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The Crazy Unbuilt Architecture That Almost Transformed N.Y.C.

A new exhibition looks at dozens of buildings that never were.

In Flushing Meadows, Queens, there’s a scale model of the entire city of New York. It’s called “the Panorama,” and though it was built for the 1964 World’s Fair, it’s still a fascinating three-dimensional portrait of New York City that makes its size uniquely tangible. Standing over it makes you feel a bit like an astronaut.

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The Panorama has 895,000 buildings that are accurate up to 1992–when the model was last updated–which makes it a relic of a New York from 25 years ago. But now, it’s getting an update, albeit a temporary one, in the name of a new exhibition at its home in the Queens Museum called Never Built New YorkThe exhibition is based on a book of the same name, published in 2016, which catalogued the dozens of unbuilt buildings that could have dramatically impacted the skyline of New York City. At the Queens Museum, the curators have installed 1:1200 scale miniatures of these lost buildings into the tiny avenues and streets of the historic Panorama.

It’s a glimpse at the city that could have been.

[Photo: Hai Zhang/courtesy Queens Museum]
Curated by the book’s authors, the architecture critics Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin, the exhibition puts the buildings that would have drastically changed the city–for better and for worse–on the map. The 3D-printed models were made by students from Columbia’s architecture school, who painstakingly recreated them, sometimes using nothing but a drawing to estimate scale and structure. Lit from below in eerie blue light, the detailed models look like architectural ghosts, some of which have been mourned and many more of which would have been true disasters.

Take I.M. Pei’s 1954 vision for Grand Central Station. Called the Hyperboloid, it was a massive, 108-story, 1,497-foot-high skyscraper with a crown at its peak that would have replaced the historic building that today houses one of New York’s busiest transit hubs. The plans ground to a halt when the head of the New York Central Railroad, who commissioned the project, committed suicide in 1957. The loss of Grand Central, one of the city’s gorgeous Beaux-Arts gems, might have rivaled the razing of Penn Station–and we all know how that turned out.

[Photo: Hai Zhang/courtesy Queens Museum]
Other unbuilt buildings had an impact on the city even without being realized, like architect Steven Holl’s plan for the High Line from 1980. Long before the High Line was proposed, Holl proposed building a group of houses on top of the abandoned elevated rail line that would vary in type from single-room studios for the homeless to luxury apartments. The railway itself would be preserved, and the residences would be separated by 2,000 square foot courtyards. While the project was speculative, it was used as an example of adaptive reuse when the Friends of the High Line advocated for turning the abandoned railway into the successful park it is today.

[Photo: Hai Zhang/courtesy Queens Museum]
Along with the striking models in the Panorama, the exhibition includes a host of original drawings and models that Lubell and Goldin uncovered during their three years of research for the book. There are Frank Lloyd Wright’s scribbled plans for a residential development at Ellis Island back when the U.S. government was looking to sell the place in the late 1950s, and drawings of Raymond Hood’s 1925 Skyscraper Bridges that proposed turning the pilings for bridges into buildings. A model of Howe and Lescaze’s original 1930 plan for the Museum of Modern Art illustrates the radical museum that could have been.

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Eric Gugler, Development of Battery Park (Bird’s-eye view showing proposed plan), 1929. [Image: courtesy Library of Congress]
The show’s photos and models are arranged in a room adjacent to the Panorama that happens to take the rough shape of Manhattan. So Christian Wassmann, the exhibition designer, arranged the room geographically, with lower Manhattan’s failed projects displayed when you first enter. As you move through the room, the cityscape changes to Midtown, and finally the northern reaches of the island. There’s a cleverly placed bench in the center with a drawing for one of the failed proposals for Central Park, so you can sit in the park and gaze out at the city as it might have been.

Eric Gugler, Obelisk from Proposed Development for Battery Park, 1929. [Photo: Hai Zhang/courtesy Queens Museum]
In the lobby, there are more drawings and proposals for the museum’s location, Flushing Meadows Park, which has hosted two World’s Fairs. A model of Eliot Noyes’s bulbous pavilion for the Westinghouse company for the 1964 World’s Fair–never built–takes the shape of an actual bouncy house in the center of the lobby, which kids and adults alike can actually bounce around in.

Of course, there are many buildings that do populate New York’s skyline that perhaps should never have been built. For Lubell, the Penn Station-Madison Square Garden combination is the top of his list. Goldin abhors David Childs’s Freedom Tower, and admits that it’s hard to pick just one because architectural mistakes are so ubiquitous across the city: “You could just keep walking and take them all down, as far as I’m concerned.”

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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