Oculus Book Review: Never Built New York by Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell

Never Built New York is a straight-forward embrace of the architectural imagination that has flourished around New York City since the Industrial Revolution. Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell have put together an exhilarating romp through the New York City-that-could-have-been with 400 pages of speculative buildings, monuments, and infrastructure.

Never Built New York traces the many trajectories of architectural work in New York City; with each proposal you see its economic sagas, its political conflicts and patronages, and its citizens’ grassroots agendas. The book is organized into geographic territories as opposed to chronologically. After reading about the fallout from Frank Gehry’s Miss Brooklyn debacle, you will bump into the 1909 proposal for a never-built Beaux Arts-style National American Indian Memorial in Brooklyn. Each project description is crystalline and lively; the book’s “pep rally” tone encourages readers to root for each outlandish and heroic endeavor. It is also unapologetically image heavy, with full-spread drawing reproductions and luxurious plans, sections, and concept sketches rounding out each story. What a joy!

Goldin and Lubell’s introduction elegantly links Thomas Cole’s painting, The Course of an Empire, to the heroic acts in New York’s architectural landscape. Architect Daniel Libeskind offers up a “poem as preface” that feels more like an open wound than a graceful homage to the unbuilt. But, it’s honest, as is much of the text; the authors’ acknowledgement of the lack of representation of women architects is admirable (although a search through student archives at Columbia, Pratt, or Cooper Union might have been a good addition). The open discussion of the David Childs versus Libeskind 9/11 throw-down was refreshing. The authors succinctly framed the contentious proposals for the United Nations, showing the dreamy, but deemed too suburban, Corona Park scheme. The shaping of Grand Central Terminal is explained in terms of political cronyism.

Interestingly enough, the reader never fully laments the demise of many of the schemes. The original version of Michael Arad’s 9/11 Memorial might have been a loss, but Venturi Scott Brown’s 1994 42nd Street pastel skyscraper was not. Like the egocentric Richard Morris Hunt’s theatrical entrances to Central Park show, New York City dodged many architectural bullets in leaving many of these proposals unbuilt. Nonetheless, the 1960s Philip Johnson Chelsea Walk apartment proposal was disarmingly handsome for the era and the architect and the Paul Rudolph Graphic Arts Center initiated by the Amalgamated Lithographers Guild is an amazing tale of American unions envisioning a physical community. American unions refusing to allow prefab housing elements to be made outside of New York City, the project remained in Rudolph’s long list of (unbuilt) dramatic urbanist architecture.

Mostly, this volume is just fun. The reader walks away with multiple ways to make a subway, infill the East River, or strike a modernist slash through the island of Manhattan, all the while knowing that the beauty of New York is all its “unsolvableness.” Readers are lucky to have this tribute to New York City as the dynamic catalyst for the architectural imagination.