s Dome Over Manhattan (1961) was to run river to river from 29th to 62nd Streets

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.” […]

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