Growing Up in the Twenties

Event: New York in the Twenties: City of the Future, part of the New York Modern lecture series
Location: The Skyscraper Museum, 01.15.08
Speaker: Carol Willis — Founder, Director, Curator, The Skyscraper Museum
Organizer: The Skyscraper Museum

Hugh Ferriss

“Apartments on Bridges,”1924, by Hugh Ferriss.

©The Metropolis of Tomorrow, 1929, courtesy The Skyscraper Museum

By 1925, NYC had surpassed London as the most populous city in the world, reaching almost 6 million inhabitants in the Manhattan and nearly 10 million in the metropolitan area. Faced with the restrictions of the 1916 zoning law and a growing concern over the ever-increasing crush of people, architects and visionaries such as Hugh Ferriss, Harvey Wiley Corbett, and Raymond Hood sought to re-imagine the city of the future, said Carol Willis, the Skyscraper Museum’s founder, director, and curator. These men abandoned the norms of classical city layouts, choosing instead to concentrate on solving the problems they felt were most pressing: increased congestion and the danger that comes from a growing population and vehicular traffic. Fueled by an obsessive interest in the future, they imagined a city where height replaced density to ease overcrowding.

Towers, elevated highways winding through mega-structures, bridges connecting buildings, and landing pads for airplanes and blimps reformed the city. Visionaries wanted to rationalize the city by separating trains, pedestrians, and vehicles. The skyscraper became the medium by which American architecture moved into a distinctly modern style, moving away from what had become “staid gothic conventions.” It was “an architecture of simple, sculptural forms,” that, by looking into the future, defined the American vision of Modernism, according to Willis. Problems in the city served as the impetus for imagining what the city might be, and what promises its specific architectural needs might hold.